Sad news

Yesterday we learned from a Facebook post that the Board of Directors of the Montana Northern Wyoming Conference of the United Church of Christ have decided that this summer will be the last of active programming at Camp Mimanagish. The announcement didn’t come as a total surprise. We have known for some time that the camp was struggling to find sufficient volunteers, funds and participants for its programs. We follow the camp through several different channels, including social media, Conference newsletter and personal contacts.

We have a close tie to the camp. I first attended the camp when I was just a couple of months old. My mother was serving as camp nurse for a week of family camp. The camp had to have a medical professional at each session because it is locate in an isolated canyon deep in the mountains. The road to the camp is gravel and dirt for the last 30 miles and there was no phone service at camp until the 1980’s.

After that first experience with camp, I never missed a summer, attending camp there every year for the next quarter of a century. My wife and I first met at Camp Mimanagish. During the summers of 1975 ad 1976 we were managers of the camp. Those were the last two summers that the old Half Moon Dining Hall was in use. I directed and helped with the laying of the foundation and initial construction of the new dining hall and returned with a work camp of teens from North Dakota to assist with the demolition of the old dining hall.

We could see signs that the camp was experiencing troubles when we visited last summer as part of our sabbatical, which involved returning to previous places of ministry and visiting with mentors and others who had helped us form our ministry.

Closing the camp will be a difficult process for the Conference and I don’t know all of the details that are involved. The land upon which the camp is located belongs to the U.S. Forest Service and the camp has been operated under a long term lease since it was founded. In addition to the large dining hall, there are several other buildings including a lodge, a chapel, a residence for the manager, a shower house, and six or seven cabins for campers. One of the cabins that was in use during our time was destroyed in a huge wind storm a few years ago and not replaced. The cabins range from 2x4 construction with rough interiors to full log buildings. The camp has a deep well and a good water source and a large septic system. I don’t know the details of who will become responsible for the buildings if the lease is terminated. I assume that the ownership reverts to the Forest Service and that the Forest Service may have some use for at least some of the buildings. Others, I am sure will be torn down or allowed to deteriorate slowly over time.

I am sure that the decision was very difficult for the board. There are a lot of memories at that camp. It has been one of the central ministries of the conference for as long as people can remember. On the other hand, the operation of the camp was costing money that the Conference simply doesn’t have. They could not afford the annual operating deficits and a solution had to be found. It isn’t that they wanted to close the camp. It is that they could not find a way to keep it open.

The news is very sad for us and for many others whose lives were touched by their experiences at church camp.

It is part of a continuing trend in the United Church of Christ. Earlier this spring, I learned of the decision of the Minnesota Conference to sell one of its camp sites. We watched from the outside several years ago when the Northern Plains Conference made the decision to sell its camp, a place where we had taken our family and members of the congregations we served in North Dakota.

The decline in mainline congregations and in the ministries of congregations and conferences is visible and impossible to ignore. Membership is down. Giving is down. Programs are reduced. I’ve been in conversation with some who say that the church is aging out. As older members pass on, they aren’t being replaced by new members. That is true. We have seen declines in membership that are due to the simple math of having more people die than join the church. But the story is more complex than the simple math of birth rates. The passing of leadership from the WWII generation to the boomer generation was not smooth. The WWII generation, sometimes called the greatest generation, provided a rich corps of leadership in many institutions. Young adults came home from the war and went to work in their communities providing leadership for churches, civic organizations and a whole host of other institutions. They were generous with their time and with their financial resources. And they continued to serve well into their retirement years. They built strong institutions and provided leadership for many decades.

What they did not do gracefully, was share leadership with others. Some of the baby boom generation have complained that when they tried to assume leadership they were either blocked by elders who were reluctant to share leadership or found that they were not allowed to do things in their own way, facing restrictions imposed by their elders. They didn’t develop the same habits of generous donations or of selfless volunteerism that had marked the previous generation. When, through the natural process of aging, boomers finally have assumed leadership, their level of commitment has been different than was the case with the previous generation. And they have raised children and grandchildren who are themselves less committed.

This isn’t the first time the church has faced financial challenges. It isn’t the first time the camp has been threatened by a lack of income. But the leadership and donations that sustained the camp and other programs in the past simply are not present now. When we were building the new dining hall, I was able to recruit professional carpenters, plumbers, electricians and concrete workers who would give multiple weekends and significant resources to support the camp. Similar leadership isn’t stepping forward to save the camp any more.

So we grieve the loss of another important and significant ministry. And we open our hearts and minds to new possibilities that will emerge. God will provide what the church needs to move into the future. And the future will be different from the past. In the transition there will be a few tears and some grief. The old ways are passing.

The prophet, however, reminds us that God is always “doing a new thing.” It is the newness for which we need to be alert.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!