By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
NEWPORT — One year after COVID-19 basically shut down Carson Springs Baptist Conference Center in Newport and Linden Valley Baptist Conference Center in Linden, the ministry is going once again.
In recent weeks, the two conference centers have been abuzz with the sounds of children and youth enjoying the amenities offered at each conference center, the sharing of the gospel during worship and Bible studies, music and more.
But there is a major difference at the conference centers as compared to years past. The conference centers normally are staffed by seasonal workers who earn extra income while serving at the camps during the summer months.
This year, however, it has not been easy to secure workers, said Kevin Perrigan, manager at Carson Springs.
Like many businesses, the conference centers are not immune from a seemingly lack of people seeking employment. Perrigan said Carson Springs tried to recruit staff but had only one applicant.
Fortunately, the conference centers had an asset that most businesses do not have — volunteers eager and willing to serve.
“This year, coming out of COVID, we could not do what we do without our volunteers,” Perrigan said.
He noted the conference center usually gets a number of missions volunteers, many from Campers on Mission, who serve at the conference centers each year doing various projects that need to be completed. Most years, however, the mission volunteers work other than the summer months.
This year has been different, Perrigan said. Volunteers have been needed to provide things such as food service, cutting grass and maintenance — tasks normally done by paid summer staff. “Our volunteers have stepped up,” he noted. “I was amazed and pleased with the response we have had.”
But even the number of volunteers are experiencing a decline, Perrigan said.
Perrigan recently addressed the topic on his weekly podcast entited “Camp Radio.” Perrigan noted that in the past 20 years there has been a decline in volunteering after retirement, particularly with Campers on Mission.
He interviewed a couple who have been fixtures as volunteers at Carson Springs the last few years — Greg and Jackie Merrell of Sunrise Chapel in Elkton.
The couple made their fourth trip to Carson Springs this summer, Greg Merrell said. “We like the mountains and the people (at the conference center) are good to us and we try to be good to them.” The first few times, the couple came by themselves but in recent years have encouraged their friends from Campers on Mission to join them on the mountaintop at Carson Springs.
Jackie Merrell said during the podcast that their parents set an example and instilled in them at an early age “that there is always a place for someone to serve.” Her husband agreed. “We both grew up in Christian homes and lived in a community where people helped each other when there was a need.”
When Merrell retired as a professional firefighter after 25 years of service at the age of 53, he and his wife knew they were not meant to sit around and do nothing.
They operated a restaurant on their farm for a while and became more involved with volunteer mission work, especially with Campers on Mission. Whether it is repairing homes, building churches or doing disaster relief work, Campers on Mission can normally take care of it,” Greg said.
“We have always been busy and very involved in the church,” Jackie said. “We have always had a heart for people in our community. We are not just satisfied sitting back and letting someone else do it, whether it be in VBS or other missions opportunities.”
While the Merrells see the physical fruits of their labor, such as a repaired or new building, they normally do not see the spiritual fruits. Though they occasionally have shared the gospel with folks who accepted Christ, they are normally behind the scenes.
“We want to be Christ-like and be an example so people can see Christ in us,” Jackie said.
The Merrells believe strongly in volunteer missions and encourage others to take part. Jackie noted that many people don’t volunteer because they think they do not have needed skills. “If you are willing to volunteer, the Lord will place you. He is looking for your availability not your skills,” she affirmed.
The couple agreed that it is important to teach the younger generations that will follow the need and importance of volunteering and helping others. “There is a joy in helping others,” Jackie said.
Perrigan agreed with the couple’s assessment of volunteer ministry. “They make an eternal impact on people’s lives,” he said,
Greg Merrell acknowledged that volunteers want to be a blessing to others when they serve, “But the blessing we get in return is much greater than we thought we were going to give,” he said.
Mark Proctor, associate administrator for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, affirmed the value of volunteers.
“In today’s critically tight labor market, volunteers like the Merrells — with one hand fixed on our legacy and one hand reaching toward the future — become the difference makers for the thousands of guests we’ll host this year.
“They are invaluable partners in the hundreds of decisions for Christ we’ll see at the conference centers. We are without voice to say how much we appreciate them.”
For more information about volunteer missions at the conference centers, call Perrigan at 1-423-623-2764 or Jimmy Tucker at Linden Valley at 1-877-354-6336. B&R