Monday, February 4, 2008

The pain of ministry in transition. . .(a bit more on Sunshine Cove)

Our pastor had the following thing to say yesterday in church:

"Today you are either coming out of a trial, in a trial or about to begin a trial. . . why do I know this is true? Because that is life. . . "

He was teaching about trials and how God uses them in our lives. It was an apt point of consideration for me to think about the process of camping ministry at Sunshine.

12 years ago my wife and I were finishing Moody and had a clear calling into ministry . . . we were headed for a field of ministry called Christian Camping. The main point for me was that I sensed God's leading in my life to teach the scriptures and I wanted to do it in a context that allowed for something beyond what I saw in pastoral ministry . . . something where you really have time to get folks away from their normal context and spend quality time together in God's word. Camping was that context.

After a year in an internship in north-central Wisconsin at Camp Forest Springs, we were called by our home church (Covenant Presbyterian Church of Chicago) to return to the city and investigate the potential for starting a new camp from scratch, somewhere within 2 hours of Chicago. Our conclusion was that most quality camps were (a) full most of the year and (b) a LONG drive from Chicago. Through this process of investigation I met Dana Thomas, Executive Director of Sunshine Gospel Ministries.

I shared with Dana my vision for running a quality camp and a key part of that vision: working with inner-city kids. Dana responded favorably and explained that his organization (Sunshine Gospel Ministries) owned a camp (called Camp Sun-Chi-Win) that the board was debating about how to develop or sell.

Dana loved the idea of camp but his focus was on growing the city ministry. We visited the camp and immediately fell in love with the place. We decided that this was where God was calling us but felt that the camp should really be a separate organization to have the appropriate amount of attention from the board. So we asked Sunshine's board to give it to us.

As a point of discussion we decided it would be good to call it something else. Since we were currently working with Covenant Pres we drafted a proposal and called the new organization "Sunshine Cove". The board turned us down on the idea of giving camp away but Dana encouraged us to consider coming on staff and pursuing the vision of camp under Sunshine's auspices. Over a period of a year or so the Lord led my family to join the staff at Sunshine to essentially restart a property and camp that was all but abandoned. We saw huge potential!

So we packed up our 4 little kids and moved into a frozen, leaking, drafty, wobly old mobile home parked squarely in the middle of camp. I quickly learned a few things about plumbing and tested the limits of existing knowledge about carpentry and caulk. (Can you caulk 1" wide seams??)

The following 2 years are a blur as we ran short camps, fixed things, raised funds, fixed things, networked with new churches, fixed things, got to know the neighbors, fixed things. . . . you get the idea. It was a massive investment in a place God had long been at work with an eye toward many more years of living and working and ministering there. Years earlier one of Sunshine's camp directors died on the property . . . I pretty much expected the same.

Then in the early part of 2001 Dana Thomas resigned his role as Executive Director. By then we'd recruited 7 staff and had a lot of momentum invested in getting camp moving ahead. I felt that it was pretty much my duty to throw my hat in the ring to be the new E.D -- even though I knew that likely meant the end of the dream for me personally and that one day I would need to return to the city.

I commuted for 3 years from camp to the city before arriving at the conclusion that God was calling me and my family back to the city. I was meeting with a local pastor who was not very involved in neighborhood ministry and became very frustrated with his lack of readiness to engage the community. . . I realized he wasn't ready to move and I was. So that night I drove back to Michigan and told my wife Paula, I sensed it was time to return to Chicago. This time to live in the community we were being called to serve.

God had drawn my heart away from camp and back to the city. But my children and my colleagues who remained at camp. . . their sense of calling and their heart for ministry remained at camp. The challenge in this has been that I love camp and my kids and my colleagues. Yet just as when I was interviewed by the board 12 years ago I suggested that the camp would be better off separate from the city ministry, I still believe this is so. Furthermore, now that I have been changed through the fires of urban ministry, racial reconciliation, seeing God's passion for the city, wrestling with issues of mercy and justice. . . I find that the demand for real leadership it takes to run camp actually detracts from the intensity and demand for leadership here in the city.

So I am incredibly torn. I visited camp with the kids about 3 weeks ago and was overcome with emotion at the idea of selling camp. It is just crushing. Yet if I consider the role of our mission in steering our focus of time, prayers, finances, I know that separating the camp from the city ministry is the wise thing to do.

I am glad for Sunshine's highly committed board of directors who have prayed and agonized about various decisions. The current board has wrestled with various options for months. Previous boards have wrestled with the options for camp for decades. I, for one, trust God to work through them and am glad that no one person, myself included, can or would make such monumental decisions.

God has blessed Sunshine with about 50 years of camping ministry which we were blessed to operate ourselves. In recent years the leading and blessing of God has been directed back in the city. We have a new building, an expanding reach, a new community, a growing missions program and outreach and the list could go on. The pain of seeing camp go does not mean that the impact of camp was not meaningful . . . it was life changing for thousands. It also does not mean that camp will not continue to be a transformational tool used by Sunshine.

But it is still exceedingly painful. Fortunately God meets us in our trials and his grace is sufficient to sustain us through the trial.

(For an article explaining what the board decided regarding camp visit the Sunshine Gospel Ministries blog.)