KINGSPORT, Tenn. (Feb. 1, 2018) -- It’s 6 p.m. at Camp Bays Mountain. The Rev. Mary Thompson is four hours away from home, but she still has another meeting to attend tonight.
“Jeff, what are some of the challenges?” she asks the Camp Bays Mountain director, drawing him into the last bit of conversation that she’s having with a reporter.
Soon, the Bays Mountain board members will arrive, and Thompson will finish another long day before driving back to join her husband and baby son in Chattanooga.
It’s what she signed on for, and she loves it. Thompson is seven months into her new job as executive director of Holston Conference Camp and Retreat Ministries.
“I’m not sure, most of the time, when God is pushing me towards something,” says Thompson. “But as soon as I prayed [about this job opening], I was very, very certain that this was what I was supposed to do.”
Thompson, age 31, now oversees Holston Conference’s five camp ministries, located from Fries, Virginia, to Rising Fawn, Georgia. As executive director, she also works with camp boards and supervises business, finances, management, and fundraising.
Thompson follows the Rev. Randy Pasqua, who retired in June 2017 after 36 total years in camping ministry, including 22 years as executive director. It’s a busy time to step in at the helm, she admits, but it’s also a time for great hope.
Last summer, Holston camps hosted a total 2,704 campers -- 670 more than the summer before. Summer 2018 is shaping up to be even bigger. While many other camps are closing, selling or downsizing, Holston camps are thriving.
“We are projected to have a record-high number of campers in the Holston Conference,” Thompson says. "We are projecting over 3,500 campers which is the most we have ever had. To date, our camper registration is 95 percent ahead of what it was at this time last year."
The credit, says Thompson, goes to the churches, pastors, lay leaders, district superintendents, and others who give financially and send their kids to camp.
“What I have told the Cabinet – and what I truly believe – is Holston Conference, across the board, supports their camps,” she says. “People see the value in camping ministry, and that’s the reason why we are able to grow and build and evolve.”
Bays Mountain is the newest, opening this summer in Kingsport, Tennessee, for its first full season, replacing the Jonesborough camp (Buffalo Mountain) that was destroyed by flooding in 2012.
Holston’s fifth camp, although not residential, is Camp in the Community, which takes week-long camp experiences to Holston churches in low-income neighborhoods. Camp in the Community was developed at Camp Wesley Woods. In summer 2017, Camp in the Community launched as a larger ministry, serving 851 children at 16 sites.
According to Thompson, Holston’s summer camp season will break records in 2018 because:
* Camp in the Community is expanding to 24 sites with potential to reach 1,440 total campers.
* Camp Bays Mountain is opening with potential to reach 425 campers.
* Camp Lookout and Camp Dickenson are building and expanding, increasing their numbers.
Wesley Woods is also beginning a planning process to include construction and refurbishing in the future. "There are a lot of moving components,” Thompson said. “Things are changing quickly.”
Like the executive director who preceded her (“One of the greatest blessings I have received is following Randy Pasqua,” Thompson says), the leaders of Holston’s camps each have numerous years of camp experience. Don Washburn, for example, has led Lookout since 1998. Michael Snow has led Dickenson since 2007.
Thompson is a camp veteran, too. She attended Lookout for nine years as a camper, then worked on staff for nine years. She started Lookout’s horseback-riding program.
“I also grew up going to lots of different camps: 4-H camp, Girl Scout camp, space camp – just about any camp you can imagine.”
She gives credit to her home church, Rising Fawn United Methodist, for sparking her love affair with camp. “The reason why I went to Lookout was because Rising Fawn paid for all their children to go to camp. Some churches still do that.”
Thompson said she heard her call to ministry at Lookout when she was a staff counselor at the age of 17. “I can remember praying early one morning, walking by myself, hearing the birds, seeing the sunrise, and thinking, ‘God, I cannot imagine doing anything else.’ And I felt that voice saying to me, ‘Who says you have to?’ To me, that was my call to ministry.”
Thompson studied religion at Emory & Henry College for two years before transferring to the University of Alabama. She graduated from Alabama in 2009 with an undergraduate degree in religious studies. She immediately began her master’s degree in divinity at Candler School of Theology, commuting two days a week to Atlanta, working five days a week as children’s ministry director at Christ United Methodist Church in Chattanooga.
In 2013, Thompson graduated from Candler, was ordained deacon, and began serving as minister of missions at Christ UMC.
“I felt most called to be in the community, connecting people back to the church,” she says. “I always loved the camping ministry and I joked about going back to it.”
Thompson was nine months pregnant when she learned that Pasqua was retiring. She submitted her application on the same day she went to the hospital to give birth to her son, Beckett.
Three weeks later, she interviewed for the position. “I found out that night that I got the job.” Her first day was July 1, 2017.
The personnel team that hired Thompson praised her vision, as did members of the Holston Conference Cabinet after her introduction and first presentation. The camp directors say they are grateful for her leadership style.
“I think Randy [Pasqua] and Mary did a great job in making this transition smooth,” says Lookout’s Don Washburn. “She keeps us informed, shares her views, directs us when there is a need, but mostly, she works at staying connected and supporting the efforts of each camping program.”
“Mary has a ‘balcony leadership style’ in that she must be able to see the big picture,” says the Rev. Jeff Wadley of Bays Mountain. “I appreciate that she trusts the five directors to do their job independent of daily in-person oversight.”
“She is very focused on increasing diversity in camping ministry,” said Whitney Winston, director of Camp in the Community. “I'm a big fan of that and am already enjoying working with someone I would consider to be ‘woke.’”
Thompson says she feels peace in “just being myself” and focusing on the mission.
“Our biggest challenge for all of our camps is to remain relevant to the world today but authentic to who we are,” she said.
“We have to engage in the world today and what’s going on in the world. We have to care about what people care about and show that … But we’re not going to have videogame camp, ever. We see that camp can challenge kids in numerous ways to do things they’ve never done before and really experience God in creation. That’s something other camps don’t do or don’t focus on.”
Contact Annette Spence at annettespence@Holston.org.
Podcast interview with Randy Pasqua (Wesleyan Connexion, 7.5.17)
Lodge at Wesley Woods shines after renovation (The Call, 5.29.17)
960 kids expected at new community camp this summer (The Call, 3.21.17)
While other camps close, how do Holston camps keep going? (The Call, 10.10.16)
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.