Archived Outdoors

Ski Junaluska Weekends pair Christian fellowship with downhill fun

coverBy Colby Dunn • SMN correspondent

Perched atop the crest of a mountain, with two slim pieces of fiberglass strapped to your feet, that last big push to send you careening down the slope is a leap of faith — with nothing but your own skills, a couple aluminum poles and perhaps the assistance of The Almighty to guide you. 

Maybe that’s why the ubiquitous youth group ski trip has long been a staple of churches across the country. Perhaps it’s just because teenage bravado and youthful agility are particularly well-suited to chucking yourself down a mountain at high speeds in unusual contortions. 


Either way, in the church calendar of the 11-to 18-year-old set, the winter-retreat-slash-ski-outing is often a much-anticipated annual tradition, one that both Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center and Cataloochee Ski Area play host to each winter for hordes of youth from churches all over the Southeast.

The two organizations have teamed up to provide a seamless experience for youth groups and their leaders in an effort that’s proven to be a win-win for both. 

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As a Christian retreat center on the doorstep of a ski resort, Lake Junaluska offers a weekend package that combines skiing, fellowship, Christian youth speakers and a teen-friendly concert by a Christian band. 

“It is a turn-key package for youth groups, lodging, meals instruction, programming. All they need to do is just show up and be ready to have fun,” said Ken Howle, director of advancement for Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat.

Cataloochee and Junaluska team up on six winter ski-and-worship weekends especially for youth, starting with New Year’s Day and running through February. Each weekend hosts anywhere from 200 to 700 teenagers, thousands over the six-week period.

“We’ve done ski trips in Boone and West Virginia, but really I like the Lake J arrangement best by far,” said Ken MacDonald, a volunteer youth leader at Raeford Presbyterian Church in Raeford, N.C. “The Lake does a great job of working with the ski resort to iron out the usual problems like lost tickets.”

Groups even have a separate room at Cataloochee from the general public to suit up and gear up in, which anyone who’s ever tried to herd a group of teenagers knows is vital. 

But it’s the Christian programming that happens when kids are off the slopes that seals the deal.

“For youth it’s a chance to experience skiing, but the emphasis in all we do is growing in faith, and so the lake’s programming is really important,” MacDonald said.

It’s that balance and integration that keeps groups coming back year on year, and it’s what makes this particular partnership a successful one.

Though the ski portion is a huge selling point, the bands and the speakers that headline the weekend are vital to making the package enticing and impactful for groups who often travel a good stretch to get there. 

“We bring in all kinds of people,” said Jennifer Martin, the director of program ministries at Lake Junaluska. “This year we have a New York Times award-winning author and blogger, Rachel Held Evans. Andy Lambert comes every year, and people love him. Duffy Robbins has been here.” And the list continues.

Martin and her team try to come up with interesting speakers each year from a range of perspectives to keep it fresh for groups who make have been to the Lake before. 

The rocking music probably doesn’t hurt either. While rocking may not be the adjective that has historically been used to describe worship tunes, the bands on the roster this year aren’t your grandma’s worship band.

Second Hand City, who have found fans in MacDonald’s group, is a 75 percent-bearded outfit out of Hickory whose sound is more Top 40 than traditional hymnal. The Texas-based Wayne Kerr Band also occupies the light show, mosh pit, electric guitar space in the Christian music scene, and they’ll be making an appearance at the lake this year, as well. 

For the ski area, partnering with Lake Junaluska brings in a lot of skiers who perhaps wouldn’t have come otherwise. Youth groups travel from as far as Florida and Alabama for these retreats, and many of those kids probably wouldn’t have just headed out on the hours-long journey for a weekend of skiing on their own. 

“We have people from all over the region that come to this area,” said Martin. “It’s a real win-win.”

Cataloochee and Lake Junaluska have been working together for a long time in different avenues, said Cataloochee’s Tammy Brown, marketing jointly to churches and working trade shows side by side. These six youth weekends in the winter are just taking that partnership to the next level. 

It’s good for Cataloochee, which brings in business it might not otherwise. Cataloochee even contributes to the cost of bringing in the bands and speakers, which in turn help draw the youth groups.

And for Lake Junaluska, “We are accomplishing our goal of Christian education and renewal,” Howle said.

Many youth groups come back to do the package again and again.

“We get church groups that repeat every year, and some that repeat every two to three years,” Howle said.

For youth groups, especially smaller ones like MacDonald’s, who are mainly volunteer-run, it’s a great opportunity to get young people into nature, into worship and into a sports experience they don’t often get to have. 

“Practically speaking, because we don’t have many adults working with our youth, the Lake J. events are great because we can bring our middle and high school students on one trip, and for programming they’re divided to age-appropriate programs,” said MacDonald. “I like the family feel of Lake J’s programming. It’s great for young people to grow in their faith around loving and gentle people.”

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