October 9, 2018

Expanding the Northwoods experience

Building with God’s nature in mind—and drawing in more of God’s people
Imagine a Northwoods respite, set amid pine and birch trees on the shores of a scenic lake, where fishing for walleye is supreme all summer long, where snowmobiling entices in the winter, and where the Northern Lights delight year-round.

Welcome to Voyageurs Lutheran Ministry, the ELCA-related outdoor ministry that is home to two camp settings and retreat centers in the northern Minnesota wilderness. Just south of Voyageurs National Park and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness along the U.S.-Canadian border, this is where youth come for summer camp, families come for reunions, and a myriad of organizations come for work and play.

One year ago, Voyageurs Lutheran Ministry (VLM) completed the addition of a new, year-round retreat center at its Camp Vermilion on Lake Vermilion, known in native Ojibwe as the “Lake of the Sunset Glow”—and known nationally as one of the most scenic lakes in the country. The new Voyageur Lodge sleeps 40 and features a large gathering space. A new, commercial-grade kitchen and 120-seat dining hall offer three daily meals—and is the perfect setting for group meetings and break-out sessions. A well-outfitted trail shack houses all the necessary gear for canoeing, fishing and camping trips at Lake Vermilion and throughout the Boundary Waters region.

Voyageurs Lutheran Ministry originally worked with two small local banks to finance this project with an interest-only line of credit for construction. This past July, Voyageurs turned to the Mission Investment Fund to refinance the project.

“Once we finished construction, we wanted a longer-term loan with a more favorable interest rate,” says Joel Abenth, executive director of the outdoor ministry. “We knew MIF because of its presence at the Lutheran Outdoor Ministry conference. The partnership between MIF and Lutheran Outdoor Ministries is huge, and we wanted to leverage that. It’s so meaningful to us that MIF serves not only congregations, but ministries, too.”

Now, with MIF’s refinanced loan, Voyageurs is paying $500 to $600 less each month on its loan. “And that is allowing us to pay down principal,” Abenth says.

Expanding the capacity for ministry
The new facility is allowing the outdoor ministry to expand in new and different ways. In 2008, the camps welcomed 850 retreat guests. Last year, some 6,600 folks participated in camp activities.
Many of Voyageurs’ planned “program retreats” are faith-based retreats: youth groups incorporating Bible study and worship with Northwoods recreation, synod members spending quality time with Bishops, congregational call committees engaging in serious team building as they embark on calling new pastors.
“The new retreat center has allowed our ministry to blossom,” Abenth says. “The new space and increased capacity have allowed us to step up to hosting a variety of new groups. Last fall, just after the new building was completed, synod groups held an Oktoberfest in conjunction with the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

“This summer, the Northern Lights Chamber Music Institute came up for 10 days to host master classes and coached rehearsals for high school and college students in our facilities. While they stayed with us, they performed concerts in local churches—and of course they had a great outdoor experience here in God’s wilderness.

“Bookings like these never would have happened before our new building was built. One of our major donors, a great proponent of Lutheran outdoor ministries, has said: ‘Put a Bible in young people’s hands – and do it outside.’ Our buildings’ huge windows, our outdoor deck—everything was built with God’s great Northwoods in mind. We provide the space to enjoy the beauty of this special place.”

And from there comes spiritual growth and personal renewal. MIF was pleased to be a part of this.