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Fall retreats offer chance for rest, spiritual reflection

Fall retreats offer chance for rest, spiritual reflection

Florida UMC camps and retreats like Riverside near Fort Myers offer a chance to get away from everyday pressures.

Florida Conference camps and retreats fulfill myriad roles in spiritual development, ranging from rest and renewal to life-changing moments, and camp opportunities this fall are continuing the tradition.

Some who have been “retreating” to the camps over the last 60 years describe them as “holy ground.” Confirmands, young campers and youth counselors have made commitments to Christ, lifelong friendships and sometimes even marriages at UMC camps.  

Joel Pancoast, program manager at Florida UMC’s most-visited camp, Warren W. Willis, is a believer. His mother, Jo Anne Pancoast, attended UMC camps as a child in the 1950s and encouraged her son to do so beginning with his fifth-grade year.

“My camp experience brought me my faith and helped nourish me and helped me find my call,” said Pancoast, who first attended a former UMC camp in Brandon and later Warren Willis.

“I met my wife here and married here. Now we’re living here and raising two daughters. It’s just a big part of my life.”

The recent $4 million renovation at Warren Willis and a new meeting room just across the street at the Life Enrichment Center (LEC) offer even more opportunities to gather in the beauty of  the state’s natural wonders, said Mike Standifer, interim executive director of Camps and Retreat Ministries.
It’s a ministry that’s all about Christian hospitality, he said, adding, “We continue to get better at it.”

Wildlife exploration at Centenary
Pizza-making at Centenary
Centenary Camp near Tallahassee offers a variety of activities.

The conference operates two other camps: Centenary Camp near Tallahassee and the Riverside Retreat Center near Fort Myers. All facilities have lodging and outdoor and scenic benefits described at

Usage projections for 2012 tell the story of continued growth. About 26,600 people are expected to spend time at a conference camp this year.     

“The numbers are continuing to grow, partly due to partnerships with local churches,” Standifer said.

 “We’re being much more cohesive in our approach to outdoor ministries, and overseeing all four camps with full-time directors at each site.  We realized that local churches might be sending kids to summer camp for one week, but that means there are 51 other weeks we can complement the camp experience.

“I’m a huge proponent of the retreat ministry. Getting out from your normal everyday life is a good practice for each of us.” 

Warren Willis is projected to see more than 11,000 visitors by year’s end, and more than a third of those, about 4,300, were summer campers. The next most popular spot is the LEC, projected to host nearly 10,000 this year, followed by Riverside, expected to see about 4,000 guests. Centenary Camp usage is projected to be about 1,600.

About 70 percent of users are United Methodists, according to the Board of Camps and Retreat Ministries, but other groups also book the facilities.

Currently scheduled events are designed to appeal to United Methodist Men (UMM) and United Methodist Women, who tend to be heavy users, and also to churches searching for special spiritual retreats. 

Sun streaks at Life Enrichment Center
Scenic beauty abounds at Florida UMC retreats, including the Life Enrichment Center in Fruitland Park.

Don Heishman has been working with UMM retreats for many years. He recounts the group’s longtime involvement, including building or maintaining cabins.

“The men have been instrumental in supporting the Life Enrichment Center ever since its inception, with fundraising and maintenance and attending retreats,” he said.  Three weekend retreats were slated this month.
“Activities include evangelists, speakers, music, sports, boating and sleeping,” Heishman said.  “And on Saturday nights , there is a commitment service where there are a lot of first-time commitments and rededications at the altar,” he said.

About 600 to 700 men attend per weekend, he said.

 “This camp is almost holy ground for United Methodist Men.”

For women, the Women’s Retreat Design Team plans events at the LEC intended to offer “a time to intentionally come away from the responsibilities of their homes, families and jobs, to set their feet on holy ground and to meet Jesus Christ face to face,” according to team literature.

Mary Best has been on the design team for 11 years. 

“The people who run the facility there have always been so helpful and efficient and provided everything we need to help these ladies have a wonderful, relaxing experience,” she said.

“It’s a joy to be on the committee and help these ladies leave their obligations behind, let their guard down in this beautiful setting and be free to worship the Lord.” 

Empty boats on the Suwannee River at Warren Willis
A paddle down the Suwannee River is among relaxing options at Warren W. Willis Camp in Fruitland Park.

Upcoming retreats Feb. 1-3 and 15-17 and March 1-3 will offer Bible study, enrichment and crafts, music, fellowship and food.

About 850 12- and 13-year-olds flock to Warren Willis for confirmands’ retreats each year, up from 160 when the program began in 2007, Pancoast said. Spring retreats are around the corner, scheduled for Feb. 22-24, March 8-10 and April 5-7, and churches can bring a few kids or dozens, he said.

“Some will work on a curriculum, some will bring all their fun games, some have pool parties that include baptisms and some just want to have fun at camp,” Pancoast said.

“But all of the confirmands leave here knowing that they are at the beginning of a lifelong journey, not a once-a-weekend experience.”

To see a video about confirmation retreats, click here

Rev. David McEntire, chairman of Camps and Retreat Ministries, said the facilities also offer adult camps for families, whether single parent, blended or traditional families, and camps for grandparents and grandchildren.

He said long-term relationships are built at the camps, not only through commitments to Jesus Christ, but with friends and family.

“Two of my children met their spouses at meetings at the youth camp,” he said.  “And that story’s repeated many, many times over.” 

As much as Pancoast loves the beauty of Warren Willis, it’s not the camp itself that makes the experience, he said.

“Even though the chapel and the cross and the lake are amazing places, it’s the people that took time to nurture me on my walk with Christ,” he said, remembering small-group leaders who kept tabs on him through his high school and young adult years.

“The volunteers and relationships are what make our camp what it is.”

Anne Dukes is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.