Every August (when there’s not a pandemic), the Campus Ministry Leadership Team heads to Concordia’s beautiful retreat center to gear up for the start of a new school year.
Whispering Pines. The name itself suggests what it is: A quiet place, removed from the busyness of everyday life, where the sound of the breeze through the pines and across the water calms the nerves and soothes the soul.
“Be still, and know that I am God,” wrote the psalmist. (Psalms 46:10)
It’s the perfect place to get away, be refreshed, and prepare for a new school year—which is why the Campus Ministry Leadership Team (CMLT) goes to the Whispering Pines Retreat Center every August (COVID permitting, of course).
“Honestly, this is one of the things that students really look forward to the most in Campus Ministry,” said Rev. Doug Bender, CUW associate campus pastor. “It really kind of helps put all the fuel in the tank we need to get us started and moving through the year, and all together on the same page.”
Closer to God
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, last year’s “retreat” was conducted on campus. It still served its purpose, but something was definitely missing.
“There’s just something different about being here that lets people relax and open up,” said Rev. Steve Smith, CUW campus pastor. “And part of it’s just enjoying this great place that Concordia has, God’s beautiful creation, and this ministry we have.”
The 90-acre property has been a part of the Concordia tradition since 1972, when it was gifted to Concordia College by the estate of Gustav and Dorothea Strandt. It is home to three buildings and 13 bedrooms, which can sleep up to 58 people. Available to rent by the general public, it is a popular site for church groups and family reunions during the peak summer months, with one weekend set aside for the CMLT.
This year, 49 students—including 30 new leaders—came up for the retreat, where they took part in planning meetings, training sessions, devotionals, and team-building exercises (the skits are amazing!), with plenty of time to hang out, enjoy the beautiful setting, get to know one another, and reflect on why they’re all there.
Darcy Paape, director of the Women’s Leadership Institute and member of the Campus Ministry team, has been part of the Whispering Pines retreats since she herself was a CUW student. Though graduating from CUW wasn’t part of her original plan, the opportunity to participate in Campus Ministry was one of the things that helped her find her place here.
“It was really exciting to be among other passionate young people who cared so deeply about their faith, Paape recalled. “I think that’s what made me realize, ‘This is my place, I need to stay here, I want to do this.”
When she returned as a member of the CMLT staff, it was very gratifying, even humbling, she said, to see just how self-sufficient the student leaders are.
“It was almost like, ‘Why am I even here? Do they really even need me?’” Paape explained. “Because they just did so much on their own. So it was about finding ways to encourage and mentor and support. Almost, not get in the way of what they wanted to do, but rather help them achieve it.”
Connecting the Generations
Bender also began his ministry career as a student in CMLT, so returning to Whispering Pines can bring back a flood of memories.
“I have a vivid picture of me standing in a circle right over here by the lake, and giving my first devotion as a member of campus ministry,” he said. “I was terrified! I thought, ‘This is probably going to be a total failure.’ But I was surrounded by encouragement, and people just sharing things back to me, and it was just such a cool moment for me. And now that’s the sort of thing I see happen every year with our students.”
One such student is Mollie Hittinger (’22), who Paape identified early on as someone with strong leadership potential. After getting involved with the Youth Ministry program her freshman year, and leading the Intergen ministry her sophomore, Hittinger stepped up to lead the LIGHT women’s ministry last year. This year, at Paape’s urging, she’s taking on the role of president of the CMLT coordinating council.
Just like her mentor, Hittinger has learned that sometimes the best leadership involves just getting out of the way.
“When I was in high school and beginning of college, my style of leadership was very much about taking control and making sure things happen,” she explained. “During my time in CMLT, I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is when to just take a step back and let God’s work happen through the people that he’s put on the team. And then just to look for those opportunities where they might need some support or help.”
And God is certainly working at Whispering Pines. You can see it just in the change that comes over the group during their short time there.
“Before the retreat, it’s like we’re one group of people who know each other and are associated with one another,” Hittinger said. “But when we come back everybody’s more of a unit, and we’re friends, and we have inside jokes, and we’re able to pray together, and we’re closer.
“Last year, having the retreat on campus was good for what it was,” she added. “But this year, even though we’ve only been here a short time, to see the difference in this group of people has been amazing.”
— This story is written by Mike Zimmerman, corporate communications manager for Concordia University Wisconsin. He may be reached at email@example.com or 262-243-4380.
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