By: Victoria Rebeck
Driving in to Camp Kingswood in Mound, Rev. Linda Gesling would find herself leaving the stress of the workaday world and entering into a sacred space of retreat in God’s creation.
“The power of nature ministered my spirit just by my being there,” says Gesling, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Stillwater.
Several Camp Kingswood fans gathered on Oct. 7 to say good-bye to the site where they reacquainted themselves with God and grew closer to other Christians. The site goes out of business at the end of this year and is preparing to be sold.
After a number of years of growth in the early 2000s, the Minnesota Conference camping ministry began to experience a decline of campers and a resulting accumulated budget deficit of $900,000. Conference session members in May agreed to a plan to focus the ministry on reaching youth and children through residential camps and to decrease expenses by reducing the number of campgrounds to those best suited for children’s and youth ministry.
Northern Pines (Park Rapids) and Koronis Ministries (Paynesville) were identified by an independent consultant as those best suited for youth residential camps. Offerings at Decision Hills (Spicer) were suspended a year ago. Star Lake Wilderness Campground (Pequot Lakes) is being leased to an independent group. Kingswood is will be offered for sale. Proceeds will be reinvested in the camping ministry and decrease its current indebtedness.
Though Kingswood is being released, United Methodists across the conference are grateful for how lives have been transformed there. The 127-acre camp, established in 1947 and built by many volunteers, consists of a tamarack bog, a 25-acre prairie, and Little Long Lake—“one of the cleanest lakes in the county,” according to director Paul Harcey. Campers could use cabins, lodges, the dining hall, an outdoor amphitheater; and a ropes course.
“They’ve really maximized what they’ve had there,” Gesling says. “There are a variety of things you can do there, different kinds of worship spaces—and everyone from my church has been impressed with how good the food is.”
The Stillwater church has held retreats there for confirmands, men’s groups, even church-wide gatherings.
“It’s a reasonable drive for us—just a little over an hour,” Gesling says. “That is a big part of its appeal.”
Rev. Matt Sipe, pastor of Delano United Methodist Church, encouraged his congregation to make use of the property that is practically in their backyard.
“Before I got here, Delano United Methodist Church mostly used non-United Methodist facilities,” he says.
“It’s been nice to have a place to go on overnight retreat that was only 15 minutes from the church,” he says. “The natural beauty of Kingswood was its main attraction. We enjoyed the lake and hiking through the woods.”
“I remember laughing and smiles constantly,” Bethany Richards, 26, daughter of Rev. Steve Richards (Messiah United Methodist Church, Plymouth), said in recollections she wrote for her father, who led day camps at Kingswood. “At the end of the day, we would sit down with everybody at camp and sing and share the lesson of the day, whether it was scripture or a story. And always end each day riding home in a big van, tired and excited to go back the next day.”
While many churches and conference ministries held retreats and camps at the site, Kingswood offered its own programming to the general public. One of the most successful has been Servant Heart Ministries.
“It’s a mission/destination outfitter ministry,” explains Harcey, who has directed the campground since 2000. “Groups from Minnesota and ten states are taking part this year alone.”
Servant Hearts plans and staffs mission experiences for youth from two to four churches. They will also customize trips for churches.
“We are a one-stop mission experience,” Harcey says. “We take care of devotions, evening team-building activities, worship, free-day activities, lodging, meals, tools, and projects.”
Servant Hearts organized volunteers to provide the elbow grease that churches need for floor-tiling or landscaping projects. They’ve also set volunteers up to help Feed my Starving Children, Second Harvest food bank, and thrift stores gather and organize their goods for those in need.
A homeowner in need—maybe due to advanced age, health limitations, and other economic-related burdens—may find a Servant Hearts group will help them with yard work, gardening, fencing, painting, cleaning, deck repair, window-screen replacement. Churches and neighborhood organizations recommend homeowners who need help but cannot pay for it.
The Urban Servants department served people in the Twin Cities area and housed volunteers at Kingswood.
“Some projects have more of a rural feel,” Harcey says. “This year we sent 340 mission participants, in partnership with the Dakotas Conference, to help with flood recovery in Minot, N.D.
“We have had people interested in Cedar Rapids flood relief, Wadena tornado recovery, Rushford flood relief,” Harcey says. Servant-campers may lodge in other campsites, churches, or schools, depending on what is available.
“We handle those details so group leaders don’t have to worry about that,” Harcey says. “They can instead focus on building relationships with the youth participants,”
Harcey expects this successful ministry will continue in a more “mobile” format after Kingswood closes.
The last events of Camp Kingswood will be the Christmas teas of Dec. 6 and 7. These will provide people another opportunity to remember the ministries of the camp.
“To find peace and God and learn about yourself and nature. Children are a trust from the Lord. That’s why there were day camps at Kingswood summer after summer,” Rev. Richards says. “May that be the legacy that remains in the lives of all the children who spent part of their summer at Kingswood.”
Victoria Rebeck is director of communication for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church