October 23, 2014

Camping and Retreat Ministries FAQ Two: Process and Rationale

This is the second in a series of three FAQs aimed at answering questions regarding the direction of Camp & Retreat Ministries in the Missouri Conference.

-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.

What did the two-year discernment process look like?
We began the process of discernment by examining the mission of the Missouri Annual Conference and our alignment with that mission. This led us to discussions around the role of camping and retreat ministries in intentional faith development. Who is our primary target group through this ministry? How do we connect and resource the local congregation in their intentional faith development processes? How successful are we in connecting to a majority of our congregations? Why are congregations not using our facilities? What are camping and retreat trends across the denomination, outside of our denomination and in our culture looking like? What are the trends in the summer camping numbers at our four sites? What is working in other areas to connect the Next Generation? What is sustainable and what is the best stewardship of finances, leadership, time, and other resources?

What is happening in Camping and Retreat Ministries across the country that we could learn from?
Camping is undergoing significant changes across the country, and not only in Methodism. In a recent webinar, the Camp and Retreat division of the General Board of Discipleship said that in the last five years the United Methodist Church has seen the closure of 23 camping and retreat properties throughout our connection. Additionally, five years ago the General Board predicted that there would be a 10% closure rate of camps across the country (including Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and other non-profits.) It now appears that the closure rate was closer to 20%. Last year New Jersey Conference Bishop Schol sent a letter to the conference announcing “Camping programs have come to a rest for the summer” because of sustainability issues.

Camping & Retreat Ministry Directors from seven different denominations met for a roundtable meeting earlier this year in Houston, Texas. The conversation concluded with the acknowledgement that cultural shifts have made it increasingly difficult to continue doing camping like it has always been done. All this to say that what we’re seeing in Missouri is part of a larger, cultural shift in America. As other United Methodist conferences and other denominations look to move away from managing property, new models of camping are emerging and many are concluding that the ownership of property is not needed in order to provide an excellent camping experience.

Why are camping numbers declining?
First, this is not just a trend in the Missouri Conference and there is no simple answer. This is a complex issue. When we contacted congregations who do not use our camp facilities, the following factors were cited by those interviewed: facility issues, cost of camp, quality of events, scheduling conflicts, and competition with other activities for children and youth. Some congregations do not currently have children or youth as part of their ministry. Many of our congregations, large and small, already use other camp facilities, state parks, or host their own events in other ways. Others no longer view overnight camping as essential to their intentional faith development process. There is no one primary reason. What is clear is that there are a decreasing number of churches and campers who are using our facilities and we are not alone as we face this issue.

Why are we making changes now?
The American church is at a crisis point in retaining young adults in the life of our faith communities. Since records have been kept and research compiled, there have never been lower numbers of young adults involved in the life of the church than now. If success of our children’s and youth programs is to be measured by how many of those persons continue to be active in their churches through their 20’s and 30’s, the church is failing. We cannot continue to do the things we’ve done and expect different results. To reach people no one else is reaching requires that we do things no one else is doing. Now is the time; the mission field demands we adapt and change.

How will the proposed changes better connect congregations to the camping ministries?
Our current culture and structure is event centered. The camp board schedules events, local churches send children and youth, or more often, individual campers enroll and the local church may not even be aware a child is coming from their congregation. The camper attends a week at camp and returns home. Moving forward, we want to change this process. Campers will be sponsored by someone within their congregation, churches will receive information in advance of the camp on how to prepare and support the camper, churches will be invited to engage in the camp event itself, and follow-up packets will be provided even before the camper attends so that the congregation will be better prepared to continue the intentional faith development process.

How will mobile camps connect to a local congregation’s intentional faith development process?
Congregations participating in mobile camps will have an opportunity to receive training and resources in advance of the camp. This training will be a consulting process that helps a congregation form, re-form or affirm their current intentional faith development processes, train persons who will be working with the children and youth who will be attending the camp, and providing resources to follow-up after the camp. Often our congregations are great at attracting crowds of children and youth at VBS or block parties, or other egg hunt experiences, but when the event is over the children or youth all leave and never come back. This consultation process will direct the church in ways to make lasting relationships and possibly even begin new children and youth ministries or new outreach ministries with their neighbors.

Why are we leaving our current sites?
We believe God is calling us to do more through Next Generation Ministries. In order to be the best stewards of our conference apportionments, staff, and leadership resources, we are shifting away from property management which consumes nearly all of our apportioned funds, our energy and efforts. We are choosing to re-allocate staff to ministries that are closer to the local congregation. We are choosing to invest in resources that have a multiplying effect in reaching children and youth not only in a one-time event, but will result in ministries that will continue year-round. We believe firmly in the need for residential and outdoor camping experiences, but believe we can be much better stewards of the resources by using properties that we do not own and we believe in the future we will be able to even lower the cost of individual camps to make them more affordable for more persons to attend. This is not possible if we hold onto our own properties, investing heavily in them financially, programmatically, and in terms of leadership.

Why are we shifting Camp and Retreat Ministries to Next Generation Ministries?
With the retirement of two very capable leaders from our conference staff – Lee Walz who served as the Director of Camp and Retreat Ministries and Beverly Boehmer who served as the Director of Conference Youth Ministries, we realized along with other leaders from the Missouri Conference, that these ministries targeted the same population. In addition, we had separate attention being given to college ministry and virtually no attention at all given to children. Children, youth and college age ministries have overlapping connections and synergies with one another. It was determined we could better serve our local congregations and the needs of this population by bringing these ministries under one umbrella – Next Generations. The Camp and Retreat Board, along with other conference leadership teams affirmed this move. We are excited about the ways we can share resources, leadership development and look forward to the way God will use this to reach the Next Generations.

What does success look like if we make these changes?
In any program or ministry of the local church, it is important to define what a “win” looks like. For Next Generation Ministries, we have defined our wins as these…

What will the future for Camping look like beyond 2015?
We believe that work with Next Generations will call for continued innovation and evolution of methods and programming. Residential camping will continue to be one of many links in a life of intentional faith development. Our plans are to secure sites for residential camps for 2015 and beyond as soon as possible. In addition we plan to expand the number of mobile camps we offer and the number of adventure camps (canoeing, hiking, biking, etc.). Mission Camps (formerly called Mission Trips) will continue to be offered and expanded. In addition we plan to partner with congregations already leading their own camping ministries and to assist congregations who might want to choose to develop this part of their own ministry. All of this being undergirded with an intentional faith consultation process for Next Generation Ministries and building a support network to encourage and learn from one another.