Strategic moves position Camp Minnesota for long-term viability

March 13, 2014

By: Christa Meland

The Minnesota Conference’s camping and retreat ministries are undergoing some shifts that are positioning them for long-term success.

The shifts are based on four recommendations provided by Kaleidoscope, Inc., a nationally recognized camp consultant that the conference’s Camp and Retreats Board (CRB) hired last year to study camp properties and suggest key moves to position them for growth and financial stability well into the future.

“Camping is a huge opportunity for discipleship-building within the Minnesota Annual Conference,” said Steve Knight, chair of the CRB. “What we hope to do is provide an opportunity for people to get away from their day-to-day world to focus on God and their faith and to understand what it means to be a Christian in today’s world. Our vision is that we’ll continue to do that.”

Growing existing camps

One Kaleidoscope recommendation was to make Northern Pines Camp, which already welcomes hundreds of children each summer, the primary site for the conference’s youth camping ministry—and the CRB affirmed that suggestion. The camp, located in Park Rapids, sits on a quiet lake in the north woods. Many recent upgrades have been made to its facilities, and there’s room to grow through the construction of new ones later on.

Kaleidoscope also recommended a shift that affects two other camps: Camp Koronis in Paynesville, primarily a residential youth camp, and Camp Kowakan near Ely, which hosts and outfits groups exploring the Boundary Waters. Both camps used to independently schedule groups to use their facilities, and in a given summer, they would have a mixture of staff-led youth camps and groups that planned their own activities but rented physical space or equipment. Kaleidoscope stressed the importance of positioning the camps for long-term financial self-sustainability, and in response, the CRB aligned Kowakan and Koronis programs so that they can more efficiently share resources.

Going forward, Koronis will host youth camps during the first half of the summer while Kowakan welcomes groups wanting to take advantage of Kowakan’s guide services, use its base camp, or rent equipment. Then for the second half of the summer, Koronis will host groups wanting to rent its space and Kowakan will offer youth camps. The same staff will serve both—so counselors leading children will start the summer at Koronis and then move to Kowakan.

This alignment will significantly reduce costs for both camps. Historically, the Minnesota Conference has subsidized costs for Koronis and Kowakan, but under this new plan, the goal is for each of them to become financially self-sustaining starting this summer.

In addition to making some shifts to camp resources and staff time, the conference’s camps are also investing in equipment and programs to ensure that Northern Pines, Koronis, and Kowakan keep up with the latest camp trends and remain relevant to campers. For example, Northern Pines will begin offering archery this summer, and wakeboards and paddleboards will be added to its waterfront equipment.  Additionally, before each camper returns home, he or she will receive a DVD containing photos depicting his or her time at camp. Meanwhile, Koronis is adding an inflatable water-activities station to its waterfront.

Divesting of Decision Hills

Kaleidoscope also recommended that the CRB divest of Decision Hills Camp in Spicer, where youth programming has been suspended for more than two years. Before it suspended operations, Decision Hills was seeing a steady decline in participation, a large amount of required maintenance and upkeep, and a mounting deficit. Kaleidoscope determined that even if Decision Hills experienced 15 percent annual growth in participation (an ambitious growth rate for any residential camping program) and applied steady rate increases over each of the next five years, the camp still wouldn’t be financially self-sustaining.

Additionally, most of the structures at the camp are in need of significant repair or complete demolition—and it would cost an estimated $8 million to $10 million to make the site useable.

Earlier this year, the CRB made the difficult decision to move forward with Kaleidoscope’s recommendation and voted to sell Decision Hills. The Minnesota Conference’s Board of Trustees, which oversees conference property and facilities, will soon discuss how to move forward with a sale. The sale process could take months or even years.

Selling Decision Hills has been a possibility for several years. Members of the 2012 annual conference session gave the conference’s Board of Trustees authorization to divest of Decision Hills in accordance with long-range goals and objectives for the camping ministry.

“Each one of us has a holy place where we’ve sensed God’s call in our lives and hearts in deep and meaningful ways,” said Minnesota Conference Director of Camping Keith Shew. “Our campsites have been, and continue to be, holy places for many, including generations of conference leadership, campers, staff, and families. It’s painful to say goodbye to this place, but this move puts the camping ministry on a path to become a viable, vital, and sustainable ministry. It allows camping to focus its energy and resources on the best it has to offer: Northern Pines, Koronis and Kowakan.”

Camp staff has already started planning a late-summer celebration of ministry gathering at Decision Hills, which will provide an opportunity for former campers and leaders to reminisce and say goodbye to a place that will forever remain a part of their faith journey. Details about that event, which will be open to all and include a worship service, will be shared in the coming months.

“So much great ministry has taken place at that site, and we have so much attachment to that site,” said Steve Knight, chair of the CRB. “But we need to position ourselves to be economically viable and a strong ministry for the next 50 years, and that’s what we’re trying to do. We live in a world where we can’t look backward; we have to look forward.”

Other shifts in camping and retreats

Last June, the conference closed on a $2.25 million sale of Camp Kingswood to the Three Rivers Park District.

Then in September, the CRB made the difficult decision to pause Servant Heart Ministries, which offered short-term mission trips. Ceasing operations of Servant Hearts was the fourth and final recommendation of Kaleidoscope, which found that the program was diffusing staff time and resources rather than focusing them on the offerings that were most effective—the residential camps. 

The conference also owns Star Lake Wilderness Camp in Pequot Lakes, which has been leased to an independent wilderness camping organization.

Christa Meland is director of communications for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church

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