Mount Sequoyah leaving Methodist fold after 94 years

In 1922, the mountain overlooking Fayetteville, Ark., won the competition to be a new Methodist retreat center. Mount Sequoyah Retreat and Conference center has been a part of Methodist life ever since, but ownership of the center is now shifting to a local nonprofit. PHOTOS COURTESY MOUNT SEQUOYAH RETREAT AND CONFERENCE CENTER

In 1922, the mountain overlooking Fayetteville, Ark., won the competition to be a new Methodist retreat center. Mount Sequoyah Retreat and Conference center has been a part of Methodist life ever since, but ownership of the center is now shifting to a local nonprofit.
PHOTOS COURTESY MOUNT SEQUOYAH RETREAT AND CONFERENCE CENTER

By Sam Hodges
United Methodist News Service

In 1922, the mountain overlooking downtown Fayetteville, Arkansas, won a tough competition to be a new Methodist retreat center. The day the decision was announced, Fayetteville churches rang their steeple bells in celebration.

“Not just Methodist church bells,” said Dewitt Smith, chair of the board that oversees Mount Sequoyah Retreat and Conference Center. “All the church bells rang.”

For the past 94 years, Mount Sequoyah—with its prominent cross, lovely woods and gorgeous vistas—has been a part of Methodist life, hosting camps, training sessions, bishops’ meetings and more.

That relationship is poised to change when final paperwork is signed, handing ownership from the South Central Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church to a nonprofit.

Delegates to last month’s South Central Jurisdictional Conference approved the recommendation of the jurisdiction’s Mission Council and College of Bishops to let Mount Sequoyah go.

“We all were clear that Mount Sequoyah’s future was best served by it becoming independent in terms of governance,” said Great Plains Area Bishop Scott Jones.

Smith agreed.

“I don’t anticipate that we will ever lose our Wesleyan tradition,” he said of Mount Sequoyah. “It’s embedded in the land up there. But, this format and the new independence will allow us to serve our local community and other faith groups in a more effective way.”

Financial considerations

The deal shifts ownership of property and other assets to Mount Sequoyah Center Inc., a non-denominational nonprofit. The current all-United Methodist board will continue, but as future slots open, people outside the denomination will be considered, said the Rev. Jess Schload, Mount Sequoyah’s CEO.

Those involved say the transaction is more of a spinoff than a sale, but Mount Sequoyah will pay the South Central Jurisdiction 50 percent of any operational surpluses for the next 15 years, up to $1 million.

If the nonprofit sells part of the 32-acre property, half the proceeds would go to the jurisdiction, counting toward that $1 million, Schload said. If the entire property were sold, the jurisdiction would get half the proceeds, he said.

The Rev. David Severe, executive director of the South Central Jurisdiction, said any funds the jurisdiction gets would go to Lydia Patterson Institute, a jurisdiction-owned school in El Paso, Texas.

The jurisdiction has been contributing some $135,000 annually to Mount Sequoyah, about 8 percent of the retreat center’s budget, Schload said. That stops with the deal.

“The jurisdiction’s budget has the relief of no longer subsidizing Mount Sequoyah, and Mount Sequoyah has been freed up to do some areas of ministry that weren’t possible as long as it was owned by United Methodist entities,” Jones said.

Advantages of independence

Both sides agreed Mount Sequoyah needed to move toward independence. The jurisdiction’s College of Bishops decided earlier this year to quicken the pace—in part because the quadrennial Jurisdictional Conference loomed.

“It was either get it done now or wait four more years,” Jones said.

Mount Sequoyah’s leaders are confident it can keep going as a retreat center.

PHOTOS COURTESY MOUNT SEQUOYAH RETREAT AND CONFERENCE CENTER

PHOTOS COURTESY MOUNT SEQUOYAH RETREAT AND CONFERENCE CENTER

They note that it has operated in the black in recent years. Schload said the loss of the jurisdiction’s subsidy will make that harder, but a new, lucrative cell phone tower contract will help.

Mount Sequoyah has been perceived locally as “a bit of a Methodist enclave,” Smith said.

He and Schload believe independence will be an advantage in marketing to a range of religious and other nonprofit groups in the Fayetteville area, though they expect United Methodists to still be a big part of the mix.

Retired United Methodist Bishop John Wesley Hardt said Mount Sequoyah was envisioned as a west-of-the-Mississippi River counterpart to Lake Junaluska, the United Methodist retreat center in the North Carolina mountains.

For decades, Mount Sequoyah was indeed a “destination trek” for denominational groups, Smith said, including bishops of the jurisdiction who would come with their cabinets.

But the bishops meet elsewhere now. Regional training events are rarer and tend to be held within annual conferences, in big cities with easy airport access, Severe said.

Getting United Methodists from around the jurisdiction to come to Mount Sequoyah has proved a challenge.

“We’re not centrally located in the South Central Jurisdiction,” Smith said. “It’s a long way from Albuquerque to Fayetteville.”

Mount Sequoyah has faced the challenge of updating its facilities in recent years, as well as a lawsuit filed by a former CEO who had been fired. That suit was eventually withdrawn, Smith said.

Donations (including a matching grant from the United Methodist Foundation of Arkansas) have helped with important renovations and other improvements, he added.

“Over the course of the next decade, we’ll need to raise some larger funding for some more major renovations,” Smith said.

The need to be vital

The Rev. Kevin Witt, director of camp/retreat ministries for United Methodist Discipleship Ministries, said that in the past 20 years the number of camp/retreat centers associated with annual conferences has dropped from about 235 to 190.

The other trend he’s seen is toward greater self-sufficiency and sustainability.

“We’re just at that point, in terms of the church’s life, in which all of us have to be stronger,” Witt said. “Just like our congregations are being asked to be more vital, we are, too.”

Independence came faster than expected for Mount Sequoyah, but truly is in its interest, according to Smith.

“As much as I would have liked to have retained a United Methodist flag, it’s best that we have the Wesleyan and United Methodist tradition, but without the flag,” he said.

Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.