Tell us about your call into ministry?
I grew up in Southern Illinois in a small church, where sometimes there was a youth group of one. I was born with mouth deformities that caused a speech impediment. I didn’t talk at all in school unless called upon, and kids would laugh at me. But because I was the kid who was most often at youth group, I was the obvious, though reluctant, choice when it came time to elect the president. One of the responsibilities of the youth group president in that little church was that they would be the liturgist when the pastor was gone. When I was a high school senior, Annual conference Sunday came and we had a guest preacher. I got up and read the liturgy, but when I sat back down the sermon I heard was not the sermon everyone else heard. Through that guest pastor God was telling me I needed to go into the ministry. I had very clear college plans to major in Math, with the goal for a career as statistician for the Saint Louis Cardinals. So this would require some significant changes. I told God I needed a sign, and quick. There was a sometimes-homeless guy, Arnie, who came to our church. He sat in the very back pew, came late and left early so he wouldn’t have to interact. That day Arnie was the last one to leave after the service. He walked up to me, shook my hand, and said, “I don’t know why, but I need to tell you one day you’ll be up there preaching.” I said, “Okay, God!”, changed my plans, and followed that call.
I started out serving several churches in Southern Illinois. I experienced a burning need to do youth and camping ministry. I told my superiors about this call, but they seemed not to take me very seriously. I applied for a couple of positions but for a year was always turned down. Then I ran across an article about “How to Write a Resume,” and that’s what really made the difference.
(Laughing) What did you change on your resume?
I was more positive about my abilities, and more specific about what I thought I could offer to camping and youth ministry.
Had you been involved with Camping up until that point?
Oh yes. I grew up going to camp at Little Grassy and Eldorado Beulah Institute. My brother was 10 years older than me. My parents took him and our church youth to Eldorado Institute and toted me along even though I wasn’t old enough to be there. Later I became a youth leader at Little Grassy, and then when I was serving churches I always brought them to camp, led retreats, did a lot of programs at camp.
When a Conference Camping position opened up in North Dakota Conference my bishop granted me permission to apply outside of our annual conference. I was one of the final two candidates, but in the end they went with the North Dakotan and I didn’t get the job. But they saw my gifts and experience, and mentioned that their sister conference in South Dakota (this was before the two merged) was looking for a Director of Camping & Youth Ministries, and offered to recommend me. I ended up serving in South Dakota Conference from 1983-1996. About 6 years in, the two Annual Conferences merged, and I was the only conference staff that didn’t have to reapply for their job. In fact, I was asked to merge the two youth ministries first, to prove that it could be done and kind of pave the way.
I moved into the Conference Camping Director position in Oklahoma in 1996 and have been there ever since.
What significant changes have you seen over the years in this ministry?
Well, the most obvious one is the use of computers. That has really streamlined registration. It used to be that we had multiple handwritten forms with carbon paper. We thought we were really advanced when we started using NCR (no carbon required) paper to make our duplicate copies. I remember carrying my first portable computer, not a laptop, to camp. It was bigger than today’s towers and had a 5-inch-square screen.
Camping curriculum has improved over the years as well. I have written a lot of curriculum here in Oklahoma, and also for the National Council of Churches 5 or 6 times over the years. I learned to write for the novice camp leaders, since they are the ones who really rely on the details of the written curriculum. Once the leaders have more experience then they’re freer to improvise. A good first leadership experience will help those novice people want to come back.
You also served on the National Camp & Retreat Committee, right?
Yes, it maybe was 1992-96. It was a great honor to be chosen; that they thought I had enough knowledge to offer on the national level. Being involved in the national event really helped me improve things back in my own conference, and helped me build relationships with other leaders in camping ministry, and to know people I could call for advice.
The things we’ve been doing with the UMCRM Association recently have been really helpful to those in the trenches. The email network, the mutual support, the weekly newsletter are really valuable. Because I was one of the first ones to go through it, I’ve been asked for advice on conference mergers; and I’ve been glad to offer my help in that way.
Something I’m proud of is that over the course of 32 years I started about 32 new events, some of which are still going on or have even expanded. In the Dakotas I helped start our Tree House Camp in the 80’s. In both places we started offering Sunshine Camp for 1st & 2nd graders, including adult shepherds from the churches. It was a great first experience for the little ones, with just one overnight and a learning centers model. Those programs helped our camper retention rate stay high, as the kids felt comfortable at camp and just kept coming back. We built ropes courses at several sites, tried a lot of new things. Here in Oklahoma we’ve been hosting Camp Cabot, an interdenominational partnership with Children’s Hospital, since about 1998, serving children with terminal and debilitating illnesses. That has grown and multiplied over the years. We even have a Cabot Kids Foundation now for ongoing funding. They’re offering a variety of specialty medical camps at multiple sites; it’s taken on a life of its own. It was the dream of a large, overweight military vet, a rude, ornery person, but he really had a soft spot for kids with challenges. I think he raised so much money because the wealthy people he asked just wanted to get him to go away.
Describe your greatest blessings in this work.
Few people have touched the number of lives with the word and love of God as I have been able to do through camping. When you host 20 thousand people every year, that adds up to making a difference in a lot of lives. I just enjoy seeing God work in the lives of the campers and leaders who come. One fine example is Josh Pulver who is now the Director at Camp Egan. He started out as a camper, then served on the conference youth council, then summer camp staff. It was a blessing to hire him as a friend and co-worker.
What are some important things you’ve learned that you would like to pass along to other camp & retreat leaders?
Flexibility. You can have everything planned out, and something’s going to happen. I had to overcome lots of things. One year we had a flood and the camp road was under water (literally!) 40 days and 40 nights. We had to move events to other sites, stack multiple events, take a hit financially. At the end of that summer another site, Canyon Camp, flooded, and there was a foot or two of water in the cabins. You have to be flexible to handle whatever life throws at you. We always made it through.
Keep ministry in mind first, even in the midst of broken water pipes, cleaning toilets. Even the little things are part of doing the ministry, and every person is a part of it. Always care about the campers, they’re the reason you do it.
One of the things camps bring to the church is a sense of fun. Our Annual Conference moved to video reports rather than people so they could better manage the time limitations. I got tired of videos of talking heads, so we started doing funny, creative videos. One year we struggled with a frozen pipe that burst in one of the lodges and required major repairs; that same your we also had an extremely hot summer with 45 straight days over 100 degrees, then a flood at another of our sites. In our video that year I started out with 3 coats on, shivering; in the next scene I was dripping with water, then we went to the canoe with a paddle.
Another time we did the “OK UM Camp Show,” like the Tonight Show. We interviewed campers, did the Carnac the Magnificent thing (like the Johnny Carson sketch), with a big hat and an envelope with question that they would answer with facts about the camps. This year we did a zombie theme, about how they were changed into real people because of the love of God at camp. It’s on our website: Don’t let your kids suffer from “Boredus Homealonus Zombietus this summer! Watch this video for the solution to this problem.
I understand that you’re headed for parish ministry now. Tell us about how the Lord is leading you in the next phase of your journey.
When I followed the call into camps in South Dakota, I told God, “I will do this as long as I am making a difference, and should this become long-term, I would like to end the way I’m starting, in the local church.” As I turn 60 I realize I need to make that transition soon so I’ll have time to make a difference in the local church. I have been appointed Pastor at Lakeside UMC in Oklahoma City, which is great because we can stay in our home, and my wife will remain Head Counselor at Capitol Hill High School.
I’m looking forward to relationships evolving in the local church, having the same people to serve each week. This will be my first summer “off” in 32 years, so I’m looking forward to Fathers’ Day and my birthday, July 7th, at home.
I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Camps have helped me through tough times, divorce and remarriage, blended families, my wife Rhonda’s military deployments to Bosnia and Iraq when I took care of the kids and brought them with me to camp. I am really grateful for my years in camp ministry.