Our hearts are heavy as we write this letter to you. We both have deep personal connections to the ministries and communities formed around our camps — Pilgrim Hills and Templed Hills — over the years of our lives and ministries. Mindy Quellhorst grew up going to Templed Hills and Pilgrim Hills, has continued to be at the campsites every year, and her sons have worked as summer camp site staff. John Gantt served as a counselor in the early days of Templed Hills, and each year of ministry in Ohio Conference took groups to both camps.
So, it is with great sadness that we announce to you that the Ohio Conference Board of Directors voted at its Feb. 17 meeting to sell its Pilgrim Hills Camp in Brinkhaven, OH. Templed Hills Camp in Belleville, OH, will be retained with a plan to renew its physical plant so it can more effectively serve the faith formation ministries of the churches of the Ohio Conference UCC.
Our hearts are also full of hope. In the next year, we will celebrate these special ministries which have formed the faith of so many people through our outdoor ministries programs. We will discover even more opportunities to connect with one another, and we will inspire ourselves to discern the future shape of faith formation ministries in the wider church in Ohio, West Virginia and northern Kentucky.
First, however, let us explain the primary reasons for the decision to sell the Pilgrim Hills Property:
- Escalating financial losses from decreased giving to Our Church’s Wider Mission hastened the decision to sell one of our properties. In Ohio, the largest portion of our funding comes from Our Church’s Wider Mission funds, which are collected by our associations. Then a portion of those funds is passed on to the conference and to the national setting of the UCC.
- Cost of upgrading the properties: Both camp sites have significant deferred maintenance issues. The repair and refurbishing needs at Templed Hills are more easily accomplished than those at Pilgrim Hills. There is a fund of approximately $400,000 most of which is designated for use at Templed Hills which may be used for the immediate upgrades needed at that site.
- The proximity of these two camps to one another does not serve well the wide geographic area of the Ohio Conference. Historic tensions and even rivalries between these camps is neither healthy nor helpful in moving us toward a more unified community of wider church in the Ohio Conference UCC.
- The buildings and facilities at Templed Hills more easily support family-based ministries in addition to our programs for children and youth.
The journey to reach this decision has been a considerably long one. Many people have not had the opportunity to read all the details about this decision making in one place, so let us recap what has happened over the past few years.
In the fall of 2014, Conference finances reached a crisis point. The conference was just three to four months away from bankruptcy. After a close look at conference finances, the Board realized the camping program and the cost of maintaining properties were the main reason for the losses which had drained nearly all available reserve funds for both the camping program and the conference program over the course of several years. The Conference was already making monthly payments on a loan of $265,000 to cover operating losses. The board made a difficult decision to put Templed Hills on “Sabbatical,” moved a reduced number of its camping programs to Pilgrim Hills starting in the summer of 2015. At the same time, the board hired United Camps, Conferences and Retreats (UCCR) to manage our Pilgrim Hills property and site staff and take over making reservations for outside groups to use the camp site.
In June 2015, the board named a subcommittee to explore how both properties could be parceled and prepared for sale. In the ensuing 18 months, this team researched local real estate markets and took a much closer look at the amount of necessary repairs on both of the properties. At the same time, UCCR began managing Pilgrim Hills. Their management efforts resulted in small “profits” that were used to do basic maintenance at Pilgrim Hills. This management agreement, and the dismissal of most of the outdoor ministries program staff, resulted in lowering the deficits in 2015 and early 2016. At this point, previous decisions to sell portions of camp property were set aside in the hope that enough recovery could be achieved to make it possible to maintain both camps. Also in the process, the general staffing of the conference was downsized and office space was shared with two other parties in order to conserve funds.
The financial picture again changed unexpectedly in the fall of 2016. Associations reduced the amount of OCWM they planned to pass on to the conference more drastically than anticipated. That resulted in yet another large, unsustainable shortfall for 2016, and the reductions were projected on into 2017. Treasurer Sam Buehrer described these changes in his September 2016 Treasurers Report.
Given the situation, in December, 2016, the board appointed two task forces that would report back to the whole board at our Feb. 17 meeting. The first group was charged with designing a year-long discernment process that would put faith formation in the center of our vision and mission. This team included Robert Burtt III, division of outdoor ministries chair, Rev. Nicole Havelka, Ohio Conference Staff, and board members Rev. Kevan Franklin, Jay McMillan and Dr. Cynthia Tyson.
The board also determined that the Conference could no longer afford to support two camping sites. A camp research task force was appointed to investigate the conditions and possibilities of both the Templed Hills and Pilgrim Hills properties and then suggest which property is the more viable and feasible at which to continue Conference programming in the future. Board treasurer Rev. Sam Buehrer, Vice Moderator Cathy Green and Board Member Tom Brownfield served on this task force.
The research task force recommended that the conference sell Pilgrim Hills and move its outdoor ministries programs to Templed Hills by Summer 2018. The board then voted to support that recommendation. Click here for the full text of the Board of Directors motion.
PLEASE NOTE: This decision DOES NOT affect the summer camp 2017 programs at Pilgrim Hills. Registration for those programs is open now and available on our website. We very much hope that you will join us for what will be our final season at Pilgrim Hills.
The faith formation task force then recommended that Fall 2017 – 2018 become a “Year of Jubilee” — a year in which we listen, celebrate, grieve, and find new ways to follow the core value of faith formation. This will focus our energy and efforts on a yearlong process of celebration of outdoor ministries, fostering connections using our core values of Christian community, and inspiring ourselves to articulate a clear vision, mission and objectives that put faith formation at the center of our Conference ministries together. The Ohio Conference Board of Directors discussed this and are continuing to have discussions about a “Year of Jubilee.” It is clear that the intention of the Board is to maintain one camp site for as long as possible. Templed Hills management has been placed under contract with UCCR, a decision which has already proven beneficial.
We realize this news is extremely sad. So many children, youth and adults have found strong connections with God and Christian community at Pilgrim Hills over the years. We, too, have had our faith and our spirits enlivened by the times we’ve spent at camp, and we too are sadden by the decision. We know that we have been faithful in our discussions, and in our research to be fiscally responsible as well. We know you will need space and time to grieve this loss. To help you do this, we plan to sponsor several opportunities for you to talk with us and Board members. We will also announce plans for opportunities to visit camp to celebrate the life of this important ministry and say good-bye to that property.
We plan to move appropriate symbols and features from Pilgrim Hills to Templed Hills to help us cherish the legacy of faith development we have experienced at Pilgrim Hills. We hope these times for saying good-bye will enable us to move forward into what we see as a new and hopeful future. We are confident that the community that has formed you in faith will serve as your rock of support in this time of loss and change.
If you have comments or questions, you are invited to leave them here on the website or by emailing either one of us directly. We will do our best to answer them as soon as we are able, but please recognize that we may need some time to respond thoughtfully to what may be a large number of messages. We will also send a separate email soon with a date that will include our next opportunity for conversation with us and members of the board.
At the core of what we do is to “help others to love God and live in the way of Jesus.” (Ivy Beckwith, UCC Faith Formation Team Leader). That aspect of our vision, supported by our deep, collective faith in God, will remain constant in our movement forward. We ask that we join together in prayer as we move forward into this exciting, spirit-filled future.
Mindy Quellhorst (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Rev. Melinda Quellhorst Moderator of the Ohio Conference
Pastor Of Grace United Church of Christ in Lancaster, Ohio
Rev. John M. Gantt (email@example.com)
Interim Conference Minister