Executive Director Jack Ewing, who announced his Dec. 31 retirement last week, will be remembered as a leader working to stay true to that mission, while also managing a very necessary business model modernization.
“I think one of the keys to Jack’s success was to build an extraordinarily strong team committed to the mission of the Lake,” said Mike Warren, who is in his first year as board chair after nearly 60 years of association with Lake Junaluska. “One of the things that will be imperative during this transition time is that that strong senior team particularly remain in place.”
Warren explained that he’s not a formal member of the five-person search committee that’s been established, but former board chair John Russell is; together, that committee will craft a job description and begin working to replace Ewing.
Replacing Ewing, however, won’t be easy.
Ewing, 65, is born and bred in the Methodist faith, and brought with him in 2011 decades of high-level experience including from Dakota Wesleyan University and The University of Mount Union. But Ewing started the job already knowing that things would need to change, and fast.
“The first day that I was introduced back seven years ago, these words came out of my mouth,” Ewing said. “I’m not sure I should call them prophetic, but I said that the world is changing, what people are wanting is changing, and what people are willing to pay for is changing, and therefore Lake Junaluska is going to have to change as well.”
It wasn’t just the world that was changing around the Lake; the world within the Lake was changing even faster.
“Lake Junaluska, for almost the first 100 years, had a very close connection to and significant financial support from the Southeastern Jurisdiction of the Methodist Church,” said Warren. “Fairly early in Jack’s tenure that financial support for operating needs was discontinued.”
That funding loss wasn’t a surprise to Ewing or anyone else; nor was Ewing’s desire to take the job in the face of that challenge — or, as Ewing called it, opportunity.
“It had been decided two-and-a-half years before I started my position,” Ewing said. “Probably what I’m most proud of, what we are able to do was not just say ‘Oh, woe is us we’ve lost this support now and we’re the victims,’ but I almost immediately started talking about the gift that the jurisdiction gave us of ‘how do we get better?’”
Warren said that Ewing presided over a significant portion of that transformation, morphing the Lake into a more sustainable economic entity.
“We entered into a second phase, if you will, of knowing that we were going to have to move more towards a business-based model in conjunction with and consistent with our continuing mission that Junaluska remain a site of transformation and renewal, and that we would continue to have a connection with the Methodist church, which we have historically,” he said.
Ewing, though, cautions that the transformation isn’t over.
“I think we’ve lived in that, and we’re just at the beginning of living in that. So whether you want to call the next leader entrepreneurial or not — some people might be put off by that thinking it’s too business-oriented and not enough focused on mission — ultimately Lake Junaluska’s success in helping people to experience that sense of transformation and renewal that is core to our mission is dependent on people coming.”
Reflections on the Lake
In looking back over his time at Lake Junaluska, Ewing is frank about the future of the institution.
“Ultimately the success of Lake Junaluska is dependent upon us finding people who want what we can provide — great Christian hospitality in a beautiful location — and that they are willing to pay for that,” he said.
The setting in which the Lake provides that hospitality, in the form of conferences and retreats, is unlike almost any other.
“One of the things that is unique that probably no executive director of a conference center in America experiences is to have 850 private residences on your grounds, on your campus of your conference center,” he said. “That brings unique challenges with it.”
It’s written in The Works of John Wesley that Wesley once thought the life of a Christian was by necessity a solitary one, until upon reflection he came to a stunning conclusion — “not if Jesus Christ be the model of Christianity.”
Wesley’s reflection hasn’t been lost on Ewing.
“One of the things that we have tried to do as we have moved the conference center forward, is we’ve tried to move the community forward as well,” he said, noting that he and his wife have chosen to remain part of that community by maintaining a residence there. “We value this place. We love this place and we want to be a part of it going forward.”
In the next six to nine months, the search committee will attempt to identify candidates, hopefully narrowing that down to two or three who will make a visit to meet with and be interviewed by other board members, members of the staff and members of the community before a final decision is made.
“A lot of Jack’s time, his seven years as executive director, was moving us through that transition phase to the point where today we look forward to what kind of executive director we need in the years ahead,” Warren said. “We’ve got to rethink that assignment in view of what seems to be a significantly changed circumstance from what we’ve had for 90-plus years.”
And what kind of executive director would Ewing like to see?
“Of course it is never appropriate for a person who’s retiring to tell an organization who they should hire in the future,” Ewing said. “Certainly I hope that the person they look for sees opportunities at Lake Junaluska for continued growth and expansion.”