I once attempted to save the sheetrock walls from the old Canteen located in the original Wagon Inn before we, rightfully, had the building demolished. Why would a presumably sane person make this choice? These walls were adorned with the signatures and other graffiti from 1980-2010 era campers and summer staff. In other words, for 30 years people had been signing that sheetrock and within days, proof of this tradition would be gone forever. Yes, even before others warned me, I knew my attempts at saving this history would very likely end up being a fruitless task but this was my way of keeping things the way they were. Because things the way they were were outstanding.
It’s natural for me to resist change. I can hold on a bit too long to moments and momentos. It’s not that I necessarily fear change but it’s more that I just typically really enjoy the moments I am in and am content where I’m at. And while improvement is important to me, I usually prefer to improve the existing and not create something new. I’d remodel versus buy. My memories are in this home and yard, not the newer, fancier one across town.
And yet, I’ve survived the last 20+ years serving and living at New Life Ranch during which the main constant has been change. And though the many changes have been, at times, difficult, the mission of the Ranch, our campers, our guests and the Gospel are better off because of them.
Six years ago when we set a new vision of, “By 2021 we will be a family of camps launching the next generation of Christlike leaders to change the world,” we felt we had a general idea of what to expect. We knew it meant revamping the spiritual focus of our programs. We knew that the Lord was continuing to bring more and more campers and retreats to NLR. We knew that the existing facility, Flint Valley as it is now called, was close to maxed out. We knew we had ample acreage to build upon. We also knew that building takes a long time. We knew that building from scratch takes a lot of money.
So when the idea of acquiring an existing property was first floated in one of our leadership meetings, to my dismay (see above), it was received with intrigue. For me, it wasn’t until one of our board members framed the situation we were facing as not taking action would be causing us to “lose the next generation of NLR campers” that I started to accept the change. How many kids and summer staff would have never been able graffiti their name on that canteen wall if back in 1958, founders Willard Heck and Tom Hull had not been receptive to change? Yes, that wall is long gone but signing a wall was one of the least consequential things that happened for those kids while at camp. The life change is what they took with them and that, unlike the sheetrock, won’t ever make it to a landfill.
Therefore, when Dry Gulch USA was put up for sale, God chose to move mightily and provide this facility for our ministry. While I was holding tightly onto a Valley, He was reminding me that He is the God of the nations. And here I am now, after leaving 16 years of Flint Valley behind, sitting in my office of the last 3.5 years at Frontier Cove, about to start telling you about the next 50 years at some place near central Arkansas called Boulder Mountain.
After evaluating the opportunities we had in front of us, in June of 2021 our board of directors challenged the NLR staff with a new vision statement. It included a numerical goal of what amounts to us doubling the number of people we serve over the next five years. How this happened would be left in the mostly capable hands of the staff. As this work began it became clear that while, yes, there were opportunities on the margins to more fully utilize Flint Valley and Frontier Cove, if we truly were to meet the God-inspired vision, a more proactive approach would be needed. Was this another facility acquisition? Was this adding to one of the existing sites? Was it a new program? Was it a combination? In other words, we were open to change as long as it meant a larger Gospel impact.
Just as the timing around the Dry Gulch (now Frontier Cove) property coming up for sale was obviously the Lord’s providence, the way God answered these questions this time made clear a specific path forward. It’s been a pipedream for many years to have a retreat focused site that is geared and designed to serve churches and other ministries all year long, but especially during the summer months. By reserving our prime summer weeks for our summer camp, day camp and leadership development programs, we consistently turn away ministries who desire to come to NLR for their summer retreats. As demand for NLR summer camps has grown, we’ve even had to put long-term, valued partnerships with ministries on hold while prioritizing getting more campers to summer camp. Remember above when I mentioned not wanting to lose “the next generation of NLR campers?” This has been the same conundrum but substitutes “retreat guests” for “campers.” Having a facility that could focus solely on retreats would alleviate this issue allowing us to have a gospel impact on thousands of more people. Even better would be if it would allow us to reach a different market - ministries that were geographically too far away from Flint Valley or Frontier Cove to drive for a weekend retreat or summer camp.
Discussions around these ideas had existed only internally when we received word that Ozark Conference Center near Morrilton, Arkansas was interested in transferring ownership of their 300+ acres and assets to New Life Ranch. Recent years had been especially difficult on their ministry but their staff and board had a desire for the property to continue to be used for Christian ministry purposes. While the property boasts a number of quality facilities, the appeal lies in the open canvas, extensive views, natural setting (like the 25 foot waterfall!) and introductions to new markets for NLR - Fort Smith and Little Rock, Arkansas and even Memphis, Tennessee regions. The timing wasn’t what we would have expected coming so soon after setting this new vision but as we did our due diligence, it became very clear to us that this wasn’t a weird coincidence. This was confirmed when their search committee, staff and board unanimously chose NLR over one another suitor for the property.
Immediately after we announced the gift of the property to NLR, we began receiving retreat interest. Additionally, many other long term retreat partners have come to tour the new property and to hear about the long-term vision for New Life Ranch - Boulder Mountain.
I realized while writing this that I kinda lied earlier when I said the main constant at NLR over the last 20 years has been change. Sure, I can easily remember the graffiti on the walls of the old canteen, when there were only 70 people on summer staff instead of 250. I remember how the old gym floor would bubble up when the outdoor temps changed significantly but yet it didn’t stop us from playing dodgeball. There wasn’t a Flint Field, Funky Bars, OK Corral, Quack Dip or Trifecta. Flint Valley was just New Life Ranch. Frontier Cove was Dry Gulch USA. Boulder Mountain was Ozark Conference Center.
The main constant has been that we exist to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ and equip believers for ministry. I was taught this my first summer at camp in 1998. I just taught this to a new full-time employee just a few weeks ago. I’ll teach this to the 125 summer staffers at Frontier Cove this summer. And while I don’t know what New Life Ranch will look like in another 20 years, I know that other traditions will have gone to a real or proverbial landfill but the people in charge of the Ranch will be making decisions, prayerfully with that same mission driving them. And this brings me great joy and contentment.