Are church camps and conference centers going away?

Economic realities are trumping emotional attachments.

By George Bullard

What is your most memorable experience at a church camp or conference center? Write it down quickly before these camps and conference centers disappear.

My first remembrance of Ridgecrest Conference Center in western North Carolina is when I was 5 years old. I leaned too far over a walkway above a creek, and the girl next to me pushed me in. That should have been a warning about something, but I never figured out what.

My family tells me I attended Ridgecrest every year from birth forward. I even went to college nearby and enjoyed going by it regularly. I also went every time I could in adulthood.

I was 9 years old before I made it to New Mexico to the other major Baptist conference center known as Glorieta, which was 13 miles from Santa Fe. I made attendance there a regular habit.

These are but two of the church-related camps and conference centers I have loved during my life. I can recount numerous joyous experiences. How about you and the camps and conferences centers you love?

It is this emotional attachment to place, and the spiritual, inspirational, social, and even romantic experiences that happened at camps and conference centers that cause us to have an unreal attachment to them. Our judgment is often cloudy when it comes to truly understanding their worth and value, and what it takes for them to be vital and vibrant.

The church-related conference center I was most deeply with was the Hollifield Leadership Center in North Carolina. It was the dream of a great man and close friend in denominational work. He visualized a new dimension of leadership development taking place.

High quality things happened at Hollifield that included the food provided by a chef, the uncharacteristically comfortable and well-appointed sleeping rooms, and the groundbreaking Christian Leadership Coaching certification and the Sustaining Pastoral Excellence project we conducted there.

But it was a challenge. I left after five years when the management of the regional denomination shifted to a leadership group with a different perspective. In an exit interview the chairperson of the denominational board asked me, “Why did you ever allow a non-North Carolina Baptist to set foot on the grounds of Hollifield?”

In shock I answered, “Because their money spends real good! And, if you will look at the other two conference centers run by North Carolina Baptists you will discover that without non-Baptist fees they would have to close.” He showed a lack of knowledge about the economic realities of church-related camps and conference centers. Yet he was expressing a common emotion about “our” camps and conference centers.

The most significant challenge for church-related camps and conference centers are the emotional attachments people develop about experiences and relationships they associate with these places. These emotional attachments cause them to fail to objectively assess what is necessary to maintain the vitality and vibrancy of their beloved camp or conference center. It also keeps them from being willing to take strategic actions needed for the next phase of these sacred places of holy experiences.

Beyond the emotional attachment there must also be a clear realization of economic realities. There must be a business plan and an economic engine that drives the success and significance of these camps and conference centers. In too many situations this does not happen.

At times the organizations who own the camps or conference centers understand what needs to happen. When they take it to their board, or when their constituent groups discover big plans for change, the positive steps forward are not approved. The process of rejection continues until the only viable choices become selling the camp or conference center, or giving it to someone who can refocus it and move towards greater vitality and vibrancy.

The economic realities include that there are more camps, conference centers, college/university facilities, hotels, and other places for Christian groups to use than ever before. Additionally the money from sponsoring organizations to supplement the operation of camps and conference centers is drying up. Loyalty is diminishing. The necessary fees camps and conferences must charge have become tougher for church groups to pay during the past half-dozen years.

Other events now compete with those held at church and denominational camps and conference centers. People are going to these alternative events in increasing numbers.

Finally, the vision of the owners and operators of Christian camps and conference centers is too narrow. They need to not only see their facilities as a religious place, but as a leadership and education place with a Christian atmosphere. This latter vision would allow for the recruitment of a broader spectrum of meetings and events.

Alas! Goodbye, Hollifield Leadership Center and Glorieta Conference Center. Goodbye soon to Simpsonwood Conference Center in north Georgia and a host of others.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.