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Outdoor Ministries Connection holds its first Great Gathering

Presbyterians, other camp and conference center associations come together to learn and connect

contributed by Outdoor Ministries Connection | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Earlier this month, Camp Junaluska in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina hosted the first-ever Outdoor Ministries Connection Great Gathering of denominational associations, including the Presbyterian Church Camp & Conference Association. (Photo courtesy of Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center)

LOUISVILLE — From November 10-14, an ecumenical group of mainline denominational camp and retreat associations held the Outdoor Ministries Connection Great Gathering at Lake Junaluska, located in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. The gathering was the first of its kind.

The theme of the conference was RelationSHIFT, defined as expanding our understanding of relationship as God’s people. More than 500 people attended the conference, representing seven denomination associations and four other denominations and 335 camp and retreat centers across the United States and Canada.

Participating denomination associations included the Presbyterian Church Camp & Conference Association, Episcopal Camps and Conference Centers, Lutheran Outdoor Ministries, Outdoor Ministries Association of the United Church of Christ, United Church of Canada, and United Methodist Camp and Retreat Ministries Association. The idea for the conference was born at a joint board meeting among the associations four years ago, and the planning team began preparation in earnest in the fall of 2016.

Conference Co-Chairs Elise Bates Russell, executive director of the Johnsonburg Camp and Retreat Center in New Jersey and the past president of the Presbyterian Church Camp & Conference Association, and Nathan Pile, executive director of the Sequanota Lutheran Conference Center and Camp in Pennsylvania, began with building teams and forming relationships among representatives from each denomination on the team.

“Creating common ground and asking, ‘What can we do better together?’ was a driving goal for this event,” Bates Russell said. “We wanted top-notch speakers, workshops, and opportunities for networking so that regional connections could strengthen our ministries across the continent.”

Conference keynotes, preachers, and leaders included author and nonprofit consultant Joan Garry, author and noted preacher and speaker the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, author and activist Shane Claiborne, author and teambuilding consultant Dr. Jim Cain, and the dean of Duke University Chapel and associate professor of Homiletics the Rev. Dr Luke Powery. Music was led by musician and singer-songwriter Ken Medema.

Artist, pastor, retreat leader, and creative entrepreneur the Rev. Lisle Gwynn Garrity, a Presbyterian pastor, was the artist in residence for the four-day gathering. In all, 76 exhibitors joined the conference, which featured 80 educational workshops on topics that included risk management, creative programming, nonprofit management and spiritual development. Conference participants were also able to enjoy the area on one afternoon of the conference with field trips in Haywood County and Asheville, North Carolina.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has approximately 140 outdoor ministry sites throughout the United States. Ranging from 20 acres to over 1,000 acres, these sites provide opportunities for rest, rejuvenation in God’s Creation, and Christian community. As part of continuing education for the leaders of these important ministries, the outdoor ministry leaders gather every November for the annual conference of the Presbyterian Church Camp & Conference Association (PCCCA).


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