Shelby Dyer started attending a summer church camp near Lawson, Mo., at age 10. Eventually she became a camp counselor. Later she signed on to run the camp’s summer programs.
But now, at age 22, her dream of being married there has been dashed.
United Methodist Church leaders recently announced they are closing the Wilderness Retreat and Development Center, as well as three other camps the denomination operated in Missouri. Together, the camps served about 2,000 children this summer.
“I’ve wanted to get married at Wilderness since I was 11,” Dyer said. “I have a boyfriend I want to marry, and now they’re taking away my camp.”
The announcement by the church’s Camping and Retreat Board sparked an instant social media campaign — complete with hashtags, blogs, online petitions and more than 2,000 Facebook likes — in an effort to roll back the decision.
The discussion in the Kansas City area has been particularly lively because of its proximity to Wilderness, which hosted more than 600 children at summer camp this year, said D. Garrett Drake, a clergyman and conference staff member who advises the camping board.
But economics and the board’s desire to better use scarce resources make large changes in the decision unlikely, Drake said. Only about 20 percent of more than 850 Methodist churches in the Missouri conference sent children to camp last summer, Drake said.
“This is a very large infrastructure, and it takes an incredible amount of resources to maintain,” he said.
The camps also would require more than $2.6 million in improvements over the next several years, the church noted, though opponents of the closings dispute that figure.
Methodists in Minnesota have dealt with similar questions. The weekend before the Missouri camping board made its decision public last month, Minnesota Methodists officially closed a camp that had served churches for 57 years. They cited declining participation and mounting deficits.
Keeping religiously affiliated camps open is more of a problem for some faiths than others, one expert said.
With membership in mainline Protestant denominations in general decline, churches must be nimble and adaptive with their summer camp experiences, said Paul Hill, a Lutheran pastor who studies church camping across the country.
The key to success, he said, is to make certain that kids who have a powerful summer camp experience are supported and nurtured when they return home.
“The leaders do not get this,” Hill said. “If they send their kids and families to camp and then build reinforcing experiences around the church, they’ve got the golden ticket. But if they don’t get that, it’s a travesty.”
Conservative evangelical Christians and Jewish congregations understand that, he said.
Gregg Hunter, president of the Christian Camp and Conference Association in Colorado Springs, Colo., said his 850-camp organization has seen strong growth in recent years, which he attributed to an improving economy.
In the last nine years, nine new camps have joined the network of more than 155 camps served by the Foundation for Jewish Camp, said Avi Orlow, the group’s education director. The camps generally report a 3 percent to 5 percent growth in enrollment every year, he said.
Faith leaders from all traditions should be very reluctant to close overnight summer camps, said Jerry Kaye, who directs a Reform Judaism camp in Oconomowoc, Wis.
Missouri Methodist leaders say they’re not abandoning camping, just trying to find a way to nurture those same experiences without running up annual deficits that could have exceeded $175,000 in a couple of years.
The board is exploring whether it can use state parks, national forests and other locations to bring more children to the same experience of crafts, campfires and religious education now provided at the conference’s camps. They also hope to have some camps at Central Methodist University in Fayette, Mo., and support a series of mobile day camps, Drake said.
Those all are fine ideas, said Brittanee Jacobs, a former Wilderness employee who has led the social media campaign to change the board’s decision.
“These plans and ideas are a good addition, but not a good replacement for the camps,” Jacobs said. “This is a fruitful ministry.”
In a news release issued recently, the camping board apologized for not communicating well and for catching people by surprise.
Board members also appeared to be backing away from earlier plans to seek permission from a meeting of church leaders next year to sell all four camps. In its statement, the board spoke only of the “sale of one or more of our properties.”
However many properties the church decides to keep, its members will have to recognize that they will have to pay more for maintenance and upkeep, Drake said.
“It’s not just about finances,” he said. “It’s about how we best resource our churches to serve the next generation.”
Camps marked for closure
▪ Wilderness Retreat and Development Center, Lawson, Mo.
▪ Camp Jo-Ota Camping and Retreat Center, Clarence, Mo.
▪ Galilee Summer Camp and Retreat Center, El Dorado Springs, Mo.
▪ Blue Mountain Methodist Camp and United Methodist Center, Fredericktown, Mo.