October 08, 2014

There will be United Methodists camping ministries in Missouri next summer. They will not be conducted at the four sites owned by the Missouri Conference. The future of those sites moving forward will be determined by a vote of the Annual Conference next June.

The decision of the Camping and Retreat Ministries board to not offer camps at the four Missouri Conference sites, and the proposal to sell the sites, seemed sudden to most people in the Missouri Conference, but for the board it was the result of a two-year discernment process.

The Camping and Retreat Ministries Board initiated a comprehensive study of the state camping when they took office in 2012. During an initial meeting with Missouri Bishop Robert Schnase, they were asked to consider how their ministry relates to the Conference mission of leading congregations to lead people to actively follow Jesus Christ; and how CRM is partnering with local congregations. The board reflected on these questions throughout their discernment process, and developed a new mission statement: “Leading local churches of the Missouri Conference in Intentional Faith Development that shapes next generations into mature disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

CRM Board chair Ron Watts said the board discerned the following outcomes would be considered a “win” for their area of ministry:

Watts said the board believes in the future of camping, just in a new way.

“What we’re good at is programming and discipling, and that can happen anywhere,” he said. Watts said under the current plan the apportionment for Camping and Retreat Ministries would stay the same in order to fund the new direction of camps. If the Missouri Conference was to continue operating the four camp sites, apportionments would need to be increased from the present $430,000 to $560,000.

When the assessment lead to a different direction for camping, the decision was made to dismiss the site directors and assistant site directors from their positions at all four camps. One week prior to this announcement, the action had been brought before the Missouri Conference Cabinet (which is compromised of the Bishop, all the district superintendents, all five Conference directors, and the Conference lay leader). It received unanimous support. The Mission Council was also informed of the action.

Watts said the decision was not a money issue, but rather an issue of the best use of resources to effectively make disciples. The Missouri Annual Conference has an average of 2,075 United Methodist campers per year (about 20% of our churches in the annual conference send one or more campers) that use one of our four properties for summer camp programming. The conference receives on average about $435,000 in apportionments to fund the four properties in our conference. In 2013 expenses exceeded the apportioned amount by $48,428. It is projected that in two years our operating budget deficit will exceed over $175,000 and the Conference will no longer have the financial resources to maintain the properties.

Additionally, the site directors reported to the Camping and Retreat Board earlier this year a projected need of close to $3 million in maintenance and property improvements in order to remain competitive for the future. If the Conference would continue to use the existing four properties, an additional investment is recommended by the insurance company for risk management. All of this is above the $435,000 that currently comes from apportionments and is used for yearly operating costs.

On September 5 an email was sent out via the Missouri Conference Net News informing the Conference of the decision, and referencing new camping opportunities that would be available the summer of 2015 at Central Methodist University, at alternative sites and via a mobile unit that would set up camp activities at local churches.

A vocal opposition to the proposal was immediate from some people, with many calls and emails coming into the Missouri Conference Center in the days that followed. A Facebook page was created September 6 by people focused on continuing camping ministries on the Conference owned properties, and soon had many posts. They later created a website to further organize information.

Some people were opposed to the action taken, others were opposed to what appeared to be the abruptness of the decision. To address concerns, a public forum was conducted at Liberty UMC in the Heartland District on September 10. Approximately 250 people attended the forum, which was led by Northwest District Superintendent Steve Cox, Missouri Conference Catalyst for Next Generation Ministries Garret Drake and Jon Spalding.

Drake opened by thanking everyone for their attendance, and acknowledging that the passion for camping in the Missouri Conference is great. He explained the ideas for camps at Central Methodist University, mobile camps that would come to local churches and local churches doing camps at alternative locations like state parks.

“If you’ve been leading camps for 30 years, you can still do that,” he said.

There were many comments, concerns and questions during the evening. Many shared stories of lives they had seen changed through an experience at camps. Several young people expressed that they felt a key element of the camping ministry was they were located in areas that are isolated from the rest of society, but not far from where they live. Some said they had attended college campus-based camps, or church camps owned by other denominations, but found the experiences lacking in comparison their experience at Conference owned camps. Several stated that a decision to close the camp sites the following summer should have been presented at Annual Conference in 2015 for program year 2016 so the body of Annual Conference could have had a voice.

On Monday, September 15, the CRM board presented their plan to Missouri Bishop Robert Schnase, At the beginning of the meeting during introductions, each board member introduced himself or herself. Watts was a camp director for 22 years at Epworth and Blue Mountain. Staff from his church, La Croix UMC at Cape Girardeau, still lead Xtreme Camp at Blue Mountain. La Croix is consistently ranked as one of the top two churches in the Conference in terms of the number of children and youth that they send to camp.

The other board members also have direct relationships to camps. Spalding dedicated his life to Jesus at camp when he was in the sixth grade, and has been involved in a camping experience every summer since. Rev. Ann Mowery of St. Luke’s UMC (St. Louis) noted her son came to Christ at church camp at Blue Mountain, and she has led several retreats there.

Ozarks District Superintendent Bart Hildreth has been involved in camping ministries since he became a youth director 35 years ago, and has been in camp leadership for his entire career in ministry. Betsy Vicente grew up at Camp Willow Row, was a pioneer at the covered wagon Pioneer Camps at Galilee, and has seen her children and grandchildren go to Missouri Conference camps. Lee Smith was a counselor and director at Camp Galilee, and met his wife at camp. Missouri Conference Director of Connectional Ministries Sherry Habben has led many retreats, family camps and confirmation at Missouri Conference camps.

Watts explained that a Conference task force decided that the conference would be best served by the merger of the positions previously held by Beverly Boehmer (Coordinator of Youth and College Age Ministries) and Lee Walz (Director of Camping and Retreat Ministries) into a new position, the Catalyst for Next Generation Ministries. Garrett Drake was hired for this position in January of 2014.

Drake started exploring mobile camp options, visiting mobile camp sites run by the city of San Francisco, a church in Yakima, Washington and the North Georgia Conference. He also visited the Navigators residential camp at Colorado Springs, and learned how they are expanding their mobile camp program. The CRM board had meetings at each of the four Missouri Conference camp sites. They also brought in Lovett Weems as a consultant to the process.

“After our last meeting, we decided that we’re going to continue camping, but not at our four properties,” Watts said. “We’re going to have a meeting with camp event directors this fall, and talk about how we can assist their camps going forward at alternative locations.”

Bishop Schnase noted the disconnect in the conversation that is currently going on across the Conference, and how most are not aware of the level of thought that has gone into the future of Camping and Retreat Ministries to this point. He also said the Conference will determine the future of the Conference-owned camps, noting that the decision of whether or not to sell any of the properties lies with the body of Annual Conference.

“The Annual Conference may agree with it, or may not,” Bishop Schnase said. “I hope however conversation develops, what frames the conversation is the spiritual formation of young people. This is not about properties, who wins and who loses, or whether the Conference decides to sell one, two, three or four properties. Regardless of how it all comes out; thank you for stirring the waters.”

The meeting took comments for interested parties attending. About a dozen people were present, about half from Knob Noster UMC. One of the comments was that churches use the camps extensively for retreat facilities.

It was also noted that much of the leadership development that occurred in local churches started with people who first served as leaders at camp. One attendee said that in today’s throw-away society, and a the current culture in which many children move around for their parents’ jobs, he saw real value in Conference-owned camps providing youth with a sense of place and permanence that they could return to year after year, that would continue to be there for the next generation. Those attending were given cards to leave questions for the board, which would be addressed later through a Frequently Asked Questions document.

Attendees and the CRM board shared lunch together, then the board went into closed session to discuss personnel and property issues. The board will present their plans to the Mission Council on October 9.

“We believe that the seeds of a new beginning were planted this Monday in the morning session of our Camping & Retreat Ministries Board,” Watts said. “… We all entered the room a bit tense but departed feeling renewed in our deep covenant relationship through the bonds of Christ and our Annual Conference.”