In a recent blog post which reflects on the Camping Board’s process and decision, Rev. Kevin Witt, Certified Camp Director, and a member of the Leadership Ministries Division of the General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church, highlights some of his own experience:
I have participated myself in a study with integrity that resulted in the closure of two camps out of eight where I was serving. Today, that camp and retreat ministry is thriving and very sustainable. It was truly difficult spiritually and emotionally to close those sites. Interestingly, that study recommended the closure of 4 of 8 sites, but ongoing listening and dialogue across the conference resulted in an adjustment to the recommendations which ultimately strengthened the outcome.
I think that this story represents what most of those who are involved in the discussion of our Camps want most: a process of listening and dialogue. Many, myself included, are not opposed to change but we at least want change to come through a process in which the full body of the Conference has a voice.
Unfortunately, the Camping and Retreat Board for the Missouri Annual Conference has, by its own admission, not always been good at communicating. Presumably in an attempt to address this problem they have recently released two responses to Frequently asked Questions (FAQs). While the articulation of these FAQs fails to reflect a true dialogue, these documents have shed some light on the Board’s thinking. However, there are often additional questions about the Camping Board’s reasoning and process that are not addressed in these FAQs. These questions have led to some interesting exchanges on the Facebook page for the Camping/Retreat Division of the Missouri Annual Conference. I reproduce some below.
These exchanges have been edited for two purposes. First, I often ask multiple questions at a time, which makes the conversation hard to follow. So here, I have edited the conversation to focus on one line of discussion. Second, I have edited so as to avoid including participation by individuals from whom I have not directly asked permission. In one case, I have also shortened an email response for space. I have not otherwise edited for content. If anyone is interested, the full conversations should continue to be viewable on the Camping/Retreat Facebook page. I will leave judgments about whether the below represent a process of fruitful listening and dialogue to the reader.
In their second FAQ, the Camping Board suggested that their decision was driven in part by the fact that “there are a decreasing number of churches and campers who are using our facilities.” This led to the following exchange:
Me: How quickly is the number of camping participants declining in Missouri, and how does that rate of decline relate to the 100% decline in the number of Camp sites that the Board’s plan envisions?
Conference Representative: The data to answer your question about the rate of decrease would require further research to accurately answer.
Me: Just to be clear, you are saying that the Camping Board did not research the rate of decline of Camping in the Missouri Annual Conference before making its decision?
Conference Representative: The statement “The data to answer your question about the rate of decrease would require further research to accurately answer” pertains to what would be needed to answer your question. The Board did indeed research the rate of decline of Camping.
Me: You need further research to accurately answer a question that you have already researched?
(As yet, I have received no response to this question.)
In response to a request for financial information on the individual Camps in the Missouri Annual Conference the following exchange ensued:
Conference Representative: The financial information was managed by each site in years past. You would need to contact each site to receive this information.
Me: Just to clarify, the implied claim here is that during their two year investigation, the Camping Board never gathered the financial information from the Camps in one location?
Conference Representative: Information was collected from the sites each year for review. But the books were managed by each individual site.
Me: So you “collected” them for the review, but didn’t keep any copies?
(I have as yet received no response to this question).
Brittany Jacobs continued inquiring about the claim from the Conference representative that “You would need to contact each site to receive this information.”
Brittany: How can we contact each site for this information if they’re not allowed to release this information?
Me: I take it that the above comment indicates that they are allowed. Contact each of the camps, and let them know that the Camping/Retreat Division of the Missouri Annual Conference expects them to share their financial information.
Brittany then contacted the Camps, but did not receive responses from most of them. So she returned to the Facebook page.
Brittany: SaveMOUMcamps has requested the finance information from the previously-employed site directors, and we ask that the Camping Board specifically tell these individuals (Raymond Varner, Dennis Hisek, Mike ‘Sarge’ Leonard, and Erik David Barton) that the financials should be released.
Conference Representative: You may contact the Office of Administration with your request.
Brittany did that, and received an email including the following response.
Representative of the Office of Administration: “I … have no authority to order the site directors to do any such thing. Turning over financial statements would be a decision of the Camp Board, a body on which I do not sit. …I will pass your request on to the Camp Board for consideration.”
I inquired about whether the Camping Board had investigated how to make excellent camp sites in the same way that they investigated non-site alternatives:
Me: Since you have stated that members of the Camping Board went out into the field in order to experience potential new initiatives, did members of the Camping board similarly visit any sites where on-site camping was going well?
Conference Representative: The Board received reports from those asked to review and had personal experiences at other sites beside that in the Missouri Conference.
Me: Perhaps I need to be more specific. Did the members of the Camping Board, in their role as members of the Camping Board, during the two year discernment process, visit any successful Camping sites with the purpose of exploring how we might make our own sites more successful as a part of our own future with Camping?
(I have as yet received no response to this question).
I offered a question about the rationality of renting non-Methodist Camp sites while we own our own in the summer of 2015:
Me: During the 2015 Camping season we will own four camp sites. But we will not be using them. Instead, we will be spending money to rent sites that we do not own. This seems massively inefficient. Why, since we were going to own the camps anyway, did we make the decision to close them for the 2015 season?
Conference Representative: In many alternative sites it will be cheaper. We hope moving forward beyond 2015 we can lower the cost of camping making it even more accessible to a diverse group of children and youth in our conference.
Me: It is cheaper to (1) simultaneously own our own camps and rent from other facilities than (2) to use our own camps? Do you really mean to make this claim? If so, please share the financial details here, because it is extremely hard to believe.
Conference Representative: In order for us to continue camping in 2015 at some of our sites, it would require a significant investment to address liability issues. Additionally, a change in personnel at other sites would require us to move a family into an unknown situation about the future of maintaining properties.
Me: Are you not paying for their liability when you rent from other campsites? Why did you need to change personnel at other camp sites? Again, do you have any concrete economic analysis to back up your claims?
Conference Representative: Any specifics regarding personnel issues will remain confidential. In the study and discussion with some youth pastors and clergy, we recognized not all children and youth will fit one model of camping. The shift forward will allow camping to be more accessible for more children and youth in the Missouri Conference.
Me: You seem to be avoiding the question. Are you really claiming that it is less expensive to (1) simultaneously own our own camps and rent from other facilities than (2) to use our own camps?
Conference Representative: Until the Annual Conference determines the future of facilities, we must maintain insurance (although at different levels) and caretakers. To provide the transition desired by the Board it will require these expenses.
(I tried to respond one more time; however my post, with several others, has gone missing from the Camping/Retreat Facebook page. The site administrator assures me that Facebook has been contacted to explore the technical problems that have led to this phenomenon.)