Campaign supports continuing camp in Ohio Conference
A grassroots movement in the Ohio Conference of the United Church of Christ, in support of outdoor ministry, is making a pitch to keep two financially strapped camps open. In just a few weeks, the Affirm Camp campaign has collected the signatures of almost 1,000 people who affirm the need to continue the ministry and keep the summer camps, despite financial hardships. The Ohio Conference leadership has heard from those supporters, and now must consider recommendations about the future of the conference’s outdoor ministries programs.
“We want to let them know that there is still a tremendous amount of support for Outdoor Ministries all over the state,” said Nate Taylor, youth minister at Avon Lake UCC and one of the people behind the Affirm Camp movement. “For a lot of people, camps and Outdoor Ministries have been a place of transformation, spiritual growth and a place to connect with God you can’t find in other settings. Personally, it’s the reason I’m in ministry today. My experience in camp helped define my calling. I have found so much value when I go down there.”
Several Christian educators and youth ministry professionals in the Ohio Conference decided to start the movement, the Affirm Camp Campaign, in late March to give UCC members a voice about what happens to the two Ohio Conference-owned camps in Brinkhaven and Bellville in Central Ohio.
A petition on the Affirm Camp website has almost 800 signatures from persons across the state ranging in age from 9 to 82 years old. Taylor said he has close to 1,000 signatures in all, including some signed paper petitions that were presented to the Ohio Conference board during its meeting on Friday, April 17.
Over a year ago conference leadership formed a discernment team to gather information about both Ohio campsites and how congregations report their use of them. The board will review that data, along with information from a one-hour presentation by Taylor and two colleagues, who made a pitch to the board as they delivered their petition.
“From what I understand it was received well. I hope we hear within the week about what they decide,” Taylor said. “One of the things I felt was made clear from several board members was that they do care about Outdoor Ministries in Ohio and that they want to find a way to make it continue. And we by no means are looking to be confrontational on this.”
Tim Smith, moderator of the Ohio Conference, told the camp supporters that their voices are heard. “There is a real passion for outdoor ministry in the Ohio Conference,” he said. “We share your commitment to and effective, vibrant, life-changing program that can be accessed and utilized by all our churches.”
But that must be balanced with the financial reality of the outdoor ministry program in Ohio. Smith says the Ohio Conference outdoor ministry endowment has run dry and it has covered deficits by pouring in $1.9 million—above its budgeted amount—into the camps in the last five years using OCWM dollars.
With the input from Affirm Camp supporters, the board will consider if it will continue subsidizing the camps—and potentially depleting the remainder of the conference’s funds—find an alternate way to keep one or both camps open, or look at a different model for the ministry in which the conference doesn’t own camp property.
“We’re in a holding pattern now, but we are going to continue to promote our camps through Affirm Camp and use it as a place to let people know what our camps provide,” Taylor said. “We’ll use website to keep people aware of what is going on. Hopefully, the energy and the people that signed on to petition can be used if the conference goes in the direction of a capital campaign.”
The sustainability questions surrounding outdoor ministry aren’t limited to Ohio, with previous camp closures or completed sales in Pennsylvania. Mollie Landers Hatt, an Outdoor Ministries Association (OMA) board member and director of Outdoor Ministries for the New Hampshire Conference of the UCC, wants the denomination’s conferences to know that OMA is a resource ready to support the 60 camp and retreat centers across the UCC.
“There is a group that has expertise and if there are other camps in trouble, we encourage conference leadership and board leadership to look to OMA as a resource before reaching a breaking point,” she said.
Landers Hatt acknowledged that outdoor ministry faces challenges for “a variety of reasons,” she said. “There are camps that are completely on their own—their own [nonprofit organization]—and some where the property is owned by the conference,” Landers said. “I feel like all should look at being financially viable, given the decreasing OCWM dollars.”
Landers Hatt also alluded to some camps in the northeast that cross conference boundaries, and that OMA is in the early stages of discussing cross-denominational camp opportunities that may unfold in the future.
“As camp sites are sold and closed down, we don’t get them back. Outdoor ministy can be done in different ways, but it is important to look at all possibilities and use all the resources,” Landers Hatt added. “OMA has a wealth of information.”
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