“Have you scrubbed out the inside of the garbage cans?”
“No…should I have?”
“I don’t know. Probably. Yes. Yes we should.”
With a deep sigh, I pushed myself up off the dock and began walking from the waterfront to the dining hall. It was my first summer working at a camp. For the most part, it had been a great experience. The kids were great. The programs were fun. Having the chance to lead worship each night was both challenging and rewarding.
But this week was different. This week Nancy was coming.
Nancy Deaner was the Coordinator for Camp & Retreat Ministries, which was an impressive title to me as a 20 year-old, but more important was the reputation that seemed to precede her. All of us new staff struggled to grasp the gravity of the situation. It seemed similar to the first day of middle school, when the older kids tell you a long list of inflated horror stories about your teachers, to try to get you to worry.
The same appeared true here. The returning staff told us how immaculate camp must be and how we were not to speak to Nancy unless directly asked a question. Better yet, find a task that took you out of the equation and removed you from her general proximity. It would likely be better to double check the air pressure in all the basketballs than to say something that would get us all fired.
So as I scrubbed out the last garbage can, I was both exhausted and afraid of what was to come. Was this lady really going to come in here and fire everyone? I really need this job. I’m a college student. I suppose I could eat ramen a little more often to make ends meet but…
It was in the midst of this inner debate that I was interrupted by a returning staffer who told me through gritted teeth, “Nancy is here. And she wants to meet with all of us.”
Here it comes. The end. My camp counseling life flashed before my eyes as I walked down the hill to the benches arranged by the waterfront.
I nervously sat down with the rest of the staff and was confused by what I saw. Here was Nancy. With a smile on her face, she warmly asked us how the summer was going. After some sharing of the best moments of our summers, she thanked us for the work we were doing and encouraged us to continue to do the same for the remainder of the summer.
And that was it. She walked the camp for a few hours taking pictures of the beautiful areas of camp; not pressing to find the areas of fault every camp has. She was interested in seeing all that we were doing right, and was eager to see the smiles on the campers’ faces.
Fast forward…a college degree, a marriage, and a kid later, I was now a Camp Manager. Once again I was set to work with Nancy Deaner, but this time she was my boss. Thankfully I now knew her heart for camp ministry. I had come to understand her desire to see these places become more than just tents and campfires, but thriving places apart where kids and adults could experience God’s love every day of every summer.
As I worked with Nancy for the next eight years, I began to respect and admire her dedication to this good work more and more. In retrospect, the moments I am most grateful for were not the seasons of abundance and excitement. Anyone can do well in those moments. I was thankful for Nancy most when times were difficult.
We have all had those moments. Something happens that shouldn’t. An accident that seems insurmountable in the moment. Or just a difficult decision that must be made to improve the long-term health of the ministry. I watched as Nancy faced them all with grace and level-headed reason. And in the cases when I was directly involved, I knew that no matter how panicked I was on my end of the telephone, Nancy would be calm and pragmatic on her end, and together we could we walk through the steps to rectify the situation. Were it not for her calming approach, I likely would have left this ministry many years ago.
And so when Nancy announced her retirement about a year ago, I was uneasy. What would happen the next time I needed to call her cell phone in the midst of a mess? What would happen when we gathered at a meeting and didn’t have her voice of reason? What would happen when she wasn’t there to steer this big ship and keep it from all the potential rocks lurking just below the surface?
As I thought about these questions more though, I realized the most important thing Nancy had done during her long time in Camp & Retreat Ministry. It wasn’t the kind smile she brought to camp in the midst of a stressful July. It wasn’t the countless unknown discussions she had as an advocate for the value of camp. It wasn’t even the willingness to try and make good of a difficult situation. The most valuable thing Nancy Deaner gave to me was a sense of ownership and confidence in ministry. As Nancy left at the end of this past June, I was not overwhelmed with the weight of her departure. Instead, I was confident in the knowledge that through the years she had not merely fixed problems, she had been educating and empowering me to fix them myself in the future.
Now that Nancy has been blessed with a well-deserved retirement, I hope she can bask in all the joys this new phase of life has to offer. But I also hope that when she looks back on her long career with the Wisconsin Annual Conference Camp & Retreat Ministry she can look back with that same warm smile I saw when I first met her so many years ago. Thanks for always being there and truly leading, Nancy. I’m thankful for all I learned under your leadership.
Nick Coenen has served as Camp Manager at Pine Lake United Methodist Camp in Westfield, Wisconsin since 2005. He met his wife Jamie at Pine Lake many years ago when she was a lifeguard and he was a volunteer counselor. They live the best life ever at camp with kids Leah, Micah, twins Sarah and Eli, and a new puppy.