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A changing of the guard at Lake Junaluska: Methodist center with deep Haywood roots works to re-invent itself

Almost a century after its inception, Lake Junaluska Assembly is still a pillar of Haywood County’s heritage, an organic, integral part of its landscape. During those years, the conference center has grown and changed with the region and the times.

But as it enters its 98th year, a new leader will take the driver’s seat, opening a new chapter in the storied retreat’s long history.

After 11 years on the job, Lake Junaluska Executive Director Jimmy Carr is passing the torch to Dr. Jack Ewing, who currently heads the Foundation for Evangelism.

Carr, a Mississippi native, took the job in 2000 after a long career of ministry in the Methodist church. He’s stepping down now, he jokes, “Because I’m old enough to retire.” But really, he set out to stay 10 years and now, after his 11th year of service, said he’s ready to turn over the reins.

Carr’s tenure at Lake Junaluska has been defined by change, both at the conference center and in the wider world. He led a series of successful capital campaigns that helped give the center’s aging buildings a few much-needed facelifts as well as adding a new face to the landscape with the Bethea Welcome Center.

He has also navigated the Lake through some tough economic waters over the last few years. After shelling out money to shore up a leaky dam, the news came several years ago that funding from the United Methodist Church, which owns Lake Junaluska, was changing. The annual stipend that the center relied on would still come, but couldn’t be used for programs anymore. Beginning in 2010, it had to go straight to capital improvements or debt service, of which the Lake now had a considerable amount. The church also charged the center to be self-sufficient by 2013. Coming during a tough economic era, it made for challenging times at Lake Junaluska.

But Carr said that, as the face of the Lake and its focus was changing to meet the ever-changing needs of the church, he just kept returning to the building blocks of his ethos for the center.

“I knew that we needed to put emphasis on two or three things — strengthening the ministry area, leading Lake Junaluska in being a place of hospitality for all people, being more diverse and inclusive in our staff as well as our programming, and taking care of the resources that the church had here,” said Carr.


Reaching out

In the past, Lake Junaluska has catered chiefly to the United Methodist population, bringing in conferences, retreats and meetings as the largest retreat center the church has in its collection. But as the Methodist money began drying up, Carr knew he must change course to keep the Lake alive and thriving.

So he and his staff began courting outside visitors and worked to spruce up and modernize facilities that hadn’t been touched up in years. Of the nearly 200,000 visitors that Lake Junaluska hosts annually, a good number of those are now non-Methodists, whether they’re locals using the walking paths or attending events like the Independence Day and Easter celebrations, or outside church groups coming to use the facilities for retreats and conferences.

And Carr, a soft-spoken Mississippi native, said that changing to suit the needs of a changing church and a changing economy were vital. The new marketing emphasis is not only good for Lake Junaluska but also for Haywood County, who has long reaped the benefits of the conference center.

Carr said that throughout his tenure — but especially in this changing economic climate — the partnerships built outside the center’s walls are increasingly vital.

“The leadership in the county understands the significance of Lake Junaluska, and what we’ve tried to do is make Lake Junaluska even more available to the people of Haywood County,” said Carr. “We’re not a competition to anybody here. Lake Junaluska is a destination. People come here because they’re coming here for some reason. When they get here, they spread out into the broader business community.”

And the more people Lake Junaluska can bring in and spread out, the more the county benefits.

While the economic impact of the retreat center is hard to gauge, Mark Clasby, executive director of Haywood County’s Economic Development Commission and a board member at Lake Junaluska, said that the lake is an asset that has grown in value to the county under Carr’s leadership.

“Lake Junaluska is a real asset,” said Clasby. “They are extremely important to the economy here. With all the programs they bring in a number of people, and as an employer they’re one of the largest employers in the county. They’re an important part of the county, and Jimmy has certainly continued that relationship.”

Bishop Larry Goodpaster, president of the Lake’s board and resident bishop of the church’s Western North Carolina conference, also listed Carr’s skills in the community and willingness to change with the times as qualities to recommend him.

“This has not been a 10 years without challenges,” said Goodpaster. “All of the facilities like Lake Junaluska that depend so much on people coming here have just had to make changes in how we do things. He [Carr] has really done a great job recognizing the need to connect with everyone here in Haywood County.”


Change is challenging

But for all the good that Carr has done, even he realizes that they are not out of the woods yet and there is much work still to be done if the century-old staple of the Methodist and Haywood County landscapes is to continue to grow without the church subsidy it long relied on.

“We can see the difference without the funding,” said Carr. “But it’s allowed us the opportunity to identify better ways of doing things, different ways of doing things, different ways of organizing. I think it’s too early to know the end of that, but I sense a strong commitment on the part of our board to find ways to continue the ministry.’”

But Carr said that his greatest asset in the job and what he will miss on his departure is the staff and board he works with. And to his successor, he wishes nothing more than such great colleagues as the conference center continues to navigate challenging financial waters.

“I think the thing I’ll miss the most is the staff,” said Carr. “I could never have done my job without them. I would wish for Dr. Ewing a continued strong board working with him and staff working with him to make Lake Junaluska stronger.”


A New Era

When Jack Ewing first set foot on Lake Junaluska’s shore, it was love at first sight. It was 1973, and then-newlywed Ewing came to the conference center to keep his wife company on a retreat. They were enamored, falling for the beauty and tranquility of the place, and haven’t missed a yearly visit since.

Thirty-three years later, he was tapped to become the Methodist center’s newest executive director, and the now-Dr. Ewing said he couldn’t be happier to be taking the helm of his beloved home.

“I was thrilled because we love Lake Junaluska,” said Ewing. “It has been the stable force in our life.”

While his predecessor Jimmy Carr came to the position from a life and career in ministry with the United Methodist Church, Ewing comes to the job after spending much of his professional life in Methodist education, serving as the president of two Methodist colleges in the last 16 years. That tenure included serving as president of Dakota Weslyan in South Dakota from 1994-2000 and Mount Union in Ohio from 2000-2005. Ewing came to Lake Junaluska to work for the Foundation for Evangelism in 2005.

Ewing comes from a family chock full of Methodism — the tally of close family members who are Methodist ministers is exhaustively long — and he has long idolized the jewel facility in the Methodist crown. But he’s coming in with no illusions about what this job will entail. He knows about the tough economy and knows that Lake Junaluska has to continue its evolution if it’s going to stay relevant.  

“The reality is that we are in a world which is changing,” said Ewing. “What people want is changing and what people are willing to pay for is changing, and that includes the United Methodist Church.”

Although, like Carr, Ewing doesn’t come from a background in hospitality or business, he’s confident that his skills will lend themselves to crafting Lake Junaluska into a vibrant, self-sustaining ministry center. In fact, he said, since taking the job, the more he’s considered it, the more his skills seem to suit the Lake’s needs. Because, after all, a college is not so different from a retreat center.

“Rather than students who come for a semester at a time, you have students who come for a weekend or a week at a time,” said Ewing. And, as a former college president, he’s no stranger to courting funds and honing business plans, either.

“We’re going to have to raise a lot of money to improve facilities and fund programming at Lake Junaluska,” said Ewing. “I think that my experience in higher education will serve me well in that capacity.”

He won’t officially take the leading role until Jan. 1, but Ewing listed a look at the financial model as one of the first bullets on his to-do list. He’s a firm believer in reinvestment, and wisely spending money to make it will be top of his agenda, too.

“Successful organizations adapt and change,” said Ewing. “I’m a person who is a strong believer in investing those things that will make an organization, a location attractive. There are investments that we’re going to make to make it attractive, which I believe will make it so that more people will want to come and experience Lake Junaluska.”

Goodpaster said he and his board are excited about where Ewing is taking them.

“We were very impressed with his background as a college president and all that means with fundraising and recognizing the complexities of balancing a budget,” said Goodpaster. “And then, I think, his passion and desire to see Lake Junaluska really expand where we’ve been and take us to another level.”

Goodpaster recognizes the hard road ahead, but the promise of good leadership from Ewing makes him hopeful that Lake Junaluska’s long history of success in Haywood County will continue.

“It’s a challenging time but we’re very hopeful,” said Goodpaster. “We’ve had a great 100 years and we’re looking forward to the next 100. I really think that the best days are still out there.”

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