Dakotas, Minnesota camp and retreat ministries unite to expand offerings, maximize effectiveness

February 10, 2016
The Dakotas and Minnesota conferences’ camp and retreat ministries are combining their strengths and leadership and coming together to form a joint governance team. This new arrangement will expand the camping-related offerings for United Methodists in each conference and allow the conferences to share best practices to create the strongest possible area camp and retreat ministry.

Since September, the two conferences have been sharing a director of camp and retreat ministries and exploring ways their camping ministries could collaborate to maximize effectiveness. After much prayer and discernment, the two conferences’ camp and retreat boards met for two days last month to continue the conversation and made a joint decision to form an area-wide council.

The council—comprised of four to six people from each conference—will focus on the big picture for moving the camping ministry forward and will function as a wisdom council for the director of camp and retreat ministries. It will also be empowered to form task forces as needed—for example, an interview team to hire a new camp site director. Kerry Hilton, who chairs the Dakotas Conference’s camping board, and Steve Knight, who chairs the Minnesota Conference’s camping board, will co-chair the new area council.  

“Camping is a high-impact ministry that affects so many people,” said Dakotas-Minnesota Area Director of Camp and Retreat Ministries Keith Shew. “Through this partnership, our camp and conference leaders recognize that combining our strengths and passion will enable us to accomplish more.”

In addition to the area-wide council, the director at each camp will form his or her own site advisory team. The people on each of these teams will serve as champions for their site, provide advice and wisdom to the director, and help accomplish the goals of the camp.  

Camp site property and assets will continue to be owned by each annual conference and held in trust by each conference’s board of trustees. Additionally, each conference will continue to manage finances for its own camp sites. 

Many benefits

United Methodists in both conferences will see direct and immediate benefits from this expanded partnership—which ultimately provides more opportunities to make disciples and develop leaders across the area. Here are four of the major benefits for both:

More camps to choose from: As the two conferences live into this new arrangement, they may collaborate by seeking ways to market all of their camp and retreat programs together throughout all three states and beyond. People from both conferences will have double the number of options when making plans to spend time apart in God’s creation. “We can say to our kids, ‘We’ve now got a camp in the Black Hills,’ and the Dakotas can say to their kids, ‘Let’s go to the Boundary Waters,’” said Minnesota Director of Ministries, Rev. Cindy Gregorson. “It expands our offerings.”

More opportunities for involvement: The site advisory teams are new for some of the sites within the area. In addition to benefiting each one through new perspectives and ideas, they will give more people from both conferences an opportunity to participate in the camping ministry. “The site advisory teams create more opportunities to get more people involved at the ground level while the shared council creates new opportunities for people from both conferences who gravitate toward bigger-picture vision and strategic thinking,” said Hilton.

Shared wisdom and expertise: All of the site directors will function as a team under Shew’s supervision and will meet regularly. Each director has different strengths, experiences, and ideas. Sharing them with the larger group in partnership with the joint council will result in best practices and innovations that can be adopted and implemented across all of the sites. “If we want to be super intentional about outcomes of attending camp and reasons we send kids to camp, there needs to be some consistency in our programming in terms of content, quality, and experience,” said Hilton. She noted that as the Dakotas sites seek American Camping Association accreditation, they can learn from the Minnesota sites, which are already accredited.

Staffing synergies: Working together enables the sharing of resources between the conferences. Already, both conferences have realized cost savings by having a joint director of camp and retreat ministries instead of one for each. As new or additional camping staff members join the conference offices over time, they can support both the Dakotas and Minnesota. Having a larger team that collectively serves both conferences rather than smaller teams that support just one will allow the camping ministry to hire people who specialize in niche areas like marketing, finances, or programming. This will create a deeper skill set across the Dakotas and Minnesota.

“This new arrangement allows us to bring together the best of what each conference is doing to reach the next generation for Christ,” said Gregorson. “It helps both conferences maximize their resources toward camping.”

The camping partnership is the latest example of the Dakotas and Minnesota conferences working together to maximize their missional effectiveness. In January, the conferences began sharing a newly hired area director of new church development. Their communications staffs and Episcopacy Committees also work together closely, and they share training and programming across conference lines. 

“I believe in the power of the connectional system—that we can do more and do better together than we can on our own,” said Dakotas Director of Ministries, Rev. Rebecca Trefz. “I’ve seen the synergy that takes place as each conference brings its gifts and perspectives to the table and the Holy Spirit starts moving. I’ve seen it in other groups that are already partnering across conference lines and now I see it in camping. When we are humble and open to learning from each other, I believe God does powerful things.”

Unified vision

Long before the two conferences began exploring a camping partnership, there were strong similarities in their missions and what each was trying to accomplish. Each conference used different language to articulate their goals, but the foundations were essentially the same. At last month’s meeting, stakeholders from both conferences named and claimed a shared area mission, set of values, and desired outcome for camping:

Mission: Inviting campers to experience Christ, creation, and community through camp and retreat ministries.

Core values: Providing sacred places apart, nurturing Christian faith and discipleship, teaching creation care and appreciation, partnering with United Methodist churches and agencies, extending Christian hospitality and community, developing principled spiritual leaders, and inspiring and equipping lives for love and justice.

Desired outcome: Disciples and leaders who hear and respond to God’s call to articulate their faith, love and accept everyone, serve others, and trust God.

“There’s an energy that comes out of working together to propel camping into the future,” Knight said. “The Dakotas understand our goals and challenges for our camps and we understand their goals and challenges for their camps. We have a common commitment to the ministry of providing good camps and retreats for the youth in our conferences.”

Next steps

The new camp and retreat ministries council will be assembled in the coming weeks and meet for the first time this spring. The council will meet four times annually, sometimes face-to-face and sometimes through video conference. Individuals will be selected for the council based on their passion and their skills in areas that are important for camping—such as finance, property, marketing, and fundraising.

The Dakotas has three camp sites: Wesley Acres near Dazey, North Dakota; Storm Mountain Center outside of Rapid City, South Dakota; and Lake Poinsett Camp and Living Waters Retreat Center near Arlington, South Dakota. Minnesota also has three primary camp sites: Northern Pines in Park Rapids, Koronis Ministries in Paynesville, and Kowakan Adventures near Ely.

“Camping changes lives,” said Knight. “It changed my life. It changed my children’s lives. I know it will change the lives of youth who will continue to come to our camps.”

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.