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A ‘gem’ of a conference center director to retire on January 31

The ministry of David Gill, executive director of Ferncliff since 1997, will be celebrated on February 3

by Emily Enders Odom | Presbyterian News Service

David Gill, executive director at Ferncliff, spends a little time with the Nature Preschoolers. (Photo by Rachel Parker)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – For diehard fans of acronyms—of which Presbyterians surely have more than their fair share—the Rev. David Gill has mined something of a GEM.

Gill, who will retire on January 31 as executive director of Ferncliff Camp and Conference Center, says that throughout his 20-year tenure at the PC(USA)-related camp he has always “looked for things that can be financially self-sustaining for the long haul.”

That’s where GEM comes in.

“We want to be known as a missional camp, a green camp, and a camp that’s kind of entrepreneurial,” said Gill of the 1,200-acre facility ten miles west of Little Rock, Arkansas. “So green, entrepreneurial, and mission—a GEM camp.”

In much the same way that Gill believes each camp has a mission to find its distinctiveness—to unearth its own gems—he himself prospected in several areas before discerning his unique calling to camp and conference ministry.

“I always had a sense that ministry was my calling, but not necessarily the traditional pastorate,” he says.

A native of suburban Cincinnati, Gill says that he lived most of his early Christian life “outside of the mainline.” Upon completing his M.Div. in 1976 at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Boston, he served a church in rural Indiana for three and a half years before “feeling a call to community.” Gill and his wife Vicki, whom he married just before entering seminary, then moved back to Boston, where they lived for three years as two families in an intentional Christian community. At that time, Gill was working primarily with developmentally-disabled teens.

When the intentional community began to founder, Gill went back to the Presbytery of Wabash Valley to serve the same church he had previously left, which happened to be vacant. “I was more relaxed,” he says. “I had a level of maturity I didn’t have the first time around.”

With primary responsibility for the church’s high school youth group, Gill took them on a mission trip in 1985 to the Heifer Ranch in Arkansas where his call came into clearer focus. While there, he was told that Heifer had an opening for which he was encouraged to apply.

“The idea of living on a 1,200-acre facility with livestock and international volunteers just sounded like the best parts of ministry that I really liked,” he says, “while at the same time also being an opportunity to leave behind some aspects of ministry where I didn’t have as many gifts.”

During his 12 years at Heifer, where the last position he held was director of grants and church relations, Gill felt “a draw back to the church.” Knowing that he wanted to remain in Little Rock where he and his family were settled, he applied for the directorship at Ferncliff when it became available. On April 1, 1997, Gill began to build his and Ferncliff’s legacy on the Green-Entrepreneurial-Mission platform.

For his “green” initiatives at the camp, Gill was awarded the William Gibson Lifetime Achievement Award in October 2013 by the Presbyterians for Earth Care. A news release written on that occasion states that “Under Gill’s leadership and direction, Ferncliff has become one of the most sustainable camp/conference centers in the country, through projects such as an entirely new youth camp with geothermal heating/cooling and the recently completed Eco Center that will serve as a center for creation care and the home for the Solar School.”

His “entrepreneurial” efforts are perhaps seen most clearly in the “healing camps” he pioneered at Ferncliff from 1998-2002.

David Gill, executive director at Ferncliff, fulfills his promise to “be there” for the Westside Middle Schoolers, Jonesboro, Arkansas, through their high school graduation. (Photo by Ted Smith)

Gill hadn’t been at Ferncliff for quite a year when two boys from Westside Middle School in Jonesboro, Arkansas, opened fire at the school in March 1998, killing four students and a teacher. Ten others were wounded. Two hundred were on the playground when the tragedy occurred.

“It just occurred to me a couple of days after that we needed to offer those kids a camp to help with their healing process,” says Gill. “I just felt really strongly about that.”

First Gill reached out to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), asking them if anyone had ever done such a thing before. After PDA said that no one had, to the best of their knowledge, and agreed to help, Gill reached out to the middle school in Jonesboro and offered to fund a camp for its fifth and sixth grader survivors.

“For six weeks I kept being persistent in offering it, and not just waiting around for a response,” he recalls. “I talked to the local ministerial alliance. I did everything I could to get our offer heard. Finally, with only a week of school left, in came the first registration when I didn’t even know that the camp had been approved. The next day a few more registrations came in. We ended up having 68 of those children come that first summer. It was a fantastic week, and that was when I realized that I was in the right place—this is my calling.”

In total, Ferncliff offered eight camps over five years, both on and offsite. The programs for youth affected by school violence—including students from Columbine in Littleton, Colorado; Conyers, Georgia; and Paducah, Kentucky—eventually expanded to include those affected by other disasters and trauma, including children from New York City after 9/11, children from Bosnia, children in foster care, as well as children with family members in prison and those who have had a family member commit suicide.

“Experiencing these camps was my sense of ‘this is the right place,’” says Gill. “It also helped us to realize that camp is more powerful than I thought—that the camp experience is essentially the same experience that Jesus gave the disciples. Leave your parents, come away and hike and fish and use nature as your classroom to teach about God’s love. When you think about camp, it’s a community, it’s nature, it’s music and worship and art and things that are intrinsically healing. All we did was tweak the normal camp experience and make it a little more healing by how we did it. We used the same script as we would for camp, only with more intentionality, knowing where these kids had been.”

Gill says that it was these healing camps that helped to define Ferncliff as a “missional” camp, the final letter in GEM.

Because he had already forged a close relationship with PDA through the outreach camps, Gill began wondering what the camp could do not just in the summer but year-round.

“What can we do 12 months a year,” Gill asked. “It’s not like we can have a soup kitchen, but what about disaster assistance? We have property and volunteers—how about we do disaster work? What about if we were to build a disaster center—would it be helpful?”

Because Church World Service (CWS) only had their warehouse in Maryland at that time, Gill thought that it could be cost effective for people making disaster kits to mail them to Arkansas, a location that could serve the Gulf Coast and Tornado Alley.

David Gill, executive director of Ferncliff, with Hannah Lahodny, assistant program director, and Ashley Nipp, a Young Adult Volunteer at the Little Rock YAV site housed at Ferncliff. (Photo by Emily Enders Odom)

After Ferncliff received a $200,000 grant in 2005 from the Presbyterian Women Birthday Offering to build a 6,000 square foot warehouse, Hurricane Katrina happened, “and PDA said, ‘We’ll chip in to make it a 10,000 square foot warehouse so we can also use it,’” Gill recalls.

The warehouse, which was finished in 2006, now receives about 50,000 pounds of disaster kits per year. Because all of the work to prepare the kits for reshipment is done by volunteers—and because CWS pays Ferncliff $.26/pound for what it receives—the operation is financially self-sufficient and does not draw any money from the camp.

“We really like integrating service with summer camp,” says Gill. “You hike, fish, roast marshmallows around the fire, but our campers also get to make disaster kits, which gives them the opportunity to do something that positively impacts the lives of other people.”

Reflecting on his 20-year tenure, Gill recalls having 400 summer campers when he started at Ferncliff compared with the 1,370 served by the camp last summer. In the two decades since he arrived, Ferncliff’s annual budget has grown from about $250K to $1.3 million. In addition to hosting its traditional summer campers, Ferncliff also offers traveling camps and welcomes some 150 different user groups throughout the year, including gatherings of the Presbyterian Church Camp and Conference Association (PCCCA), the PC(USA) Board of Pensions CREDO conferences, Presbytery of Arkansas meetings, session retreats, groups from area churches, and even Airbnb groups.

“Sharing hospitality is one of our callings,” says Gill, “to share God’s love through serving groups so that they can accomplish their mission.”

Three years ago, the camp became a site for the PC(USA)’s Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) program, hosting 3-4 YAVs per year, and also started an intern program for young adults. Ferncliff is also home to Solar Under the Sun, an ecumenical mission of the Synod of the Sun, that “works to alleviate energy poverty in partnership with volunteers by equipping and resourcing them for mission and advocating for those in need.” The camp also partners with neighboring Synod of Living Waters in its Living Waters for the World, a global ministry that provides sustainable clean water to communities in need. Ferncliff has also recently started a year-round Ferncliff Nature Pre-school.

Of all of these many partnerships, initiatives, and outreach efforts, Gill says that Ferncliff’s distinctiveness lies in its saying, “Instead of ‘We’re the church, you come to us,’ we say, ‘What do you need? We’ll be the church to you. What are the needs that we can respond to?’”

Once he retires on January 31, Gill isn’t entirely sure what lies ahead. One thing he does know is that his son, Joel, Ferncliff’s associate director for the last five years, will become interim executive director for 20 months while Ferncliff’s board determines the camp’s future direction and staffing needs. The elder Gill will also continue to serve as parish associate at Second Presbyterian Church in Little Rock.

Among those who will be on hand to honor Gill’s retirement at a celebration dinner on February 3 is Brian Frick, associate for Camp and Conference Ministries for the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

Frick shares, “David is truly a GEM for Presbyterian camping. Whether he was giving tours on a solar golf cart, holding a scratch-and-sniff contest to drum up the 20,000 sticker orders he needed for a nationwide camping promotion, or tenaciously clamoring to have Ferncliff be the first camp to host a YAV program, David was always pushing us forward. With his leadership, Ferncliff was transformed from a camp into a true Center for Mission and Ministry. David made—and will continue to make—all of our ministries better. I’m truly grateful for having served with him.”

When asked whether there is such a thing as a “camp director emeritus,” Gill smiled and said he didn’t know.

“Now I can be a volunteer,” he says. “We’ll see what the future holds.”

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The Young Adult Volunteer Program is made possible thanks to your gifts to the Pentecost Offering. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is able to respond quickly to emergencies thanks to your gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing.


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