For the better part of two decades, members of Middleburg United Methodist Church have gathered by the water at Lake Asbury Retreat Center on Easter Sunday to celebrate the resurrection of Christ.
During the service, a cross about 15 feet high towers from the shore of the spring-fed lake against a backdrop of sky, woods, and water.
"It really sets a lovely tone and a great scene for what we're celebrating," said Derrick Jefferson, Middleburg's director of youth ministries. "We get to watch the sunrise over the lake. Usually there's a mist hovering just above the water. It's a very reverent time."
LARC, as the retreat center is called, is in Green Cove Springs, about 30 miles southwest of Jacksonville.
Many beautiful memories are made at the retreat center, on Easter Sunday and throughout the year. So when LARC – which was donated to the Florida Conference in 1974 – was sold in April to a non-Methodist organization, there were concerns.
Jefferson felt anxious until he spoke with the new owners.
"They were just so gracious and kind, and they offered the facility to us at no cost to put on this function for the community," he said.
| Kids study aquatic life during camp at the Lake Asbury Retreat Center in 2006. (Photo by Pam Hall)
Team Effort, a Georgia-based group that runs Christian youth group mission camps, bought the property after the Florida Annual Conference decided last year to sell the facility.
"The thing that we're most pleased about is that Team Effort is going to keep it as a camp and retreat center," said the Rev. David L. Berkey, executive director of Florida United Methodist Camps and Retreats. "It's not going to be sold to a developer (who would) tear down the natural center. We're very pleased that that's the way it turned out."
The Rev. Timothy Smiley, Northeast District Superintendent, also expressed satisfaction with the outcome of the sale, especially since Team Effort has indicated that groups that previously used the facility would continue to get first priority. Among those groups are Chrysalis and the Walk to Emmaus, which offer spiritual renewal retreats that Methodists in the area are actively involved in.
"My concern has been that this property be used missionally, that it be used more extensively," Smiley said. "It's a beautiful piece of property but in many ways it's just been sitting there. If in 15 years this district has not been able to generate the persons with passion to develop that property, we need to let it go so that it can be used for the kingdom."
|The Rev. Tim Smiley
The idea to sell LARC developed over several years. In 2005, the Florida United Methodist Camps and Retreats ministry put together a master plan for the Conference's camps and developed plan to develop LARC and increase its use by member churches.
After an unsuccessful capital campaign, the question arose: "Do we really need Lake Asbury as a part of our ministry resources?" Berkey said.
Another study in 2010 looked at where camp and retreat centers were needed around the state and determined that the Conference didn’t need LARC.
In the spring of 2010, the Camps and Retreats ministry recommended to the Conference’s Board of Trustees that LARC be sold. The Board affirmed the decision and put the question to the Annual Conference in June.
|The Rev. David Berkey
"It was a fairly substantial vote in favor of selling," Berkey said. "Because we had done our homework and been through a process of five years it made sense."
The center was sold for a sum that was fair market value for a camp in LARC's condition in the current real estate climate, Berkey said. Team Effort will pay for the property over six years.
The Rev. David McEntire, chairman of the Conference Board of Trustees and senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Lakeland, said there's no stipulation that requires the money be used for a specific purpose, but the inclination is to re-invest it in camps and retreats.
"Behind that is the intent to do the greatest good we can," said McEntire, an adult faculty volunteer for 31 years who sent his own children and hundreds of children through his church to camp. "My personal opinion is that camping would be the prime commitment for that fund. I would hope we would put it back there."
In the end, the sale of LARC works for all parties, conference leaders concurred.
"In a way nothing is really that changed, "said Berkey, who has committed to working with the Northeast District to make sure their camping and retreat needs are met. "They still get to use it and book it just like they have in the past."
The hope is that the property will get more extensive use.
"Team Effort has a clear purpose and mission and this property is a part of that," Smiley said. "To me, that's not just a compromise, that's a win-win. I think in the end that’s just really good stewardship."