Unity and Diversity are not mutually exclusive. They are not diametrically opposed to one another. Unity does not mean "same." And Diversity does not mean "divided." I believe Unity and Diversity are core values that Christ instilled in his disciples and handed on to the Church. I also believe we are failing. We are divided, and we tend to group together by our sameness. I can't really blame anyone in particular or point the finger and find fault with some individual, or a movement, or a denomination, etc. It has just kind of happened. And it pervades our culture in the U.S.A. as much as it does The Church.
I worry about our country (U.S.A.) and The Church in the U.S.A. because of the division that seems to be prevalent. It seems like everything is either/or. You're either Pro-Life, or Pro-Choice. You're either Black Lives Matter or Blue Lives (Police Officers) Matter. You're either for Same-Sex Marriage or you're a bigot. You're either Republican or Democrat. We have developed this divisive attitude of "you're either with me or against me." And most often, it seems like we find a reason to be against some group group of people.
In the Church in the U.S.A. it seems to be a Evangelical vs. Progressive, Conservative vs. Liberal. And in the United Methodist Church, even those who claim to be "in the middle," who identify with ideologies on both "sides," can't seem to agree. I recently read this post from the "United Methodist Centrist Movement": http://umcm.today/the-true-center-of-the-united-methodist-church/ and it made me sad. It saddened me because it seems like we Christians, in this case specifically United Methodist Christians, have a hard time stating our case and making a positive contribution without tearing down someone else. The UMCM seems to be responding to writings and actions by the Via Media Methodists: www.viamediamethodists.wordpress.com. Both the UMCM and Via Media seem to support Unity and finding a way to work together, but then they tear each other down. What is up with that? I guess this is sibling rivalry among brothers and sisters in Christ, and it's to be expected. But we are playing it out in public for everyone to see. I'm not sure that's what we should be doing.
Like James (you know, that book in the New Testament) says, "This should not be so." People want and need to see Jesus in us. They need to see the power and work of God's Love. Yet, we seem to carry our conversations in such a way that it looks like this:
If you disagree with me, you're not a good Christian.
Or, If you don't interpret the Bible the same way I do, then you're not a Christian. You're a false teacher. You don't take the Bible seriously.
Or, I'm a better Christian than you because I believe X and you don't; therefore, you're not "Orthodox" (or fill-in-the-blank with whatever viewpoint/standard you use).
Or, I'm more Methodist than you because I emphasize this or that Wesleyan idea better.
Can we stop framing things in those ways? This way of doing things divides us instead of bringing us together. I would rather us have an attitude of "sincere love" (Romans 12:9). Like Paul directs in Romans chapter 12 verse 14 "Bless people who harass you—bless and don’t curse them." And then in verse 16, "Consider everyone as equal, and don’t think that you’re better than anyone else. Instead, associate with people who have no status. Don’t think that you’re so smart." Can we have more humility and more building up the body of Christ?
We can get so busy fighting against each other that we neglect the greatest commands Jesus gave us: Love God and Love Others. Those two are so utterly intertwined that it is near impossible to separate them. In fact, scripture in 1 John chapter 4 has a number of verses explaining this connection:
8 The person who doesn’t love does not know God, because God is love.
I'm not perfect at this. But I'm working on it. By God's grace, I'm working on it. One of the things that has always been appealing to me, from a Wesleyan heritage, is the way that we can hold seemingly opposite ideas in tension with one another. Our culture seems to push us into an either-or distinction, but we need to be the people of both-and, Unity and Diversity.
Christ calls us to Unity, and yet the we the Church don't seem to get it. Every Sunday, we silo off into our separate spaces and ideologies, and we suffer for it. Think of all of the resources at our disposal to change and revitalize our communities if we were joined together and cooperate and collaborate. Surely we could make a huge impact. The love of Christ compels us to work together for the good of all humans, all of creation. But even United Methodist congregations in close proximity have a hard time working together (at least in my experience) and catching a vision that brings us together for the good of God's Kingdom in our community.
Ironically, the path to Unity may be through allowing for more diversity (a local option, or a seemingly more congregational polity, or maybe less polity altogether, a thinner Book of Discipline). I know that by now the phrase "Generous Orthodoxy" (credit to author and church leader Brian McLaren) is laden with progressive baggage heaped on it by many, but can we be more generous with our grace? Isn't the very nature of love generosity? "That God did not spare His own Son, but gave him up for us all..." (Romans 8:32). There is no way we can out give God, but we should try. Our generosity of love should exceed all of our qualities. We give without expecting anything in return because it's our very nature. I've always been intrigued by the sheep in Matthew 25 whom Christ commends as righteous and to whom he gives the inheritance of God's kingdom. They didn't even realize how good or righteous they were. They just did it. Our love needs to be the same way. Then, the goats, they deceived themselves. They thought they were being good and righteous, but really weren't. Things didn't turn out so good for them. It looks like humility goes a long way towards obeying the command to love generously.
Diversity multiplies generous love. It's a multiplication of the varied gifts and affinities we have to share with people. The ways we are different from each other help us reach people who are different. You can reach someone differently than I can because of your unique gifts and characteristics. We each make up a valuable part of the Body of Christ. Unity also multiplies generous love. It strengthens it because of the sheer numbers working together. Like the proverb says, "A cord of three strands is not easily broken" (Ecclesiastes 4:12). When we stand together, we stand up to and overcome the forces working against God's Kingdom.
Honestly, I'm not sure what we are so afraid of. 1 John 4 continues the idea of love saying "perfect love casts out fear." Perhaps we should focus more on perfect love, than perfect polity. God has an amazing way of working things out beyond our abilities, and our ability to understand. I wish I had a definitive answer or plan or polity change that would keep us from damaging our Christian and United Methodist witness in the world. The best I can come up with is the scriptures above.
I want to finish up by connecting this to my personal experience. When I hear about the decisions that lie in front of us as the UMC, I can't help but think about the experience of divorce in my family. If an upcoming decision ends up dividing us, I see a similar set of emotions. I'm going to love dearly and have family on both sides, which means I may not feel completely at home with either. Or to put it another way, if I'm forced to choose, then it's like I have to leave behind ones I love, a "damned if you do; damned if you don't" or "catch 22" type of situation. In the end, much like my parent's divorce, the decision will be made and forced upon me to deal with. Fortunately, the future is not yet written. I hope through our conferencing, our love grows on to perfection.
Note: Scripture quotes are primarily from the Common English Bible (or whatever version was in my memory, typically NRSV or NIV).
Here in Missouri, our current bishop, Robert Schnase, has worked to adjust our vision of the Annual Conference. He has put the focus on "Growing, fruitful, vibrant congregations changing lives through Jesus Christ." The idea is that the Annual Conference exists to support and equip local churches, instead of local churches supporting centralized ministries of the AC. This way, the apportionments that we pay end up being poured back into our local congregations and communities. There have been at least three major shifts to align with this vision:
These shifts are made because the thinking is the local church is where disciples are primarily made (as opposed to the AC). There has been a constant refrain of the importance of strengthening local congregations while we seemingly cut back on AC operated properties and ministries. This has caused some of my friends, mostly clergy types, to suggest that we are becoming congregationalist. I strongly disagree. Here's some questions I have:
Historically, where were disciples made/formed in the Methodist Movement?
Often, I hear people say "according to ___________ (typically the Book of Discipline or some other authoritative document), the basic unit of the UMC is the Annual Conference." Does "basic unit" equate to "the primary locale where disciples are made"? Probably not. If we look at the history of the Methodist Movement, I don't even think it was the local church that was the primary place that disciples were made/formed. I would have to say it was an even smaller group of people: the small group, or the class meeting. It's in those smaller groups within a local congregation of 5, or 8 - 12 people where disciples were formed. And I'm not talking about our modern day Sunday School class that is so focused on curriculum or a book that they forget the Bible and Covenant Accountability for Following Jesus. I think if we're really honest, that's where disciples were and continue to be made because that's where the deeper relationships happen. We need our churches to have vital small groups (class meetings).
How much of The Connectional system has been inherited from prior to the Methodist Movement, and how much developed with the Methodist Movement?
Take a look at the beginning of our UM Book of Discipline. There's a historical documents section. I'm pretty sure that even a vote of General Conference cannot change it. We inherited it from the Anglican Tradition, who inherited it from previous Christian Tradition. Point being, there is a connectional system that existed prior to the UM Book of Discipline. In addition, the UM BoD has greatly expanded over the years as we have "fine tuned" our connectional system. We have developed a lot of baggage in addition to the stuff we inherited. We are currently in a time when we find The Connexion, as is, is unsustainable, but we seem unable to change it, as evidenced by the last GC and subsequent Judicial Council decisions. We have created an institution that protects itself to survive to a fault. I say all of this to ask: What is really important that we need to preserve? What are the essentials? What essentials take priority over others for a season? Maybe some of this connectional system needs to be trimmed down and drastically changed so that we can emphasize the original vision of The Methodist Movement. Maybe some of this connectional system needs a season of rest and we can come back to those things at another time if we really need them. If you want to defend The Connection, defend the essential portion of it: local churches. (keep reading)
Does a focus on having healthy local churches make us congregational?
Having healthy local churches is not antithetical to Connectionalism. In fact, it improves The Connection. Without healthy vital congregations, there would be no Connexion. Read that sentence again: Without healthy vital congregations, there would be no Connexion. There would be no need for an Annual Conference or any of its properties or ministries if there were no local churches. Healthy Vital Local Congregations are what enable us to have a strong AC, and in turn a stronger global church. By putting the focus there (on local churches), we are not weakening the connection, but strengthening it! One more time: Without healthy vital congregations, there would be no Connexion.
So What to Do?
To my friends worried about us becoming Congregational, how about you focus more on connecting with other churches. Most of us are so focused inward on our own congregations that we miss opportunities to be truly collaborative and do great things. I hear you worried about us becoming congregational, but that's not a polity concern for me. It's more of a state of mind concern. I think most of us are stuck inward on our own congregations. Many choose to not connect in deep meaningful collaborative impactful ways. I'm in a city with 9 UMCs. If we worked together, I think we could really make a huge impact in our community with our combined resources. But for the most part, we are all too busy, each with our own struggles for increased worship attendance (because that's what really counts, or at least, that's what gets counted). What if we conferenced more? Picked up the phone and checked on each other more? Met regularly for more than sharing stories, but for strategic planning too? Our communities need us to lead as a team and to combine our resources. This is the connection we really need. In my mind, too often we have a Connectional System in name and polity only, but we operate as congregationalist already. If we change our mindset to be truly lived-Connexion, then there's no worry about becoming Congregationalist. Because I guarantee, our polity isn't changing (at least not any time soon). Bottom line: Be Connectional. Healthy Congregations connecting together for the good of God's Kingdom in our communities, that's transformational.
So... I am excited for the future of United Methodist camps in Missouri. Yes, it won't be anything like what we are used to, but it will be good, even great. Already, our new "Ignite" mobile camps have 1500 registrations of students ages 6-12. Camp properties may have closed, but camping ministry is strong. Our "Impact" Mission Camps continue with similar participation. The one piece that is yet to take shape for 2016 are the "Infuse" Camps for spiritual formation of teens ages 13-18.
One of the planned locations for these camps is Central Methodist University in Fayette, MO. Most of the feedback I've heard from people who have participated in our previous United Methodist camping ministry in Missouri, both parents and youth, is that this is "not" camp. In fact, they are pretty certain that this just "won't work." They may be right. But, I think it's worth trying before we write it off. Why? Because others are doing it well, and I think we United Methodists of Missouri could do it just as good or better. Who is doing church camp on a college campus? Well, here's the ones I found in Missouri:
The baptists seem to have been using college campuses for a while now. Granted, they also use Windermere and other Baptist Association camps across the state of Missouri. But check out this page with two camps listed: www.sbuniv.edu/ConferenceCenter/YouthCamps/. One of the camps, Centrifuge, is for teenagers, 7th-12th grades, and is focused on Youth Groups. The other, CentriKid is for older elementary students, 3rd-6th grades. I've never been to Centrifuge, but I've heard about it, and only good things. The description seems to be very similar to what I have planned for Metamorphosis at CMU. Centrifuge is put on by Lifeway (the Baptist bookstore/publisher). They have these camps all across the USA some at retreat centers, and some on college campuses. I think we should learn from them, and do our best to build new United Methodist Christ-followers (aren't there enough baptists already? j/k LOL).
Here's another Baptist camp: Super Summer. This year it's at Hannibal-LaGrange University. According to their website, this is the Missouri Baptist Convention's time to develop leadership among the next generation. It is also focused on Youth Groups. They have time for equipping adult leaders as well as teenagers. We should probably talk to these guys and learn from them too. A lot of my Baptist Youth Pastor friends take their groups to this, and I've heard good things. These are not just large-church youth pastors, but small town rural groups where Youth Pastor is an un-paid volunteer. Again, I haven't been, but still, this is another example of a camp at a college campus that works.
Christ In Youth puts on this camp for middle schoolers. There's one right here in my town, St. Joseph, MO, on the campus of Missouri Western State University. You can check the camp out here: www.ciy.com/mix. This is also a ministry that happens nationwide at various locations, including college campuses as well as retreat/conference centers like Windermere. I don't know much about Christ In Youth as an organization, but they seem to have a good reputation. They are based in Joplin, MO, and don't appear to be affiliated with a denomination. They've been doing events for almost 50 years now. I think we should learn from them.
What Have We Learned?
So, can there be a great church camp on a college campus? Yes. I think these three are examples that are happening right here in Missouri. There are probably many others if you look for them. Some of you may say these are "conferences" not camps. Ok...that's a difference in words/terms, but they are still much the same. I would say about the only difference is location. The main activities and focus are virtually the same. The focus is Jesus Christ, and the activities are Prayer, Worship, Bible study, shared community, fun. It will be different, but I'm not sure that it can't do those things excellently just like we have done at our traditional camp sites.
Another important thing we see is that all of these camps are focused on Youth Groups. So local churches register their group to go together and bring volunteers with the students as chaperones. Our camps, no matter where they take place should be similar. This is a paradigm shift for us. Typically, individuals could go to whichever camp piqued their interest. Even if you have a small group of two campers and two adults, I think it's better than going alone. Those four people will now have a shared spiritual experience to build upon and share with others when they get back. This can happen with individuals, but the strength of Christianity is "together is better". I think churches attending events as groups is better. It's the way I remember first going to church camp, as part of my youth group. When I was the main youth leader (as well as pastor), taking a group of students to church camp together helped us build our small youth group in our small church in our small town of less than 1500. I attribute this partly to attending camp together and having that shared experience of Jesus Christ. In my mind, this shift in paradigm, (focusing on church groups instead of individuals) will greatly enhance our camp participation and enhance our local churches. [I have some more thoughts on some paradigm shifts to think about as camping ministry changes, but I'll have to work up a different blog post for those.]
Finally, if Baptists are ok with it, then why can't we? Surely we United Methodists can do it even better, right? I know when the announcement of closing the four camp sites in Missouri was first made, the idea seemed to be only CMU camps; but I think we can see that's not the case going forward. It is CMU and other locations, one of which might be our own Camp Jo-Ota. CMU has great facilities and the capability to provide experiences that our traditional camp sites couldn't (unless you got really creative and transformed a barn into a worship center). I imagine the future of camp at CMU as similar to a week-long WOW (Missouri's Annual United Methodist Youth Weekend), but with more depth and spread out over a week. We should take a look at the examples above and learn from them. I'm sure Centrifuge and CIY MIX don't focus on just one denomination either. We could open up to others in our Christian family...if we offer something of excellence that other youth groups would bring their students to.
So please, don't write off a camp just because it's on a college campus. God can and will move on a college campus. God can even move among United Methodists, not just Baptists. ;-)
My greatest fear has been that our conference's change to camping ministry has created a lot of distrust of denominational leadership, which has resulted in a "fight." Regardless of whose fault the "fight" is, fighting divides and makes enemies, and pushes both sides to dig in and "finish it." That is scary. Because I love all of you. I think fighting will push people away from our churches, especially younger people. There are too many issues that we can effect together that we need the Next Generation's input on.
And that's the good that can come of this. Young people have found a reason to organize and get excited about effecting change in our denomination. I've been to a few sessions of the Missouri Annual Conference, and there are a lot of people my parents age and older who attend, share their voice, and vote. I don't know the exact number, or percentage, but those of age 13-30 are a very small number in my experience. We need more young people to take an active role at these formal levels of the church governance. The system will change with new people involved, and decisions like this one about MOUM Camps will hopefully happen differently.
Anyone who is confirmed in the United Methodist Church is a voting member of the UMC and can serve on all teams, committees, boards, etc. The only one that has an age requirement is the Trustees, which requires you to be 18 or older to vote. You can even be a delegate to Annual Conference, Jurisdictional Conference, and General Conference. If I'm wrong about this, I hope somebody will correct me. Even if you're not an official delegate, you can still come and show support even if you can't have an official voice or vote.
What Will It Take For This To Happen?
1. Election as a Delegate, or to a Team
First, you need to get elected as a delegate to Annual Conference. Your pastor is the chair of the nominations committee, so you need to convince her (or him) to nominate you for leadership in the church. Specifically as a delegate to annual conference. This means, you need to prove that you're qualified and responsible to do the job your church is asking you to do. This is not just about you getting your way, but this is a responsibility for serving the whole body of our church. This will not be easy. It is possible that position is currently held by someone unwilling to let it go, and may feel "replaced" or "unwanted." That's not really your job to worry about because your pastor should take care of that. But, I want you to be aware that it could cause trouble that's not your fault. These nominations are approved at charge conference, which should be happening very soon, and may have already happened. Hopefully, you're not too late. If you can't convince the pastor ahead of charge conference, you could still nominate yourself at the Charge Conference. This will cause trouble too because most of the business has already been decided and just needs a rubber stamp of approval. You can also ask your District Superintendent if you can be a District At-Large Delegate. I also think there are some Youth At-Large delegate positions. Either way, you'll want to get this done in the next few months before the spots are gone.
The conference also has a nominations team. If you're interested in giving your time, energy and money to work on one of the conference teams/boards/committees, then talk to your pastor and figure out how to get your name in the hat. I think this last year, there was an online submission process. I remember getting emails about it. At the very least, you can find a conference journal and see who the nominations chair is, and ask that person.
If you do manage to get elected as a delegate, then you'll need to get prepared and invested in the denomination and the Annual Conference. You will need a working knowledge of parliamentary procedure. You will need to research the budget and the issues. If you have a specific cause you're working for you'll need to make sure your position is intelligently and coherently put together and not just based on dramatic whims and feelings. Be prepared to listen, let go, see things differently, and be changed as much as you are to speak and fight for change.
You need to be prepared to sit through some boring stuff. Also be prepared to try to participate in worship amidst distractions and a business meeting atmosphere. It won't be worship services like what you're used to at church. Be prepared for workshops and chances to learn stuff to take back to your church. Be prepared to get up early during your summer vacation so you can make the morning bible study session. It will be a time to network and make new friends and enjoy spending time together.
3. MOre Preparation: Submitting Proposals and Resolutions
The Missouri Annual Conference has a method for how they place business on the agenda of the Annual Conference Session. You need to figure out that process and follow it perfectly. I think I can summarize this ok, but I'll be honest, I'm lazy and don't know the details. Basically, there's a deadline that things must be submitted to the Mission Council or some other team who will determine whether or not it is worthy for us to take up as business. If you miss the deadline or have a poorly worded or researched idea, then it probably won't make it. I could be wrong. Truth is I don't know really what the standards are for judging whether a proposal or resolution is worth the time of Annual Conference. I've never really worked on one before (shame on me). Anyway, you will need to have some idea of what our procedures are for getting things done. You probably won't be able to get much done this first year because you're not "in" yet (if you know what I mean). Maybe once you've earned your keep, then you can influence things.
You (and if you're under 18, probably your parents) will have to make some sacrifices for you to attend the session of AC, and even more if you serve on a team/board/committee. It will take your time, money, and energy. You will probably rather do something else like play sports or video games, go on the family vacation, not miss that important activity (graduation, prom, state competition, senior trip, Boy/Girl Scout Camp, etc.). By making this a priority, you are forsaking others and it may cost you (grades, scholarships, state championships, etc.). It will be a sacrifice that pastors like me don't make because we're paid to do this stuff. Your parents will have to transport you or arrange for transportation. Also, if you're under 18, there will need to be supervision for safety/liability reasons, fortunately, the conference has a way for you to register as a youth delegate and will help coordinate that...or at least they used to, and I assume they still do and will into the future. The bottom line here is it's going to take some difficult sacrifices, and if you're under 18 or don't have your own transportation, those sacrifices will include your family too.
It's Worth It
I truly hope to see more young people engage at the Annual Conference level and in leadership in their local churches. This camp thing may be a catalyst for that. I hope so. Why? Because: AIDS, Malaria, LGBTQ issues, marriage equality, war, violence, poverty, global health, suicide rates, drugs, human trafficking, global warming, civil rights, declining congregations, a UMC whose average age is 57, etc. These are all things that we can effect in a greater way together than we can separately. We need the voice, vote, influence, and energy of people age 13-30 who are baptized professing members of our churches. These are issues well worth our sacrifices, time and effort to organize ourselves to work together on. This is not just about helping our churches and properties survive, but changing the world and our neighborhoods.
So please, don't get angry and disillusioned and walk away. Work with the system, and through the system, as disheartening as it can be. Don't let your energy die out. Use this as inspiration to really do something great for the world and our Church. Organize, listen, learn, engage. We have a lot of work to do, major work.
The election of Jurisdictional Conference and General Conference delegates will be happening this year. Who knows, maybe Missouri can send the youngest delegation ever. We can only hope.
***One quick piece of information before I get started on this, if a child or youth or anybody in your church asks if there will be a camp for them this summer, 2015, please answer "Yes." We don't know exactly where it will be yet, but we will know soon. It will be different, but there will be something, and it will be great because I know the people like me who are committed to making it great.***
I'm not saying that anything has been hidden, or that we've been deceived. I'm saying this change in direction has more to do with combining Camping & Retreat Ministries with Youth Ministries (CCYM) into the new "Next Generation Ministries" than we may realize. So, a lot of the conversations leading up to this change were a part of aligning the conference ministries with the mission statement: "leading congregations to lead people to actively follow Jesus Christ." (side note: I've always thought the word "actively" was unnecessary or redundant because isn't following an action? can you passively or inactively follow? I think those would be "not following".) The impression that people seem to have is that this emphasis is just a Missouri Conference thing. It bothers a lot of us because it appears to make us more congregational in polity rather than connectional. For example, I've seen this post passed around on the interwebs, and it's titled "Disconnecting Missouri Methodism." The fear that we are becoming more congregational may be valid (I don't think so), but it's not a Missouri specific thing.
In addition to our mission statement, the Missouri Conference of the UMC has the following vision: "Growing, fruitful, vibrant congregations changing lives through Jesus Christ." This also puts an emphasis on local congregations, and seemingly away from our connectional nature and more towards congregationalism. However, this is not just a Missouri thing. It's a Council of Bishops and Connectional Table thing. It's a denomination thing.
A while back (2008), the Council of Bishops and The Connectional Table announced the "Four Areas of Focus." You can read an overview of it at the umc.org website. Among those four foci (is that how you pluralize that?) is...drum roll please..."Growing Vital Churches." Specifically, the focus is on planting NEW churches (actual wording is "new faith communities") and creating NEW ways for people to connect with God and The Church. But, they also include renewing existing churches. If you dig deeper and click the link to find out what they mean by "Growing Vital Churches," you will find more details for the vision of what exactly a vital church is. One of the components of a vital congregation is..."strong children's and youth ministries." (Note this as an emphasis on "Next Generation Ministries.")
What prompted this vision for our denomination? Why is there an emphasis on strengthening local congregations? Why emphasize children's and youth ministries? Here's what the website says:
as many of us realize, The United Methodist Church is aging, and our numbers are declining:
The vision of emphasizing these Four Areas of Focus is "not for the next quadrennium, but for as far as the eye can see." We will be living into this vision for many many years to come. I think it's a great vision for us to strive for wholeheartedly. (Personal Confession: In fact, I wish I would have paid more attention to our Bishop announcing this stuff and found all of the material on the website sooner.) In order for us to truly be connectional and accomplish this vision, we need Vital Congregations. Without vital congregations, we won't have a denomination to be connected to. The good news is, someone has done a lot of work to show us how to develop a vital congregation. The website has this PDF document that your church can use as a guide to implement what they call "drivers of vitality," which are things that help the church fulfill the vision of a "vital congregation." The first (of sixteen) drivers of vitality is focused on small groups for all ages. The next two are focused on Children's and Youth Ministries. So again, there is an emphasis on "Next Generation Ministries."
What Does This Have To Do With The Change To MO UM Camps?
I'm pointing all of this out because I want us to see that this is bigger than just the Missouri Conference, Bishop Schnase, Rev. Garrett Drake, and the Camping & Retreat Ministries Board. Sure, maybe the Missouri Conference is somewhat of a pioneer on shifting the focus to local congregations since this began for us prior to 2008, but still, this is not about people leading us away into congregationalism. This is about the future of The Church, our church, the United Methodist Church.
On the one hand, it looks like we've taken support away for Next Generation Ministries because first we closed our campus ministries, now we're closing campsites, and soon CCYM will be different. But in reality, we haven't had this type of concerted focused effort and alignment of resources to reach the next generation and form new communities of faith that reach the next generation. I give kudos to our Bishop for slowly (he's been here 10 years now) and persistently leading and influencing us to re-align our mission and vision and way of doing things (budget and staffing) to actually catalyze next generation ministries in our local churches. Did you see the stat above? The Average United Methodist Is 57 Years Old. Our conference leadership is being intentional about trying to change this. (And I am unique: one of only 850 people in the world who are under age 35 and ordained UMC clergy. Woo Hoo! Go me! Maybe if the process didn't take so long we'd have more, but that's a whole 'nother issue.)
These two emphases, vital congregations and next generation ministries, are critical for our church worldwide, and especially in the US. This vision is an effort to recapture the original Methodist Movement, not an institution. The Movement was always focused on small groups in local congregations who lived out their faith in their local communities. The local congregation (the people, not the building) is the primary locale that people connect with The Church.
To sum it up, I'm trying to say that this change is connected to more than just finances or ambitions. I'm trying to say that this is not us devolving into congregationalism. This is not denominational leadership sticking more to selfish ambition of growing a great organization. No, instead, this focus is deeply rooted in a desire to see us living as followers of Jesus Christ, disciples who care for the poor, lead our communities with integrity, and improve world health (historically Methodist emphases). We do this at the most basic level through our local congregations in communities, cities, towns, neighborhoods across the globe. People connect to people. The Church is people who connect people to the person of Christ. This vision is not necessarily trying to save a denomination, but it's trying to do the important work of continuing the Methodist way of Following Jesus Christ. Even if the denomination ever goes away, I think there will still be people who follow the Jesus Way in a Methodist Style, and I think these Four Areas of Focus capture that and it's well worth giving my life to...even if I won't get to use the same camp facility that I have grown to love.
It has been two weeks since the Camping & Retreat Ministries Board of the Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church announced that the Conference's four campsite properties would be shut down. This, rightly, grieved all of people who have a connection to those camps, including the Camping Board themselves. The grief is further compounded by the way the decision and announcement were made. I myself, didn't help much when I used an incendiary title as click bait ("no one cares") so that I could try to help people channel their grief and anger in a useful direction (reaching the countless youth in our communities who aren't a part of the church). Maybe my intentions were good, but my tact and timing were terrible. Some have asked me to take down the blog posts, but I'm not. It's a story of holding each other accountable for living in a Christ-like way, even in the midst of anger and grief.
And that's what inspired my last post on the subject, "Saying 'They Don't Care About the Next Generation' Needs to Stop." I was always taught growing up, "Be angry, but in your anger, do not sin." I believe that's in the Bible, Ephesians 4:26. So it really bothered me of how some people were talking and posting publicly about other brothers and sisters in Christ. It really upset me. I guess Facebook and other social media are places that people vent their frustrations, but I've learned that's not a good idea. Facebook and Twitter are virtually public. It's one thing to share how you feel in a private conversation and seeking guidance on what you should do with those thoughts and feelings. But publicly spreading ill-will and false ideas about people is not a good idea, no matter how true or right you may feel. You have every right to grieve, to feel and think those things, and even say things privately to people. But know those are your emotions and may not be true enough to be posted publicly, or even for you to believe them once you've settled down. I really want to see us come together as brothers and sisters in Christ with grace, truth, love and mercy. So I'm not going to take down that post either. I'll admit, it's not a good thing to try to tell grieving people what they can or can't feel/think/say. I am sorry that I did that. But I do think that as a Christian, I need to not let my grief be an excuse to hurt others and do harmful things.
In my first post on this subject, I clearly said "I will not be joining a movement to #SaveMOUMcamps." I haven't, and I don't plan to. But, I do want to save United Methodist Church Camp Ministries. I have attachments and memories to 3 out of the 4 properties, but I have always known that the people we reach through the ministry we do is what's more important than property. I want to be a change agent to see United Methodist Church Camp Ministries flourish. In fact, that's why I became an Event Director seven years ago. When I first arrived to be an event director in 2007, I knew the campsites and camping ministry were in trouble. The camp I was at had 96 beds, but the registration for the week of camp I inherited was only around 30. The property itself was old, worn out, and barely usable. I was surprised anybody would want to come to camp there. But, my Event Co-Director (and friend) and I knew that if we could focus everyone on Christ, the amenities and empty space wouldn't matter. We also knew we wanted to see all of those beds filled.
The next year, we nearly doubled in size to about 55. I and the Co-Director took one for the team and stayed in the oldest, yuckiest, unkempt cabin on the grounds because the other beds needed to be used. We filled the worship space with so many people and energy, that the A/C couldn't keep up, and we knew we had to find a different place to worship (or move to a different location, possibly CMU). So we went on planning, preparing and praying for year three. Fortunately, the Lord provides. There was an old barn that had been used for horses, but was no longer being used much. At a planning session at camp that spring, we prayed and as soon as we said "Amen" we looked at each other and said "What about the barn." It became our "worship barn." All of the cabins had to be used to hold over 60 students and then counselors on top of that. If I remember right, we were just over 80 people that year. Then, in the fourth year, we had 105 total people...for 96 beds. We slept on mattresses on the floor. I'm not saying all this to brag about success. I want to point something out, I care about camp ministry in Missouri done by United Methodists. I've been wanting to SAVE camps for at least 7 years now. Over those 7 years, that camp property has seen a lot of improvements. It is MUCH better than when we started. I like to think partly because of the experiences that campers had and went back to their church saying how important and valuable camp is. Churches gave funds. Churches helped remodel. Churches sent more kids.
I don't think anyone is arguing with the fact that Camping & Retreat ministries are valuable to individuals who experience them, and that churches benefit from them. These ministries are important, and will continue. The impact they have on campers' lives is priceless. Those same campers usually become more involved in their local churches, and those churches are energized. These ministries must continue.
The camping board knows this, and they are deeply committed to continuing the camping and retreat ministries. The Camping Board had a meeting this past Monday, and they allowed some of us to sit in and listen to all that they had looked at when making the decision for this new direction. Most of the explanation did not focus on money and property (though it probably should have). They focused on the Missouri Conference's Mission & their mission as a camp board. The conference mission is to lead congregations to lead people to active faith in Jesus Christ. At a visioning retreat, the camp board decided their mission would be a similar, focusing on the fruitful practice of "Intentional Faith Development." The mission statement they put down on paper is: "Leading local churches of the Missouri Conference in intentional faith development of children and teens." Then basically, they hit a "do-over" button by starting with this question: "If we started from scratch, and wanted to find the best way to help local churches intentionally develop the faith of the next generation (age 0-25), then how would we do camping and retreat ministries?"
They then asked, what are the "wins" or desired outcomes if we are accomplishing this mission well? These are what they identified.
The next question then was, what strategies do we use to accomplish these wins? This is where new ideas developed, property/financial issues were discussed, and alignment with the conference vision/direction was presented. I'll talk about alignment first. Already, our conference has developed processes for churches to have consultations to help them be/become "growing, vibrant, healthy churches." We have a consultation process for college-age ministry, and now with Next Generation Ministries, we have a consultation process in development to help with youth and children's ministries. There was a clear intention by the board to focus camping ministry on the Next Generation Ministries, which will eventually include workcamps and other ministries focused on helping churches reach those age 0-25. I basically see this as shuffling around what we do. Like re-organizing your kitchen or your clothes drawers. Instead of pots and pans in separate drawers, let's put them together in this one bigger drawer. Instead of having a socks & underwear drawer, I'll keep my socks separate and put my underwear with my undershirts. Of course, it's a little bit deeper than that when you're talking about an organization's Vision and how they implement it, but the bottom line is the same things keep happening, just a little differently, in a different place, with a different name. The conference has decided to put staff and resources into helping churches reach the next generation, so the camp board said, "We are all in!"
The truly new idea that was discussed is mobile camping. Rev. Garrett Drake toured the country learning from others who do mobile camps. These are not strictly "Day Camps" (though it could be), or a Vacation Bible School, but could be more time than VBS and involve an overnight component. This is really exciting to me because my two churches aren't necessarily capable of pulling of something like this really well at the scale it needs to be in order to reach my community. But, if the conference and some other churches collaborate together, we could reach families that are not currently apart of any church, people who don't know Jesus Christ. That's exciting. I know some people are afraid this won't work well, but I always tell folks (and my 5-yr-old), "you don't know until you try."
As for our four properties, basically, the question the board asked is "Are managing these four properties the best way to provide camping and retreat experiences for the next generation?" As we know, the board said "No, they're not." The reasoning is, we are not historically good property managers. Because of decreased funding, and increased costs, we choose to defer as much maintenance and improvements as possible so that we can get by on the bare minimum. We do not manage these properties with excellence. If we allow for camping ministries to operate at other sites that we don't have to manage, we could do our camping programs/ministries much better and at a reduced cost. Local churches would still get the benefits of camping experiences, and the cost would be less. While not a lot of the details were shared as to what property issues exist, enough was shared that I was amazed at the costs to keep the properties open, then add to that improvements needed to provide an experience that relates to post-2014 kids and teens.
So that's basically how the camp board came to their decision to close the four properties. They wanted to find the best way to help congregations intentionally develop the faith the next generation through camping ministries. They decided "We love camping ministry so much, and know how valuable it is to reaching young people and impacting churches that we need to find a way to continue it even if we can't keep our four properties." I recently had to trade-in a sporty little hatchback car for a mini-van because we became foster parents and went from 1 child to 3 in a matter of months. I still miss that car, but the minivan is better in the long-run. Even if I don't get to drive it that much. (That's probably a terrible metaphor, but it's what came to mind.) It was the best thing for all of my family. I hope and have faith that this change is the best thing for the future of our churches and The Missouri Conference. I hope you will too.
Another quick thought about United Methodist Camps in Missouri. I know I was the one who said, "nobody cares." I clarified what I meant. In fact, I think there are those hurt by this change that have felt like "nobody cares" in the sense that those in power aren't listening and don't care. I've heard it said that by the way this change was done we have offended a whole generation (not really, just those with a connection to our camps, this generation is way bigger than that). I've heard that we will lose our future leaders because of these actions. And the conclusion is that "they" don't care. You can feel that and say that, but don't believe it. I need you to know that "they" do care.
I understand you're grieving and upset over the loss of a physical place and what you're used to. I understand we are upset for how this change was made because "I didn't get a say in it" (many of us didn't get a voice or vote). But don't let your anger trick you into thinking that the people of the camping board, Rev. Garrett Drake, and Bishop Schnase don't care. They care deeply, and are sincerely and fervently committed to reaching the next generation.
For example, Rev. Jon Spalding is on the Camping Board and was involved in these changes to some degree. If it weren't for his commitment to youth ministry, I may not be the Christ-follower I am today. When I was a teenager, he was one of the pastors who chose to sacrifice some of his precious time to invest in teenagers like me. I know he cares deeply about reaching the next generation.
This change is saying, we care so much about reaching the next generation, that we are willing to let go of something we are very attached to. Something that is very valued and has done us a lot of good. Something we know that God has used to reach numerous people. It is truly priceless. We are willing to let it go so that we can do even better.
See, the question that keeps coming to mind is, why aren't people giving their lives to Christ in our churches like they do at camp? We have way more churches than camps. We could be multiplying the kingdom of God in much greater ways through our congregations. To be totally honest, this question is very convicting of ME. For the last 8 years, I have poured time and energy and efforts and my friends and my own funds into leading a week of church camp to reach teenagers for Christ, teenagers who usually have some church connection already. What if I poured that same time, energy, effort, and money into reaching the teenagers in my neighborhood and local schools? What if I poured that same amount of resources into meeting teenagers who have no connection to a church or Christ? What if I did that and they gave their lives to Christ in my church and were baptized? What if their parents and siblings came too and gave their lives to Christ? If just 10 new people, who never knew Jesus came to have faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior in my church this year, that would revive and renew my church in ways of which I've only dreamed. Maybe it's because I put my efforts into what I've always known and what's safe for me, instead of taking the risk to truly reach those of the next generation who aren't connected to a church and don't know Jesus Christ.
We do care, a lot. We are committed to engaging and reaching the next generation, and we will.
(Writing that last full paragraph breaks my heart because there's only three and a half months left to 2015, and I'm pretty much resigned to the fact that not even one person who doesn't know Jesus will give their life to Christ in either of the churches I serve. I have tears right now. I know this because I fill out the reports every year. Most of the baptisms are infants, children, or confirmands. Most of the new members are transfers or people who are already baptized Christians. If my one job is to be a missionary and lead people to Jesus Christ, and that's not happening, then what in the heck am I doing?)
Ok, I'm a fairly new blogger. So I don't really know exactly what I'm doing. But I'm finding that I've made a mistake here. I used an inflammatory title and phrasing to get clicks, readers, and a response. Unfortunately, doing that has misconstrued what I am trying to say and accomplish. Yes it got me noticed. But it did not end up representing myself well. I'm not backtracking on my ideas, but I am sorry for how I chose to express them. It was offensive to those who are deeply grieved, and it gave the impression that I don't care. I do care, a lot. That's why I am writing about it publicly.
Having had some more time to think about it, I would like to summarize my main thoughts about this change to MO UM Camping. ALSO, I will be an equal opportunity offender because I have another post I'm working on that would probably offend the "other side" (I don't like splitting this into sides because we are one church, one team) as well. Here's the summary:
This Surprises And Hurts
I do think/feel the communication of this was handled poorly. It does feel to me that there was a lack of transparency in how this decision was made and carried out. All of the truth may have been told, but because of the way things were communicated it gives the impression that we may never really know. Although, I'm not sure there were many other options when it comes to a change/decision of this magnitude.
The decision to close campsites hurts me and all of those who are and have been connected to United Methodist Camps in Missouri. I had God-experiences (and other memories) at 3 out of 4 of these camps both as a youth and an adult. So I'm not overly attached to one campsite in particular. It doesn't seem to bother me as much as some of my friends and the students I've ministered with at the campsites. What's important to me is providing the spiritual opportunities for teenagers to experience and know God in life-changing ways. That can (and does) happen anywhere. And I'm excited to see it happen in new places and in new ways.
We Are All On The Same Team
The Camping Board and the Conference Staff and Mission Council who were involved in this decision are part of the Missouri Conference. I am part of the Missouri Conference. Anyone baptized in or who is a member of a United Methodist Church in Missouri is a part of the Missouri Conference. We are in this together. There is no "us vs. them," but only us. We are on the same team. Also, even more importantly, anyone who is a baptized Christian actively following Christ is a part of the ONE BODY of Christ. We are all brothers and sisters in Christ. AND, we are all made in God's Image and therefore connected to one another.
We share a covenant together. Those who are ordained in the UMC share a publicly ritualized and deep covenant with the Church and one another. The covenant of ordination as Elder is one of leadership in the United Methodist Church. It involves a commitment to integrity. There have been some so hurt and grieved by this change that they are calling into question the integrity of the people who made this decision. This needs to stop. Yes we are all broken, and we are sinners, and no one is perfect. But this covenant means we are forgiving, and we trust that no one is intentionally and maliciously trying to do harm. If there has been impropriety, the proper response would be to approach it with grace, truth and love. As my father always taught me: "two wrongs don't make a right." This is an opportunity to show Christ's love and build up the body of Christ, not tear it down. You would only be hurting yourself.
I appreciate how Rev. David Israel has emphasized that our entire Missouri Conference played a role in under-funding camps. He basically says that the fact that we have gotten to this point is more of a "shame on us," rather than a "shame on you." We need to come together and work together because we have the same purpose: To Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World. These are your teammates, brothers & sisters, not enemies.
CampS will Continue
I have posted on Facebook to the students I lead for a week at Camp Jo-Ota, that somehow, some way, we will do something. Not only this, but there WILL be camps this summer of 2015. They will be in a different place. They will not be what past camps have been. They will be different. But, God is already there. God is already at work. Students will experience God and make commitments to follow Christ. AND, even though some of us may refuse to admit it, this may become more than we could ever ask or imagine. Not because this is the best decision. But because that's just how awesome God is. New life (resurrection) isn't just something God does, it's who God is. That's what Jesus is all about (John 11:25), "resurrection and life." This decision does NOT reflect a lack of commitment to camping and "the next generation." In fact, it is the exact opposite. This decision was made because of a deep commitment to camping/retreats and "the next generation." (I really appreciate Rev. Trevor Dancer's "bird's eye view" of the change, which speaks to the commitment to reach "the next generation" not just for 5, 10 or 15 years, but well beyond that.)
Local Churches Need to Reach Youth
There are nearly 1 million school-aged people across our state. According to the reports that each of our local churches turn in to the Annual Conference, only about 60,000 of those are connected to a local United Methodist Church. That's six percent. (**See note below about camp participation numbers.) We shouldn't be satisfied with this. If our local churches had been living out a deep commitment to reaching school-aged people, then our camps would have been so overflowing that it would have been easy to maintain and operate them. I believe many of our churches and leaders (pastors) have neglected this mission field. There are a lot of reasons for that. But a lot of our churches do not have anyone or very few people under age 50. I've served churches where myself and my family were the youngest ones by a generation or more (until I worked to start a youth ministry). This is what I was trying to say when I said "no one cares, or at least no one is noticing." Sure, there are a good number of people who care and who are noticing, but when compared to the general population, it's not many. The people who care and are noticing are those who have a connection to United Methodist Camps in Missouri. Sadly, that's a small number. Not because the site directors and other camp staff or camping board did a bad job, but because local churches have failed to reach young people. Now, it's not ALL churches. There are quite a few who are doing well in this. But a majority of us are not. Even some of our larger churches have small youth ministries. There is no quick fix or magic bullet for this. But we must not give up or expect someone else to do this for us or think "it will just happen". We must persevere and keep trying to reach young people.
Outward-Focus, Outreach, evangelism, or whatever you want to call it
Some have responded saying that over-emphasizing evangelism is bad because you need to feed people before they can feed others. This makes logical sense. Another person responded saying that families need to do a better job of shaping their children as Christians at home (I totally agree with that), and church should be a place where families learn how to do that (I agree). I still say outward-focus is key to a healthy church. That doesn't mean you neglect equipping people for ministry and a life of Christ-following, but it does mean we are always pushing each other back into the world, much like the hymn "In the Garden" says near the end:
I'd stay in the garden with Him [Christ]...But He [Christ] bids me go, through the voice of woe, His [Christ's] voice to me is calling.
As for feeding people before they can feed others. I feed myself, most of us do, unless you're an infant. I happen to have an infant in my home right now and at 9 months was already starting to hold his own bottle and feed himself. To use the cliché, "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." There's two issues here churches need to work on. One, are we leading people to the life-giving water (or spiritual food)? I say, not if we're contained within the four walls of a building or only in relationship with fellow Christians. When we meet people, we meet God. Remember, every human was originally created in the Image of God. God is already there, but are you taking the risks to meet God among the people of your community. Try it. Take the risk. It is amazing how spiritually nurturing it is to see God at work in people's lives. And God is at work within people, ALL people, whether we/they know it or not. It is our job as Christians to help them make the connection and see God, see Christ.
Second, most of us (Missouri United Methodists or just USA Christians in general) are usually pretty satisfied and content. Our bellies are satisfied, and we have plenty of stuff. And we go around convincing ourselves and others that we are "OK." Sometimes, I'll skip a meal or two. Sometimes I'll even complain to someone near me that I'm hungry. I may even exaggerate and say, "starving." And if I'm hungry enough, I find food. I may wait a while and see if someone else is going to take care of me, but eventually, I find a way to eat. And if I'm hungry enough, I'll eat stuff I normally wouldn't, and I'll put forth a great effort to find food and prepare it and consume it. Maybe we need to get hungry again. Maybe we need to get desperate for God again. Maybe we, the Church need to help people be desperate for God again. We are distracted by all of the visible and temporary things we have and enjoy, when what we really need is the invisible and eternal source and author of life, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. From the source of these invisible things, we participate with God building the visible kingdom of heaven on earth, in our communities. The invisible is already there, we get to help people see it and experience it.
That's what camping did for me, and many others, and why it's important. But I wouldn't have known about camp, unless a church had first reached out to me and my family. The future of United Methodist Camping in Missouri depends upon how well our local churches are connecting and building relationships with people we don't yet know in our communities. I know that's easier said than done, but I'm committed to continually figuring it out over and over and over again because the same thing won't work for all people, places, and times. But the bottom line is relationships, and at the core of that is love; radical, crazy, risk-taking Jesus-love.
That about covers it. I hope that is more clear and less offensive.
**Note about our camp participation numbers:
The conference released two numbers about how many of these 60,000 participate in camping: 2,075 campers (United Methodists) representing 20% of our (United Methodist) churches. My dilemma is, 2,075/60,000 is only 3.5%, which is way different than 20% or 1/5th. Now, these numbers don't include non-UMC participation and activities at our campsites. The bottom line for me is, I think we could do way better. That doesn't mean the people who have been a part of the camping ministries up to this point aren't valuable. You can't put a price on someone's life or soul. Even if just one person's life was transformed by Christ, then it would be worth it. But I'd still have to ask the question: even though it's worth it, are we being good stewards of what we've been given? Probably not, we need to try something different to reach different people.
Since my post on Friday, I've had a number of different people reply to me. And, I've seen a few other people voice their feelings and thoughts with most of them being helpful. So I'd like to share a few links to those, and then I'll say something that might bother some. Here we go...
Some Insight and Background
Rev. David Israel was the President of the Camping & Retreat Ministries Board in the Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church for a number of years prior to 2012 when he handed it over to the current regime. He shares some wonderful background and insight/response to the change that United Methodists in Missouri are experiencing about camping ministry.
His first post points out what David calls, "the idolatry of geography." Which is something pretty much all of us are guilty of at one time or another. You can read the full post here, but the gist of it is this: the campsites are just physical places; it's the relationships and spiritual formation that takes place that make them special. Basically, we should be more attached to God and people, than property. That makes sense to me, and it should to you too.
His second post points out a little bit about how we got to here. He gives background on some of the other changes that led up to this point. It is information that I really didn't know, but is helpful to understand. He will continue to post and update his blog with his insight, so you can check it out. I'm curious to see his next post.
The best post I've seen about the feelings that many have about this change to camping & retreat ministry in The Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church is by my friend and colleague, Andy Bryan. You can read his post here. I know I identify with it, and I hope you do too. It's difficult to handle, but we will press on.
NOBODY CARES, or at least No One Is Watching
Ok, that's a bit of an exaggeration because some people do care, but Nobody Is Watching Us and What We Are Doing About Camps. This is Missouri. We recently had a big event happen (and activity continues) in Ferguson, MO. Our Governor, Jay Nixon, said that the whole world was watching us and how we handle it. Well, here's some news, none of the rest of the world is watching how the Missouri Conference of the UMC does camping and retreat ministry.
I say this because some people have felt like the powers who made this decision are offending and neglecting the "Next Generation." The Next Generation is who we are supposed to be trying to reach; we all agree on that. No matter whether you're with this decision or against it, reaching young people is a top priority for the church. Here's the deal though, 90% or more of those people in Missouri who are age 8-18, do not know and do not care about this change. I haven't taken the time to look up the numbers, but I'm sure there are a HUGE number of children and teenagers who have never even heard of any of our four campsites. There may be a slightly larger number who have heard of Central Methodist University. But for the most part, we have only offended insiders. Somehow, we really need to focus on those children and teenagers who are not a part of our churches, but who are neighbors, and classmates with our kids. Most of these kids are playing sports and video games, going to school, arguing with their parents, reading books, eating candy, riding the bus, etc., the things that kids do. They and their parents are NOT offended by this because they don't have a clue. What's turning the current and next generation away from the church is their interactions with her (or lack of interaction with the church). We need to find ways to engage our communities and neighborhoods, and reach children and teens where they are. Don't fool yourself and think that this change has offended a generation and the UMC in MO has shot itself in the foot and all of the young people will go elsewhere. There is only a very tiny percentage of the next generation who know about this and care: the insider young United Methodists in Missouri. There's a HUGE number of children, teens, and college-age people near you who need to respond to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Will you go?
Dear fellow Missouri United Methodists,
Even though we are yet to see any official word from our conference office or staff (I have been continually checking email, **SEE UPDATE BELOW**), the rumors appear to be true that all of our Camping & Retreat Ministries staff have been removed from their jobs (including site directors), and all four of our camping and retreat facilities will close. I know many who are grieving this sudden drastic change. I know it effects people I love and care for, people who have deeply invested in these ministries. So I ask you to keep the site directors and former employees in your prayers. We all grieve together.
Knowing the grieving process is different for everyone, some of you will be angry, mad, upset, frustrated. Others are sad and heartbroken. Some feel all of these things and once and are in shock and trying to sort through everything. I can only be honest about myself and my own thoughts. I am not angry about the change, but I might be about how it happened. I am not sad about the change, but I might saddened by how the change is handled. Because of this, I am not going to participate in a campaign to "Save MO Camps." Why am I not angry and sad about the change itself? Because I am reminded of this scripture, Romans 13:1-2:
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
Now, I know the context for this verse is totally different than our current situation, but there is some similarity. Our Bishop, Robert Schnase, and Director of Next Generation Ministries, Garrett Drake, are both deeply committed Christians dedicated to doing their best to follow Christ. They are not Roman officials in the business of oppressing people. That means, we should probably trust them and respect their authority even more. So I am asking you to trust this decision, and embrace the change.
Bishop Schnase has repeatedly reminded us that the job of the Annual Conference Staff, facilities, and resources is to equip congregations to lead people to follow Jesus Christ. He has spent his time re-aligning everything to accomplish that purpose. This is not easy work. Specifically for this change, one question is "How are Camping and Retreat ministries equipping and helping local congregations lead people to follow Jesus Christ?" This can be answered positively by the numerous stories of people who have become deeply committed followers of Jesus Christ because of their experience at one of our camps.
But, this isn't the right question. There was another change that went into effect when we re-aligned college-age, youth and children's ministries into one office of Next Generation Ministries. The question now becomes "How can the conference best equip local congregations to reach children, teens, and young adults (people age 0-25) to follow Jesus Christ?" Asking this question gave the opportunity for us to re-think and re-do our approach to Campus Ministry and Youth Ministry and now Camping & Retreat Ministry at the Conference level. The goal is to make local churches better at these ministries. Which is a good thing! I want the two local churches I serve to have thriving children's, youth, college-age, and young adult ministries. That's why this change doesn't bother me. This change makes sense because it's aligning what we do with our goals of equipping local congregations. That's why you won't see me joining a campaign to #SaveMOCamps. I'm excited to see what's next. I hope you are too.
Now, this brings me to what does bother me, and what is concerning. The apparent lack of official communication regarding this change. It's almost noon on the Friday after staff were supposedly let go on Wednesday afternoon/evening. This is unacceptable. Also, what is next? Is there a plan for something new? Any kind of way forward? Not that I've heard. I'm sure there are some ideas and some goals and dreams, but apparently there's not a definitive plan, yet. Or, maybe there is and we just haven't heard because there has been no official communication.
So, I ask you to trust our leadership. They are not actively trying to lead us astray. They really are trying to do what's best for the Missouri Conference of the United Methodist Church. I ask you to pray for this situation. I ask you to be patient. I ask you to write out your thoughts privately and do whatever you need to grieve this change. But don't let any unwholesome talk be published, but only that which is for building up the body of Christ. I don't think you should campaign to "save MO camps" because it's too late for that. I doubt they will ever be the same, and that's ok. It is and will be a good thing. Not because what we had was bad, but because we are choosing to adapt to a changing context. The best thing you can do is jump on board with whatever is next. Reaching people age 0-25 is very important for the future of The Church and churches everywhere. It is an investment that will bear fruit for future generations yet to be born.
Rev. Ben Mulford
The following answers some of my concerns. At noon today, the conference posted the news to their website and sent it out via email. You can read the full thing here. Here are some highlights:
After two years of information gathering, conversations, visits to all camp sites, a financial and property analysis and prayerful discernment, the Missouri Annual Conference Camping and Retreat Board will be shifting how we facilitate the vital ministry of camping in the Missouri Annual Conference.
My only question is, why couldn't this have been sent out sooner? Other than that, this answers my question of "What's Next?" I pray that all of you will jump on board with it whole heartedly. Myself, I'm pretty excited as I have previously contemplated doing a camp at CMU. The opportunity to have a "day camp" in my neighborhood at a level of excellence that my church cannot provide is pretty exciting too. See, I understand why you were worried, but this looks pretty exciting!
I am a Software Developer, a career shift made in 2018. So far, I have experience with C# .Net and Angular. I continue to let curiosity lead me into learning new technologies. I plan to share what I learn along the way about technology and personal/career life. Previously, my vocation was United Methodist pastor. So in addition to coding, I'll share about theology, the Church and The Bible. I also enjoy running, music, and I'm a deeply committed father and husband. Maybe my experiences will help you. I know it helps me to share.