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‘In the throes of a fracture,’ an Ohio Methodist conference will vote on selling some summer camps

A circle of kids in rock climbing gear hold hands and bow their heads in prayer.
Benjamin Derkin & Derks Works Photography
Camp Otterbein Facebook
Camp Otterbein has entertained summer campers in Hocking Hills for decades. But this summer, the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church canceled residential summer camps citing a lack of staff.

Camp Otterbein is empty.

Its big red cabins didn’t hold any campers this summer. No one swam in the lake. Or raced down the zipline. Or prayed before the wooden cross at the top of the hill.

It’s a far cry from what Hilary Moore experienced when she was a camper here.

“When I was there, morning would be, ‘Okay, let's kick off a really big activity. So let's start the rock climbing trip or let's start the high ropes day,’ ” she remembered.

Moore spent eight summers in the Hocking Hills wilderness at Camp Otterbein — first as a camper, then as a counselor and program director — and said her time there shaped the way she views her faith and her profession. (She’s now a mental health counselor.)

So, when she found out camps there were canceled this summer, she was heartbroken.

“That, when I heard it, was just totally a gut punch because that camp is so much a part of who I am,” she said. “I don't want to see the kids who are there now lose that chance to build that really fast community to understand their faith in a different context.”

The sun rises behind a lodge. Pine trees stand in the foreground.
Camp Otterbein Facebook
Camp Otterbein's main meeting space

The West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church said it canceled residential summer camps this year because it didn’t have enough staff members to operate safely.

Now, it’s considering selling Camp Otterbein altogether.

The proposal to sell summer camps

The West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church, which encompasses the western half of the state and much of the southeast, owns three summer camps: Camp Otterbein in Hocking Hills, Camp Wesley near Bellefontaine, and Camp Widewater outside Toledo.

In the past decade, enrollment at all three has declined and they’ve lost money. Camp Otterbein alone posted a $204,770 operating loss in 2021.

“The overhead costs [like] the facility, the cost of staffing, were making it increasingly difficult to move forward without looking at the whole picture,” said Bishop Gregory Palmer, who leads the conference. “Are we being good stewards of our resources and are we serving people well?”

These questions prompted the conference to organize a task force with the goal of creating a “sustainable, go-forward plan for camping and retreat ministry.”

In its 2023 Annual Conference Book of Reports, the task force recommended selling camps Widewater and Otterbein.

“Continuing all three sites is not tenable and, should the conference attempt to do so, would jeopardize this ministry and many others,” the report concluded.

“Without the sale of the two recommended camps and the initiation of campaigns, we will not have required resources to provide safe, innovative, fun and inspiring camping opportunities in our conference’s future.”

The decision to sell the two camps will be put to a vote at the West Ohio Annual Conference at the end of October.

A ‘fracturing’ church

This vote comes at a time of much broader loss for the conference.

“The United Methodist Church is in the throes of a fracture,” said Joel Harbarger, a retired pastor and former camp volunteer.

Nearly 30% of churches in the West Ohio Conference have left in recent years, joining the nationwide exodus of more conservative Methodist congregations that disagree with a perceived acceptance of LGBTQ rights in the UMC.

“That means the level of financial support that goes to the conference goes down as well,” Harbarger said. “If you have fewer churches, you have less money.”

While Bishop Palmer said the disaffiliations — and the resulting loss of financial support — are not directly related to the potential sale of the camps, Harbarger worries about the confluence of the two: the conference is losing almost a third of its churches and then considering greatly scaling back a service designed to bring the next generation in.

“It seems like we're bulldozing the house and wondering, ‘Oh, now where are we going to live?’“
Joel Harbarger

“It seems like we're bulldozing the house and wondering, ‘Oh, now where are we going to live?’ “ Harbarger said. “We're bulldozing the programing and then saying, ‘Okay, let's spend the next couple of years figuring this out.’ ”

He worries kids will be left behind, and he believes residential camps can’t be easily replaced with other types of programming.

“A week of camp is equivalent to about a year's worth of Sunday school,” he said.

‘We’ll never get it back’

Bishop Palmer emphasizes there are other ways to engage young people. If members of the annual conference vote to go forward with the summer camps’ sale, he’s confident the church can adapt.

“I want to be frank: I think we have to grow the church younger,” he said. “But that will take attractiveness of the message – the core message, which doesn't change – but to involve and invite people to be involved in living their faith.”

Still, Harbarger and many other former campers and staffers think selling the camps would be a mistake.

A man smiles in front of a high-ropes course. He wears a baseball hat, glasses and a navy blue t-shirt that says 'Camp Otterbein' alongside colorful canoe paddles.
Erin Gottsacker
The Ohio Newsroom
Joel Harbarger is a retired Methodist pastor. He has spent many summers volunteering at Camp Otterbein and a lifetime working in youth ministry.

From a financial perspective, the conference estimates Camp Otterbein’s worth to be between $1.75 and $2.5 million.

Harbarger thinks that’s an underestimate.

“Four hundred acres in the Hocking Hills for hot tub cabins — who wouldn't want to buy that?” he questioned. “I also believe that if we sold it for $2.5 million and we decided that was a stupid move and two weeks later we wanted to buy it back, we'd have to spend twice as much to buy it back. We'll never get this back.”

But for him, finances are a small part of the equation.

Harbarger has spent a lifetime working in youth ministry, so these camps are full of memories.

They’re also full of hope. The kids these camps serve are the present and future of the church, Harbarger said.

If they’re shut down, he worries the church won’t have much hope left.

“We're making short term decisions that are going to have long lasting negative consequences for the church as a whole for the next 30 years,” he said. “I'm not sure we could survive it.”

Erin Gottsacker is a reporter for The Ohio Newsroom. She most recently reported for WXPR Public Radio in the Northwoods of Wisconsin.