Lake Junaluska bouces back from 2005 controversy


By Neill Caldwell

United Methodist News Service

LAKE JUNALUSKA, N.C. — It's a new summer and a fresh start for the picturesque United Methodist retreat center here, which has continued to concentrate on its mission and ministry through the aftermath of a controversy last fall.


The Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center, home to the denomination's Southeastern Jurisdiction and long known as a favorite meeting place of the people called Methodist, came under attack last fall when its board approved a request from an unofficial church caucus to meet here. The Reconciling Ministries Network asked to rent meeting space and rooms over Labor Day weekend for its "Hearts on Fire" convocation, touching off a storm of protest. The group advocates for full inclusion of gays and lesbians in the life of the church, which is contrary to the church's Book of Discipline.


While some groups have decided not to return to Lake Junaluska, new groups have taken their place, and bookings for 2006 are at the same point as a year ago, officials say.


"Lake Junaluska Assembly is in a good place," says the Rev. Jimmy L. Carr, a clergy member of the Mississippi Conference and executive director of the Southeastern Jurisdiction Connectional Table. "We have a strong staff in place and great ministry offerings. We have a wonderful list of preachers for our summer preaching series. Everyone feels good and is anticipating a strong summer."


"People want to come," says Ken Howle, director of communications and marketing. "We're on a par from this time last year, and it's been a very positive thing."


The center has some 150,000 guests a year, he says. Those are people who use the facility in some way, including overnight visitors as well as people who use the golf course, attend concerts, walk around the lake or attend other events and programs at the assembly.


Surprised by reaction

Carr says he was surprised by the level of anger that was expressed toward the staff of Lake Junaluska Assembly and the jurisdiction office at the height of the "Hearts on Fire" debate.


"We felt we were offering Christian hospitality to a group, and although we knew there would be some people who would not like it, I didn't think we'd be so targeted. The saddest part is that people didn't have more faith in Lake Junaluska. Since 1913, this has been a place to serve people and offer hospitality. One event, which was not even ours, is not going to change that."


While there was a negative campaign against the facility, Lake Junaluska also received a tremendous amount of support from around the jurisdiction and across the general church, Carr says. And he says he was proud of the way the staff handled the controversy. "They know that what we're about is most important, no matter what is said about us."


He sees the facility's mission as being about education, leadership development and enabling people to become better disciples. "Junaluska is a faith-based assembly in the United Methodist tradition that welcomes all of God's children to come and grow in their faith in Jesus Christ. We're working to provide the best resources available to strengthen discipleship," he said.


'A spiritual place'

Carr has been at Lake Junaluska for six years. He visited the center throughout his ministry career for continuing education events, never imagining he would be the director.


"There are few places like Lake Junaluska," he says. "With the mountains and the serenity of the water, it's one of those special places created that provides space for reflection, study, exercise. … It's OK just to be here."


"Lake Junaluska is a spiritual place and a community of faith," adds Howle. "It's a friendly environment that creates a very positive feeling that can even be life-changing. But it has an even bigger impact as a ministry. More than 150,000 people a year interact with the programs we offer, and then they have a great impact on more people when they go home."


The assembly's promotional materials tout something called the "Junaluska experience."


"Everyone has their own kind of experience," Carr says, "and it takes a lot of energy to make that happen. The beautiful flowers are not just there. But it is all God's creation, and people long before us have enjoyed the beauty of these mountains."


"It's something intangible and unique to each person," says Bob Ray, director of the Conference Center. "But a lot of people mention it in their feedback. People feel the peace and tranquility of the lake and the grounds."


The Southeastern Jurisdiction has made about $750,000 in improvements to Lake Junaluska during the past two years.


The assembly includes 434 rooms, three restaurants and 90,000 square feet of meeting space. A campground across the road has 56 camp sites, and the Lakeview Motel beside the campground has been purchased and renovated.

The facilities have been spruced up for the summer season. A renovation project of the rooms in the Terrace Hotel is complete. There's a new miniature golf course near the pool, a new lodge at the campground and other small changes. The Foundation for Evangelism has moved into a new building.


And just up the road from that new building, major construction is expected to get under way this summer on the Bethea Welcome Center, which will become the entrance to the grounds. The groundbreaking ceremony was held July 2.


Reconciling racist past

The building is named for Joseph and Shirley Bethea. A South Carolina native, Bethea served churches in North Carolina for more than 30 years before he was elected as bishop in 1988 and assigned to his home state.


"This facility will be an important statement for Lake Junaluska hospitality," Carr says. "It will be the first building people come in contact with and will be filled with servant leaders ready to take care of people's needs."


Carr says the importance of the name goes beyond an important bishop who has strong ties to the Carolinas.


"That the center is named for an African-American couple will hopefully be a statement of reconciliation of the early racist history of this facility," he says. "Since the mid-1950s, the leadership here has worked diligently as a place that is seen and experienced as a place that serves all of God's children."


The first Lake Junaluska building named for an African American will be a symbol of the United Methodist Church's diversity, as it will be decorated with art from African-American, American Indian, Latino and Asian cultures. "It will mirror the commitment to serve all those ministries that exist within the Southeastern Jurisdiction," Carr says.


It will also eliminate some confusion. "We have housing registration and event registration in different locations, but this will put everything under one roof," says Ray. "Plus the Haywood County Chamber Visitor's Center will be housed in the building, so we hope to have even more folks exposed to Lake Junaluska."


Plans are on the drawing board to build a new clubhouse for the public golf course across the road, which is also part of the jurisdictional facilities. Plus, plans have been discussed for some time about expanding Stuart Auditorium, the centerpiece of the assembly grounds, and add heating and air conditioning to the facility so that it could comfortably be used year-round.


"We could host youth events during the winter," Ray says. "That would give us a real boost."


Plans are in place to make the entire grounds "technology friendly. "Our goal is for you to be able to take your laptop down on the beautiful Rose Walk and use it," Carr says.


For 38 years, the Lake Junaluska Associates group, comprising homeowners and friends from across the jurisdiction, has supported the facility and contributed funds for the beautification of the grounds.


While the organization is a business, its workers would rather claim what they do is a form of ministry. Lake Junaluska has a workplace discipleship program that was first established for summer workers. "The goal is for the staff to see value in their work beyond just a paycheck," Carr says.


Carr hopes future programs will be responsive to the church's needs. "We want to be a little more focused on what we offer and provide more things that are cutting edge. We're constantly searching for new things that can be done to accomplish our mission."


And is there a message for people who might be concerned that Lake Junaluska has changed due to last summer's controversy?


"Come and make your decision for yourself," Howle says. "We want everyone to come and be a part of our ministry."


"If people come, they'll find the same kind of experience they've had in the past 10 or 15 years, the same balanced ministry offerings," adds Carr. "I hope people won't let themselves get caught up in all the continuing hype, and experience Lake Junaluska as pro-Jesus Christ and pro-ministry of Christ."