Saturday, September 6, 2014

Beginning from the end.

There once was a very religious man whose whole community was being flooded. He climbed to the roof of his house until God would step in to save him. Before too long, a small boat came by asking if he needed help getting to safety. The man replied, "No, I am waiting on God to help me." Soon after, another, bigger, boat came and asked the man if he needed help getting to safety. "No, God will come to my aid." the man replied. Finally, a helicopter came and offered to bring the man before the water overtook him. "No", the man said, "I trust that God, my deliverer, will rescue me." The man eventually drowned.

So the man found his way to heaven and asked God one question. "Why, did you not rescue me?" God replied, "I sent you two boats and a helicopter!"

Recently, the Missouri Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church made an incredibly difficult decision to overhaul our camping ministry. This ministry has been around for decades, is operated out of 4 (used to be 5) camp sites that are all gorgeous and captivating. Thousands of lives have been changed and touched through this ministry. Mine included.

In fact, I spent 10 years of my life as a camp counselor, I learned to swim at Camp Wilderness, and accepted my call into ordained ministry there. I used the grounds for personal retreats, Church leadership training, Confirmation retreats, and even went to a couple of good friend's wedding right by the lake. To this day it is holy ground for me.

So the decision to release all camp staff from their positions and to close down all camping ministry as we now know it seems harsh and drastic to say the least. The formal publication coming out of the office claims largely a financial reason. As the $48,000 deficit for the year is only expected to expand in upcoming years, the need to do something is obvious.

Through the firestorm of social media offering vehicle for emotional responses, I want to offer a "bird's eye-view".  Although the desire to start a fundraising campaign or to ask wealthy United Methodist to give sacrificially to save the camps sounds like a great idea--it could actually work and allow the camps to continue as we have been for another 5 or ten years.

I think this thinking is ultimately short sighted. What happened in 15 years, when those that gave so much to save the camps once are either less wealthy (thanks to our marketing campaigns to save the camps) or are no longer living? Are we simply going to have a capital campaign every quadrennium? Meanwhile camp costs will continue to stay at $350-$375 (a generous notion) per camper. As youth activities continue to eat up more time for kids, parents/guardians will have more and more  activities to pay for. Since church's have the option to use the voucher system and pay for kids camp, church's will be left with a bigger and bigger bill at the end of each summer. Now when that every four year capital campaign comes around, churches that already pay $6000-$7,000 will be asked to give that much as well to save the camps all over again.

Eventually this entire system will collapse unless something changes. One day, if we continue as we have been, there will not be any camps at all, which means no more kids going to camp (United Methodist at least).

So, I would argue, that the folks who made this decision, didn't do it out of a need to save money, nor are they saying that money is more important than lives being changed. Exactly the opposite is true. The decision is made so that an entire generation of kids, who are not even born yet, might have a United Methodist camp to attend in their childhood. It is a needed a bold move to save an entire system from collapsing in on itself.

What is more, think about the alternative. If you live in a community like mine in which  25% of all residents live in poverty and would not ever be able to afford camp (registration, travel, food, etc.) then our current system really shuts them out unless a church adds it to an already expensive bill (something for which First Kennett has done proudly for years!) Instead, what if church camp took place at a city park or camps owned by the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America.

So in a single summer, one kid could go to United Methodist camp hosted at Camp Latonka. She could have an amazing week and connect the lake with the presence of God. Later that summer, the lake is not just a place where she earned her swimming badge, but it was a place that forever reminded her of a God who baptized her in nourishing waters that enabled her to get the badge in the first place.

Instead of retreating to disconnected places from the world (still a spiritual discipline--as an introvert I take my isolated retreats seriously), we could demonstrate to kids that God is ever present in their own community. In their own familiar grounds. Instead of God being disconnected from all other facets of one's life, we can teach kids that God is Emmanuel--God with us.

Like the man in the beginning joke. God will rescue us and deliver us into fruitful and vibrant ministry again. That is one thing of which I have no doubt. Unlike the man, I am thankful we have bold and courageous leaders who take the God-given boat. Faith without action is useless. (James 2). To trust in God is not to wait passively for God to change your circumstances, but to make the first step toward a new path.

No matter if you agree with my thinking or logic, I would hope that for all those who represent the Missouri Annual Conference (staff of a church, members of all our churches, and especially clergy) do not respond with hatred and fear. Let us not be against one another, but let us turn in love. Even in the midst of all our pain, anger, and resentment (none of which should be ignored or put aside--merely handled properly) let us remember to walk together.

With Grace,

Trevor W. Dancer


  1. Thanks for the positive view. My guess is that many Missouri Methodists shared my initial reaction to the camp closing news: “You've got to be kidding!” That reaction was followed by a “throw money at it” solution. Your thoughts caused me to hear that neither of my initial emotional reactions had invoked faith; prayer; patience or God in any way.
    Walking together with faith, prayer and patience will position us to hear God. Casting aspersions; pursuing band aid quick fixes; expecting the next generation to be like past generations all just generate noise that distract us from hearing God. Let us begin the walk together.
    Still Journeying…..
    Mike Mowrer

  2. When it appears that insufficient effort is made to explore legitimate ways to retain an heirloom resource, or at least to explain why methods that have worked in other conferences would not work here with sufficient support, then I think some frustration is expected.

    1. I would be interested to hear about what is working in other conferences. It is going to take some innovative solutions to solve this issue.

  3. Spin it how ever you want to. Justify it if you can. It still does not change the fact that this was wrong on every level.

  4. Trevor, I appreciate the calm wisdom of your remarks, and I agree that "throwing money at it" is not the permanent solution. However, when the church's official statement cites only financial reasons for the decision, you have to expect the public reaction to focus on solutions that address money. I believe the church had done a good job of creating alternate spiritual learning opportunities, alternate camp environments, and reaching out to different audiences. Horse camp, hiking and float trips, baseball camp, drama, etc., all reach out to help our youth discover Christ in their own ways, to see God's gift in their own gifts and talents.

    To my eyes (and Christian heart), this decision circumvents the very purpose of the camping experience - to develop a connection with Jesus Christ. A deep(er) understanding of our own weaknesses and how to recognize God's presence and take strength and comfort from the Peace of knowing we are accepted and loved.

    Many of the advantages of church camp cannot be replicated in a day camp, or with the presence of family, friends, and local church leaders that keep us in our comfort zone and protect us from truly exploring our personal relationship with Christ. The camp environment - several days away from what we know (while still in a safe environment) - forces us to deal with things on our own, and to open our hearts to God's message. I don't believe that is readily available in a one-day whirlwind. Revivals and day camps are great, and they serve a purpose, but they are not a valid comparison for church camp. That's similar to the "give a man a fish" analogy. Revivals and day camps feed our spirits for a day, but they rarely teach us how to feed our spirits day in and day out. If you want that connection, you need time in solitude, as well as adventures and laughter and songs and all the other joys of camp.

    I hope that everyone involved spends time in prayer to seek solutions - that includes the leaders who made this decision. As we talk about how to spread the message to a new generation, it seems fairly obvious that this decision cuts off the next generation of leaders at the knees. Where will these young people turn when the place that many of them connect to their discovery of Christ is taken away, thrown away by the church leadership with little (at least little apparent) input from the people of the church, and with the primary reason attributed to financial issues.

    I hope that those with more wisdom and a stronger voice than I, will look at the impact on the future of the church, and not look for a quick fix. Camping may need to change to keep up with today's youth, but it should not destroy the one thing that seems to create and foster so many deep relationships with Christ.

    Also still journeying,
    Kurt Brewer

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  6. I do not pretend to know whether the decision handed down by Bishop Schnase will eventually result in more good than evil. I do know that the process by which it came about was not Christ-like.

    Whether intentional or not, the camps have been largely ignored and repressed for some years now. Adequate funding was denied by the Conference through budget cuts. Political manipulation denied the camps adequate staff. The Conference made little effort to promote the camps among the churches and laity. The Conference made no fundraising efforts among the churches and laity while direct fundraising by the camps was discouraged. Finally, the Conference studied this understandably "troubled program" and decided that it was not worth saving.

    The most troubling aspect of this process occurred when Bishop Schnase decided to act on this study by dictating his decision to the churches and laity in a Vatican like manner. No one bothered to ask, "What do YOU think?".

    This troubles me greatly. If the United Methodist Church has come to this, then we may as well rejoin our Catholic brethren with whom we parted ways centuries ago, in large part to avoid such procedures. This situation needs to be rectified, and soon. It is more dangerous to the Church than any unfortunate incident in my memory.

    May God help each of us to see His will in our daily actions and guide us in the way of Christ.

    Bruce Blair