Sunday, September 07, 2014

An Open Blog, Part 2

Health History of an Ailing System
In my previous blog post I promised a different post follow up than I'm going to offer.  My prayerful reflection informed me that a short history might help us understand how we got to where we are.  Continuing to resurrect the ghost of Epworth, let's start with the early symptoms of a sick system.  For years prior to the close of Epworth, deferred maintenance was the way of the old MO East Conference.  Funds for camps were not readily available, apportioned funds were not raised and capital campaigns were discouraged.  Lee Walz, former director of Camping and Retreats used to tell the story that he once had to tell Terry Mefford to spend some money on maintenance.  Terry had been told for so long not to spend money at Jo-Ota that he was afraid to pull out the wallet at all.  That was what Lee inherited from the former East Conference.  The West was in a little better shape but Galillee was well past salvage when Lee came on board in in the late nineties.

In 2003, the first year a combined budget for the conference was released (2002 Journal) the total budget from apportionments was just shy of $1,000,000.  $150,000 was designated for capital expense.  That's about the cost of building one new cabin or renovating a couple of buildings.  The four sites have a combined 40 buildings.  As you can imagine, that money was coveted by each site director.
The 2014 budget for spending on camps was $500,000 less.  That's not completely fair because in 2008 something happened that represented a radical change in management of our camps.  I can't share this without some strong emotions, I'll try, but I won't succeed.  It was at the last meeting that Jerry Akins was the president of the board, he was turning over that responsibility to me.  Representatives from the conference office came to our meeting and asked if we wouldn't mind making a change in the way accounting was done.  Would we move some line items around so that the Director of Camping and the camp office administrative staff would fall under the the conference office staff instead of under the camping and retreat lines of the conference budget.  That seemed innocent enough to all of us but Jerry.  In hindsight, I wish we would have let Jerry convince us of his concerns, but he was willing to let this new board over rule him without a bitter fight.  With that vote the salaries of the director, 2 full time and one part time administrative person (only one position was filled as we were seeking to save funds, however all the funds necessary for the 2 1/2 positions were transferred) and the salaries of the site directors were moved to the conference, preserving health insurance for the site directors as they became employees of the conference and not Camping and Retreat Ministries.
Shortly after that meeting two events took place that placed camping on hold.  Lee Walz had a heart attack and Tammy Calcoate went on maternity leave.  Tammy returned after her leave (8 weeks?) only to find that she had been transferred out of camping and would now work for the office of Congregational Development, leaving camping still without any staff.  (It is my opinion that Tammy was, and is, the best and brightest of the administrative staff in that office, it's no wonder she was stolen away.)  Lee returned about a month later to limited access to administrative staff.  When he finally got someone designated to the work of the camp office it was a half time assignment.  Brenda, also had other responsibilities in the office that overwhelmed her to the point that we rarely got half of her time.
Having effectively crippled the camp office's work by allowing it to lie fallow the whole time Lee was gone, the camp board was also surprised by another revelation.  As we were no longer the employers of our staff, we were therefore not the managers either.  In other words, we had the legal, fiduciary responsibility for the property we owned (we were a non-profit, separately incorporated body in the state of Missouri) but we had no ability to manage the staff that managed our property.  To a person, those on the board at the time of that vote had no idea that we were voting to neuter our ability to make the much needed changes we knew had to come.  Many of us came away from this experience believing we were deceived by those who spoke to us from the conference office.  We felt we were miss-led to believe it was only an accounting adjustment, not a managerial shift.  (We knew there would be a shift in the administrative staff.  We were entering into this with the spirit that, when the camping office is slow, let's share our staff with the other conference needs.  And when we were busy, we would be reinforced by other conference staff.  That never happened.)
You would have to ask Lee Walz about the rest of this.  I don't want to speak for him, but my experience of Lee as he returned was that he was afraid to make any decisions.  The board would make a plan, and he'd have to have it cleared.  Instead of being a time to catalyze change, no changes were allowed.  It seemed a season of foot dragging.
In the midst of this inaction, camping was experiencing a constant decline in our budget.  The board would propose increases to cover much needed repairs and program expansion and the response would be a decrease.  At the same time, we were discouraged from proposing increases in camper fees.  We certainly wanted to hold the line, but costs to operate camps were ever increasing and conference support was decreasing.  When the idea of securing funds through an ongoing pledge campaign was discouraged.  I recall Lee saying that there were people who felt that would cause issues with the churches whose membership would be asked to contribute to camp operations, after all, they already paid apportionments.  With hands tied we did what we could.
Let's be clear, there is a cost to maintaining property and ministry.  If churches don't pay their apportionments, healthier churches have to step up.  Those healthier churches don't appreciate when their apportionments grow.  At the same time, camper fee increases were constantly attacked, sometimes by people in churches that weren't paying apportionments  That was frustrating.  I'm not sure where people thought the cost of camp operations were going to be covered. I suggest that the downward pressure on apportionments and camp fees is a theology of scarcity in Missouri Methodism.  A theology of scarcity is not Christian, it's not an acceptable theology, and yet it is the source of so many of our decisions we make in our conference.
I think the decision that was made to shutter our site ministries is based upon this theology of scarcity.  I don't blame them for making this decision.  It seems like a logical decision based upon the fact that camps are losing money.  But to tell the truth, they're not losing money, they are improperly funded.  15 years or more of increased costs, downward pressure from apportionments and demands to hold the line on camp fees have necessitated deferred maintenance and limited the possibility of making the changes necessary to face future generations.
What I've written also suggests additional ailments in the system, but for now I'll leave it to camping and retreat ministry.
Next time I'll write on my previously promoted topic, Figures Lie and Liars Figure.


Anonymous said...

I appreciate the history amd the facts that are presented in this blog post.

People seldom don't realize the correlation between higher grocery prices for your family means higher grocery prices for businesses too. You can't maintain a house, a business, a church or a campsite(s) that are subject to wear & tear without spending money.

Also, we must pray that God is at work in all of these decisions. We must trust the fact that God is preparing a way for our future. A future to prosper us, not to harm us as long as we are seeking Him with all our heart.
Rebecca McFarland

Jerry Akins said...

Thanks, David, for stepping up and giving us your perspective on this recent decision. I agree totally with this historical review. While the news release stated that camping is losing money, I question the significance of $48,000 in comparison to the value of the ministry of making disciples for Jesus. I remain convinced that Camping and Retreat Ministries is the most cost effective and fruitful program of the Missouri Annual Conference. Jerry Akins, Former Chair, Camp Trustees

Tom Lemons said...

I am still trying to discern whether I agree or disagree with the decisions made by the Camping Board.

However, I am writing because I am concerned with the manner in which the decisions were handled. Several other people have expressed this same concern.

Without any foreknowledge that this was being studied or considered, the decision undermines the confidence and good-will that existed between the Conference Administration (Boards and Cabinet) and some of the lower levels of the Conference (pastors and church members).

It has the appearance of being handled “under the table,” “with a heavy hand,” and “being done in secret.”

I have been taught it is better to “pave your way with words” and “inform before you perform.”

A better way to have handled this would be to have explained what was being considered and why and then to have allowed input (such as at the next Annual Conference). Yes, this would have possibly caused the Camping and Retreat program to continue one more year of operating expenses at a deficit, but “good-will” would not have been sacrificed to the same extent.

Could the Bishop, Cabinet, and Conference Board immediately reverse and postpone the decision?

What is required to call an emergency meeting of the Annual Conference?

Thanks for listening,
Tom Lemons

Pastor Dave said...

Tom, in my estimation, this was the only method that could have been used in a productive way. The level of emotions and rancorous debate that we currently have would have dragged this decision on for quite a few years. It would have gotten quite ugly (I was around for the Epworth debates and that was only one site.) If this is the conclusion of a study of the committee, and though that study wasn't done with full knowledge of the possible conclusion by those who were interviewed, there really is no good way to approach it. Pull the trigger and get it over with, deal with fall out but move forward. As opposed to months of debate with people of high emotion and low information. While I don't like the way it was done, I concede it was done the right way and history will bear that out (after the grief moves from anger to acceptance.)

Jerry Akins, Former Chair Camp Trustees said...

This time I don't agree with you that the process used was the right one. (sorry!) I, too, well remember how as Trustees we made the Epworth decision. Our open process of allowing Epworth stakeholders to share their views diffused much of the potential anger and dissention.

The process used for this decision only magnified the hurt and anger and, additionally, created mistrust of Conference leadership and circumvented the whole Annual Conference process.

The Epworth decision did not change camping and retreat ministry. This issue at hand deletes major camping and retreat programs. I firmly believe that the decision should be addressed on the annual conference floor, not behind doors.

Thanks, David, for providing this forum for dialoguing. Brings back old memories. I look forward to blogging soon on the decision itself. Jerry

Pastor Dave said...

Jerry, the difference as I see it is that the Epworth decision didn't eliminate camping ministry from an area. Most event groups translated from one site to the other without abandoning a ministry concept. A viable alternative within a 8 miles (as the crow flies). In this case it's an abandonment of an entire concept of ministry.

Jerry Akins, Former Chair, Camp Trustees said...

Yep, I think we are in total agreement on what this decision has done--eliminate an entire ministry. My point exactly!

Any ideas on how we maintain this ministry?

Anonymous said...

So in short, the camping ministries was a wound that could of been cauterized years ago, but was left to ultimately bleed out. In lieu of sale of the properties, the conference and districts are in line for financial gains. No matter how you spin it, this screams bad business.

Anonymous said...

I am appalled at the way the "Christian" leaders at the top of our Methodist organization think they can treat people who have dedicated their life to this ministry! The way this was done is in no way acceptable! I am disgusted! Let the peoples voices be heard, I didn't know our apportionments were to support a dictatorship!

Anonymous said...

I must admit, I have grown weary of the discussions. The back and forth. I never was one for debate being the middle child. My first avenue has been, how can I love more like CHRIST, and how can I share it for all to see? My second avenue was to find every way to peace that I could. One of the reasons why I liked track & field so much was because my only real opponent was myself...everybody else was a friend. I was also tentative to write tonight. The stress alone from this situation has caused even more hair to fall out from what little I have left. Perhaps I will be as Elisha and Heaven help anyone who crosses me. (2 Kings 2 - Beware of bears kids). But nonetheless, as I took my dogs out for their late walk I was in awe of GOD's creation. The brightest moon of the year has lit the camp up like 12 noon on a cloudy day. The air is crisping up as it does in early autumn (minus the far off scent of a lingering skunk as I passed behind Whitener Lodge). I heard the calls of some great horned owls and enjoyed the fact that I could walk around without a headlamp. My awe was not for the campsite, my awe is for GOD. HE is everywhere (If we have an eye for HIM). A peace came over me, as it usually does on a walk, and GOD asked me to write when I returned back to the house. The first thing that opened up was this blog, and I began to read things that were new to me (not an unusual occurrence). Some writings seemed informative, others surprising, and many coming from those not as directly involved in the current issue as I am. As far as we are concerned, we took a camp that was in a deficit, and within months turned it around. By the end of 2012 after having been in place for one year, we had a surplus of over $60,000 in the camp bank account (Notice I said 'camp bank account'). We could have easily have increased upon that the next year, but we chose to purchase some things to bolster our programs, and replace failing,aged equipment, offer health insurance to our employees (Only Christina was covered by Conference), and fix up some needed repairs to the facilities. So, by the end of 2013 we operated our camp bank account once again with a surplus, though not as much as the year before. -Erik (part I)

Anonymous said...

We had high hopes going into our 3rd year (I am also a hopeless optimistic). We were given funds in a different manner under a different system, and were able to be more prepared for camp than we had before. We spent some on finishing the bottom of the Dining Hall, a new lake toy, a much needed new lawn mower, and countless other fixes. We did not charge more for campers again, and even our highest camp monetarily was $375 (still below the national average). We also provided more in camper scholarships than our previous years combined. Our goal was to eventually get to the point where we had $20,000 set aside for camperships annually through fund raisers. I came from a rural VA area, and a rural VA camp. There we had 60% of campers on full scholarships. The philosophy was to never allow anyone the excuse to not be at camp due to financial reasons. We should end our tenure here in 2014 with similar numbers to our 2012 year (though we no longer have a camp bank account). Every year we have been here, we have been the largest single donor to the site. Our tithes and our offerings went to the camp. While some did not agree to how we upheld the rules and regulations here, we did not put the camp in financial jeopardy. This is the first time I have felt that I should in some way defend myself in any way in any church position I have ever held. I also do not feel like I have spoken ill of anyone here. Only answering for my own actions, which are transparent for any who would want to know. I grew up in a UMC and could always see how much everyone in the church was making, and what the budget was. There was accountability. I made this mention several times to our site committee, and made known the numbers readily. I personally loathe money. I grew up in a home where it was the cause of weekly arguments and shouting matches and provided a large factor for my parents' divorce. I have managed it, been frugal with it, spent it, and worked very hard for it. I took a substantial pay decrease taking this very position. Money is not why I came on board here. For me, it is just a tool. Nothing more, nothing less. (And I'd rather have a good working chainsaw than a wallet full of cash any day). For those of us who loathe money, and adore GOD, it seems awfully silly to watch so many wriggle around due to the stuff. Perhaps that is one thing I will be happy most about in Heaven - its absence. -Erik (part II)

Connie Lasher said...

What is the Conference's proposal for the existing land on which the camps are located? Have they also already entered into Sales Agreements which no one is aware of? #SaveMOUMcamps

Anonymous said...

Thanks Erik for your insight. My son, Willie, has always loved Blue Mountain. It will always hold a special place in his heart. Therefore, it is special to me too. I will continue with prayers.
Rebecca McFarland

Dave is the Lead Pastor at...
New McKendree United Methodist Church
225 S. High St., Jackson, MO 63755
Saturday Worship 5:00 pm, Sunday 9:00 am at High St. Campus 11:00 am at South Campus (1775 S. Hope St.)