ALCOA, Tenn. (Oct. 10, 2016) -- When so many other religious camps are closing, how did Holston Conference’s four camps manage to end their 2016 summer season with good news?
The answer seems to be longevity, teamwork, and a willingness to try new things, according to the five leaders of Holston Conference Camp and Retreat Ministries (HCCRM).
“We meet face to face regularly and with video-conferencing in between,” said the Rev. Randy Pasqua, HCCRM executive director. “We talk together at least once a month, and that helps us help each other in the good times and the bad times.”
When the last camper of the summer season had packed up his wet sneakers and headed for home, Holston’s four camps had hosted a total 2,034 children over eight weeks. Of those, 228 made first-time professions of faith, Pasqua said. Another 497 publicly renewed their commitments to Jesus Christ.
It’s hard work to keep the camps open, Pasqua acknowledges, but it’s worth it.
“I don’t know of any other ministry as effective in helping young children discover their Christian faith as residential summer camp,” he said.
Being away from home; living together with others who are “excited about their faith”; working, singing, learning together; and being immersed in nature … “Mix that up a couple of times and pour it in a bowl,” Pasqua says. The result is a potent spiritual environment that could put a camper several steps deeper into his or her lifelong journey with God.
The fact that all four camps are busily preparing for 2017 is no small feat, considering the recent demise of a few neighbors. In fall 2014, the Missouri Conference closed four camps that had just served 2,000 children over the previous summer. The Illinois Great Rivers Conference closed three of its five camps in 2015.
Also in 2015, the Western North Carolina Conference closed Camp Carolwood in Lenoir, N.C. “This decision is due to the rising costs of upkeep and dwindling revenue,” conference leaders stated.
Declining attendance caused by shorter vacation periods and the lure of sports and other summer activities is a kick in the shins for any camp revenue, including Holston’s, Pasqua said. Aging facilities are especially draining.
“Our facilities are 50 to 60 years old now, and it’s very expensive to do upgrades,” he said. “It’s a huge challenge to do the operation as well as it needs to be done and to tell our story well enough so that folks can catch a vision and help us make these old places new again.”
Holston camps thrive year after year partly due to labor and money contributed by districts, congregations and individuals, Pasqua said. “The conference is also a major contributor.” Through its own budget, Holston Conference supplies 23 percent of HCCRM’s $2.2 million budget. The total HCCRM budget supports summer campers as well as retreat, environmental education and adventure education campers at all four camps.
Pasqua has served in Holston’s camp ministry for 35 total years, including 21 in his current position. Don Washburn has led Camp Lookout since 1998. Michael Snow has led Camp Dickenson since 2007. The Rev. Jeff Wadley (Camp Bays Mountain) and Tony Lea (Camp Wesley Woods) are the “new kids on the block,” Pasqua said, “but they’re not new to camping.” Both Wadley and Lea began their positions in early 2015.
The 2016 summer theme was “Come and See.” The 2017 theme will be, “No Greater Love.”
UPDATE: BAYS MOUNTAIN
“There’s a tremendous amount of enthusiasm” for Camp Bays Mountain, Pasqua said, the newest Holston Conference camp. In July, HCCRM completed the $1.153 million sale of the former Buffalo Mountain Camp in Jonesborough, providing the funding to purchase the 88-acre property in Kingsport.
Holston hasn’t built a new camp since 1970 when Camp Dickenson was constructed, says Wadley. Some buildings exist on the property formerly owned by the Sullivan Baptist Association, but the fun lies in creating new facilities and features.
“The closure of Buffalo Mountain still saddens me,” Wadley said, “but I’m enthusiastic about the possibility of continuing the 65-year legacy at the new camp.”
Buffalo Mountain Camp was listed for sale after an August 2012 flood caused irreparable damage. In April 2016, the upper 488 acres were purchased by the Nature Conservancy and Conservation Fund. In July, the Cox family (members of Bethesda United Methodist Church) purchased Buffalo Mountain’s remaining 108 acres including the lodge, cabins, worship circle, retreat center, barn, pool, and two houses.
The new camp just hosted its first season of summer camp – mostly off the Bays Mountain property – surpassing all attendance goals, Wadley said.
With the help of a “Children in Poverty” grant, two “Camp in the Community” sessions were held in lower-income neighborhoods with 86 children attending (goal: 50). Nine high-school students participated in an “outdoor leadership” camp (goal: 6). A one-day camp on the Bays Mountain property with Community United Methodist Church served 27 children (goal: 20).
Now, Wadley and his board are planning a capital campaign to renovate and build. The Facebook page is popping with photos of a new parking area, plans for the pool, and church teams at work. More work teams are needed to work on trails, a campfire circle, archery range, lower ropes course and to do light demolition, Wadley says. A campaign kick-off event is scheduled at the camp on Nov. 10
UPDATE: WESLEY WOODS
Wesley Woods hosted 837 campers last summer, 108 on scholarship, says Lea. About half came from United Methodist churches; others came from Baptist, Presbyterian, Muslim or other backgrounds.
Wesley Woods had a healthy summer staff – numbering 70, ages 17 and up – yet Lea says that “quite often, we forget to equip our future staff.” That’s why he’s especially proud of last summer’s Counselor-in-Training Camp sessions, attended by about 20 total students age 15-17.
“It’s successful because they’re doing some regular camp activities, but also learning about discipleship, leadership, and what camp is all about: being part of a community in Christ,” Lea said. He hopes that many will return to become full-time staff.
Since 2011, Wesley Woods has taken its “Camp in the Community” on the road, providing team activities and Bible study to lower-income neighborhoods where Holston churches are located. Last summer, Wesley Woods served 400 children at nine churches, including the Morgan-Scott-Roane Parish, Trentville UMC, Sand Branch UMC, and Boyd Chapel UMC.
Based on Wesley Woods’ success, HCCRM leaders are currently considering an expanded “Camp in the Community” effort that would serve as many as 960 children each summer at 16 different church sites, Pasqua said. If the proposal proceeds, more information will be provided soon.
With its own aging campus, Wesley Woods works constantly to keep an edge on being “safe and aesthetically pleasing,” says Lea. Churches in the Maryville District, where the camp is located, routinely organize work days to upgrade buildings and recently renovated the pool. Knoxville District churches joined in raising $10,000 to re-roof, paint and repair three cabins.
Several churches have also “adopted” cabins for repair and upgrade, Lea said. Roberts UMC recently painted Salamander Cabin. Middlebrook Pike UMC bought new bunkbeds for Hawk Cabin. Additional cabins, trails, roads and fire circles are still in need of adoptive groups, Lea said.
Camp Dickenson is launching a $700,000 campaign to construct a multipurpose building accommodating more than 60 people at once – the maximum that each of the two rooms in the current multipurpose building holds.
“If Concord United Methodist Church rents the whole camp, they can’t sit everyone in the same room at once,” said Snow. The fundraising begins this fall with a goal to begin construction in fall 2017.
In January 2016, Dickenson completed construction on a new director’s house, after kicking off a $289,000 pledge campaign in September 2015. About $245,000 of pledges have already been collected, Snow said.
In 2014, Camp Dickenson joined with the Virginia Department of Forestry to put 536 acres under conservation easement. The deal allowed Dickenson to sell $625,000 in tax credits, providing a recent financial boost for the camp, Snow said.
Last summer, Dickenson employed 28 staff and 371 campers, including 114 with scholarships. “We didn’t have any negative comments on our evaluations, which shows how well our staff did,” Snow said.
The director said he was inspired last summer by Dickenson’s new evening program, which gave staff opportunities to incorporate Bible study from the day into activities similar to television’s “Amazing Race” or “Minute to Win It.”
Camp Dickenson sits on an old farm site dating back to the late 1760s, says Snow. "The farm became what we now know as Camp Dickenson in 1970, when the farm was donated by Bill Dickenson." For the last 46 years, the camp has lived into Mr. Dickenson's wishes, when he said, "This will be a place where people of all ages will gather in Christian Fellowship and in good company."
Attendance is thriving at Camp Lookout, and construction is needed to keep up with it. “The big news is, we turned away more campers this year than we ever have,” says Washburn. Lookout employed 40 staff and hosted 735 campers, including 58 with scholarships. Seventy-one percent were United Methodist.
The camp is launching a $1.25 million campaign to build three more cabins and welcome center and to relocate and renovate the shop and equestrian area. More than $500,000 has been raised, including a $250,000 grant from the George R. Johnson Family Trust.
“We’re going to have to get right-sized,” Washburn says, describing the current central office, which is a single 20-foot by 25-foot room. The new welcome center will provide more office space “and will really set us up nicely.”
“We don’t mind changing things to make them better, and we work hard to find the right staff. We’re making the right decisions,” Washburn says. “Our campers are having great experiences, and that impacts attendance the next year. They’re going back and telling their friends.”
This fall, camp leaders will visit churches in the Chattanooga and Cleveland Districts to share the Lookout story and ask for their support, Washburn says. “It takes a lot of people to make it great. Every church owns this, and I fully believe they will meet the challenge of preparing Camp Lookout for the next few decades."
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.