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No easy walk in the woods for camps, conference centers

It’s a January afternoon in the woods —  and crazy-busy. After more than two decades working at Makemie Woods Camp and Conference Center in Virginia, Mike Burcher — a Presbyterian minister and the camp’s director — is flying solo, in charge of pretty much everything as the camp’s only surviving full-time employee.

“I’m not quite sure how it happened,” Burcher said.

The short version goes something like this: The Presbytery of Eastern Virginia had been supporting Makemie Woods at a level of roughly $200,000 annually in recent years — but had discovered it was facing a $150,000 shortfall. In July 2012, a vote was scheduled to close the camp down in September, just two months away.

Shellshocked, Mike (short for Michelle) Burcher posted on Facebook a plea for people to share stories of support for Makemie Woods. “It went viral overnight,” she said. CAMPERS ENJOYING THE “MUD SLIDE” — A CAMP HANOVER (HANOVER, VA.) FAVORITE! PHOTO COURTESY OF CAMP HANOVER.

Makemie Woods raised $32,000 in nine days from people who support its ministry, and $80,000 by the end of 2012. That, plus laying off all the full-time staff except Burcher, bought Makemie Woods a little time to plot a new future in ministry. The camp will stay open until next September, working with a finance team and a part-time staff, trying to come up with a fiscal Plan B and reassessing what will come next.

While Makemie Woods has its own distinct story, the outline of what’s happening here is familiar, with camps and conference centers across the country scaling back, consolidating, closing —  and sometimes finding new energy, focus and life.

“It’s complicated,” said Brian Frick, associate for camp and conference center ministries for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). “There are many longtime ministries of our church, from youth ministry to the missions we run, that are financially challenged.”

The pinch extends from governing bodies to camps and conference centers.

“Yet I think we’ve turned a corner” in guiding these facilities toward a future with possibilities, Frick said. Some may close, and the presbyteries are finding “there are ways to do this ministry even without having a physical site.”

Those sites that survive have switched “from putting our hands out and expecting to be funded in mission work to putting our hand out in partnership,” Frick said. “We’re kind of in this double-bind situation where the funding is challenged, but the opportunity is huge.”

Here are some of the pieces of the complicated picture Frick paints:


Purpose. Instead of thinking of themselves as physical facilities, some camps and conference centers have begun to think more in terms of mission and ministry — focusing on the best ministry they can provide to their presbyteries and their communities. In Georgia, for example, the Presbytery of Greater Atlanta has experienced both staffing and programmatic cuts. And Calvin Center has responded as a ministry partner, Frick said, by providing valuable programming for children and young people, including a Global Village and an intentional community for young adults.

CAMPERS KATIE GANLEY AND NINA YETTER COMPETE IN A THREE-LEGGED RACE AS PART A GOOFY RELAY RACE DAY AT CAMP BRAINERD, STROUDSBURG, PA. PHOTO BY KIMBERLY WARD.
CAMPERS KATIE GANLEY AND NINA YETTER COMPETE IN A THREE-LEGGED RACE AS PART A GOOFY RELAY RACE DAY AT CAMP BRAINERD, STROUDSBURG, PA. PHOTO BY KIMBERLY WARD.


Funding. Increasingly, presbyteries and conference center staffs are thinking more comprehensively and creatively about how to pay for this ministry. Historically, some presbyteries have been reluctant to allow camps and conference centers to raise their own funds. But increasingly, mid councils can’t afford to keep the facilities afloat.

In Lehigh Presbytery in Pennsylvania, the issue came to a head about four years ago regarding Camp Brainerd, which depended heavily on the presbytery for financial support. As resources declined, that funding became a source of “some discontent,” said Steven Shussett, Lehigh’s teaching presbyter and stated clerk. So he brought the issue before the presbytery — convening a task group to consider possibilities for partnership and shared resources, and making it clear that some clear direction would be set.

“At the end of the day, folks realized we were serious about what was happening, and if they couldn’t come up with some possibilities, then the primary possibility, which was to close the camp, became the leading contender,” Shussett said. “The friends of Brainerd really responded. People came out and were supportive of the camp financially as well as with new leadership.”

The presbytery did not want the camp to become totally independent, but thought the $100,000 it had been providing seemed excessive and unsustainable, Shussett said. So a plan was developed in consultation with the camp leadership for Brainerd to meet a series of benchmarks over three years — targets for attendance, usage, fundraising, income and more.

That plan amounted to an ultimatum. “If they did not meet those benchmarks, the presbytery would not meet again about it,” Shussett said. “They fell off the cliff at that point … That would be the end of the camp.”

So far — three years in — the benchmarks have been hit.

The future still isn’t certain, but what’s happening at Brainerd seems to be part of a pattern of shifting fiscal responsibility away from the presbytery and toward giving camps and conference centers more fiscal control. Increasingly, camps and conference centers are doing more independent fundraising, and some are incorporating as separate nonprofit entities, with the amount of funding provided by presbyteries often capped and declining, or switched to another format, such as forgivable loans.

 “FUNYAKING” AT CAMP JOHNSONBURG IN JOHNSONBURG, N.J. PHOTO COURTESY OF CAMP JOHNSONBURG.
“FUNYAKING” AT CAMP JOHNSONBURG IN JOHNSONBURG, N.J. PHOTO COURTESY OF CAMP JOHNSONBURG.

Creativity. In response to these financial pressures, some camps and conference centers are trying new approaches to ministry — including specialized programming, such as environmental education. Some facilities geographically close to one another are brainstorming about sharing programming, facilities or resources.

And some facilities are focusing on ministry tied closely to expertise and need. For example, some offer satellite vacation Bible schools for congregations, or conduct traveling summer day camps. As Heartland Center in Missouri advertises, they “[b]ring 55 years of camp experience to your backyard” and “[g]ive your church another way to reach out.”

Competition. Church camps face increasing competition for a share of families’ time and money.

“It used to be that you went to Sunday school and then you went to summer (church) camp as an extension of Sunday school in the summer,” Frick said. “It was a closed circuit. Now my kids can go to soccer camp or academic camp. We also have this nondenominational camp pressure,” with big camps with plush facilities that offer water-skiing, paintball and more.

Some Presbyterian camps have responded by sharpening their focus — being clear about why they exist and what they do best. Ferncliff in Arkansas, for example, engages campers in service work.

“It’s a real quality program where parents understand they are getting engaged in changing the world,” Frick said. “They don’t need Go-Karts.”

A CAMP FACILITATOR ASSISTS A HIGH ROPES COURSE PARTICIPANT AS SHE TACKLES A NEW CHALLENGE AT CLEARWATER FOREST IN DEERWOD, MINN. PHOTO COURTESY OF CLEARWATER FOREST.
A CAMP FACILITATOR ASSISTS A HIGH ROPES COURSE PARTICIPANT AS SHE TACKLES A NEW CHALLENGE AT CLEARWATER FOREST IN DEERWOD, MINN. PHOTO COURTESY OF CLEARWATER FOREST.

Evangelism. In some places, a significant number of church camp attendees don’t come from Presbyterian congregations at all.

“More and more of our campers are not Presbyterian,” Frick said, and some are not involved in any church. Camp directors say that gives them a real opportunity for outreach to the children and their families.

Fun activities such as archery and canoeing draw children to camp, said Burcher of Makeme Woods. “What keeps them coming back year after year is the community and the acceptance they find. Our staff works incredibly hard, especially with fringe kids, kids on the outskirts of social life. We just love on these kids and accept them for who they are.”

Some fret about pouring scarce Presbyterian resources into facilities where campers may not even be Presbyterian. Others say that’s what mission is all about.

“We’re about a Christian experience,” one camp director told Joel Winchip of the Presbyterian Church Camp and Conference Association. “We’re not necessarily about making better Presbyterians.” 

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