Sunday, September 18, 2005

In Memorium: Judson Hills Camp

I went to a funeral yesterday. People told stories about good times, and shed tears in recognition of a relationship that had ended. A eulogy was rendered, and we were sent off with a sense of closure.

The deceased wasn't a friend, but rather a place -- the Judson Hills Camp in Loudenville OH.

Judson Hills had been owned by the Ohio Region of the American Baptist Churches USA since some time in the 1950s. The main lodge building is nearly 50 years old. All you have to do is look around at many photos in the composite pictures that hung in the lodge to know that this camp has provided a safe, fun and meaningful experience for two whole generations of kids.

Like many of the structures and facilities we enjoy today, Judson Hills was purchased and built by the folks who fought and won World War II. I regret to say that my generation -- the children of the WWII veterans -- grew up to be consumers and not builders. We've consumed the legacy of our parents, and have yet to stand up and take their place as stewards of this great country. But that's another rant for another time.

ABC is in trouble. Membership is dwindling, both individually and in terms of member congregations. As one might expect, that also means the amount of money being given by churches to support the regional and national organization is also declining. There have been layoffs at the state and national headquarters, and the amount of money going to fund effective outreach and missionary activities is approaching zero.

In Ohio, much of the blame for our financial woes has been attributed to the "losses" associated with running our two camps, Judson Hills and Kirkwood. I always bristle when I hear this outflow of money called a "loss," -- like any ministry is supposed to be a money maker. But the truth is that these camps could actually be operated in a way so as to throw off cash for other ministries, but our state leadership has allowed our outdoor ministry program to collapse. For the past six or seven years, there has been only one week each summer when Judson Hills had over 100 kids onsite. That week is the one directed by Pastor Kevin Snyder of Mountview Baptist Church and staffed by members of that congregation. I found it sad and symptomatic that the camp staff (kitchen and facilities) treated our volunteers and campers like a burden that week. It was clear that they preferred the relative ease of a camp week with only 20-30 kids instead of basking in the glory of 100 young (and old!) souls immersed in the Lord for week.

The camp was getting run down and tired -- no question. But why could we get 100 kids out during our week, while for other weeks the camp was mostly empty? The answer is in the way Pastor Snyder ran his camp. There was meaningful programming, a mature and committed volunteer staff, and focus everywhere on the Bible and the Gospel message. It was a lot of work, intense at both a physical and spiritual level. But when, at that last campfire, we would get 70+ first time commitments to follow Christ, it was all worth it.

Our church once made the offer to ABC/OH to help fund the salary of a full-time camp programming director. This is a different role than the site manager -- whose responsibility is facilities and food. The programming director would ensure that every week of camp had the same kind of programming as Pastor Snyder's week. That offer was dismissed.

The Rev Dr Bob Roberts was called to run ABC/OH on an interim basis, and he found a region headed for bankruptcy. He recognized that to keep ABC/OH alive until a new Executive Minister could be hired, it would be necessary to shed as much of the cash burn as possible. The big consumers were payroll -- as is always the case -- and the camping ministry. The region board was called together, and a decision was made to do a staffing reduction at the headquarters, then begin a process of liquidating real estate assets. First Judson Hills would be put on the market, then the headquarters building in Granville, and if necessary, Camp Kirkwood.

On September 29, Judson Hills will be auctioned to the public, and the first step of this liquidation will have been completed. The event yesterday was the funeral -- the ceremonial closure of a relationship.

Some folks viewed the camps like a cancer that was eating away the life of the region. In the perspective of these folks, the camps had to go or the region would die. I think that statement is true. The camp needs to be sold for the region to have a shot at survival. But don't think of the camp as a cancer, but rather think of the story of
Aron Ralston, the hiker who recently amputated his own arm with a pocketknife because it was a choice between losing his arm or losing his life.

You see, a cancer is something that is never useful. It is always a bad thing, and you are better off to never get cancer than to get it and fight to survive.

But Aron Ralston presumably found a lot of use for his right arm. I imagine that if you asked him today if he would like to have it back, he would answer in the affirmative. But he found himself having to choose arm or life, and made a choice few of us would be brave enough to make (or make soon enough to retain his chance of survival).

Selling Judson Hills camp is like cutting off an arm as far as I'm concerned. Many of us would like to keep that camp and continue to minister to children there. But we are forced into a choice -- sell the camp, or bankrupt the region. On Sept 29, 2005 -- the amputation will take place.

We can't let that be in vain. Something has to change in ABC/OH -- right now. If we use the money from the sale of Judson Hills just continue to fund the same programs and modes of operation that have gotten us here, then all the sale of Judson Hills will do is lengthen the pain and suffering. If we aren't going to turn ABC/OH around, and make it a dynamic, growing and healthy ministry, then we should just send the money to the Red Cross and let it go to helping the folks who have been wiped out by Hurricane Katrina.

Before his departure, Dr Roberts formed a team he called the Vision Quest Committee, and gave them the assignment to set a new course for ABC/OH. I'm privileged to be a part of that team, serving with wise and godly men and women from all around the state, including our new Executive Minister, the Rev Dr Larry Swain. The sale of the Judson Hills was our first task, and with sadness we can report that this task will soon be complete.

Now comes the hard part -- building the new vision and getting underway on that course. Some hard decisions have to be made and acted upon -- Judson Hills was only the first. There are some decent models out there, notably the success story of ABC of the West under the leadership of the Rev Dr Paul Borden. We are studying these models and building the new strategic plan right now.

Meanwhile, another substantial crisis has arisen in our denomination: the official stance of the ABC on homosexuality. It was
reported this week that the ABC of the Southwest and the West Virginia Baptist Convention are going to soon vote whether to leave ABC/USA over the unwillingness of the ABC/USA to incorporate the viewpoints of these two regions regarding homosexuality into the national policy.

At the same time, many other ABC churches have formed an organization called
American Baptist Evangelicals. These churches maintain their membership in ABC, and ABE says it wants to operate within ABC with the hope of transforming ABC into a healthy, growing denomination. That is a positive goal, and I hope it bears fruit.

I don't know what this means to ABC/OH. I hope it means that we are successful getting ABC/OH revitalized at the same time ABC/USA renews itself, and ABC at both the national and regional level becomes a powerful army that spreads the Gospel with urgency and effectiveness.

All I know is that a good friend gave up its lifeblood to save us this week. What could be more Christ-like?


Anonymous said...

camping ministries should not be under estimated; over 80% of those in full-time vocational ministry made that decision while at a week of camp!

dara said...

I was greatly saddened to hear that Judson Hills is no more. I grew up going to that camp every year. I didn't know that we were "poor" and that the Baptist church I went to as a child paid for me to go. I have always had such fond memories of being in the woods there. I too am in Hilliard!

Anonymous said...

I also grew up at judson! my grand parents Ben & Marie ran the camp for a few years. i had no idea of the financial difficulties that we were facing. I often find myself thinking of the beautiful and amazing memories from a place that I once called home.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know who owns the lodge now?

Paul said...

As far as I know, it's still the lady who bought the camp at the auction. But I'm far from current.