By: Rev'd Dr. Johnny Jeffords
Last week, the Trustees of our church closed on the sale of Nelson Woods to Camp Conquest. In their promotional material Camp Conquest is described as “an overnight camp that encourages children and adults with special needs, chronic illnesses, and disabilities to try things they never imagined possible.”
St. John’s has now placed Nelson Woods in the care of those who have a heart for particular people pushed to the margins. In so many ways, we’ve been able to entrust the care of gifted property to those who have a powerful vision for it. May their journey forward be a blessing.
While the retreat center and accompanying acreage around it are no longer in the care of St. John’s, it is worth sharing the story of the person who gave so much to St. John’s. It is no exaggeration to state that without the profound benevolence of Frances Nelson, St. John’s would be a dramatically different place, perhaps no longer a worshipping congregation at all.
Frances was a long standing member of the Church. With the guidance of the Spirit and the considerable inspiration and direction of Senior Pastor, Rev’d Frank L. McRae, Frances donated land just north of Millington in memory of her husband, Emmet Henderson Nelson. The idea at the time was for Nelson Woods to be a place away from the city where spiritual direction and growth could take place for St. John’s members. Over time the property was developed to include a lodge, a lake was created, and walking trails blazed.
Rev’d Dr. Wright Pillow, Associate Pastor at the time, was charged with spiritual direction and oversight of the programming of the facility. The initial years of the Nelson Woods as a place for spiritual direction and renewal showed some level of fulfillment of its original intended purpose. At that time the facility provided bedding for overnight guests and a cook for events.
After Frank and Wright’s tenures at St. John’s ended, and after Frances died, the vision for Nelson Woods shifted. While originally intended for programming led by St. John’s, primarily for St. John’s members, the ability to adequately program the facility (and have St. John’s folks drive from Midtown to Millington for it) started to become a challenge, with the exception of seasonal congregational gatherings in the Spring and Summer.
Programmatic offerings beyond St. John’s started. I participated in several retreat type events at Nelson Woods for clergy in the mid/late ‘90s. St. John’s broadened the scope of availability of the facility beyond St. John’s only, and Nelson Woods became a retreat center for any congregation/group looking for a place to have their event. When that occurred, St. John’s entered the facilities rental business. The amenities of bedding ended, after a time there was no longer a cook. Groups renting the facility had to provide that themselves.
When I first came to St. John’s in 2001, that’s where we were. The house and barn adjacent to the property, which St. John’s had purchased some years prior, was housing for a caretaker for the facility. Rev’d David Weatherly, Senior Pastor at Covenant UMC, lived in that house for several years with his wife, April, while David attended Memphis Theological Seminary. Later, Steve Broome and Trish Kilzer and their family lived there. The caretaker’s work was to meet guests, clean between occupancies, and tend to minor maintenance needs of the facilities.
In 2005, Nelson Woods served a very different purpose. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Nelson Woods became home for 30+ residents of the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans. They lived there for almost four months. It was the right thing to do and was a faithful expression of use of resources in a time of need.
After our friends from NOLA were able to return, the facility needed some upkeep and care. The market for retreat centers had shifted. While Nelson Woods was lovely, people were more interested in having their own bathrooms and bedrooms. Nelson Woods was far more dormitory. Rentals were not as frequent. Repairs became costly.
Before I first left St. John’s in 2009, conversation was beginning about what to do with Nelson Woods. The original intent of the place had long since gone. And while the legacy of Mrs. Nelson provided for sustaining resources, what had become clear to me was that no level of resourcing could compensate for a lack of vision for the place. At the time, Midtown’s renaissance was just taking off. It was becoming clear that our energy and time needed to be focused on the work we were doing at Peabody and Bellevue.
In the time I was appointed elsewhere, Rev’d Dr. Brad Thomas and committee revisited the question about the viability of Nelson Woods in terms of sustainability and also available energy from St. John’s to sustain what happened there.
When I returned in 2014, the Nelson Woods Committee and the Trustees came to the conclusion that the most faithful way forward was to sell Nelson Woods and focus on our energies on the needs of our mission field here. The Church Council agreed to put in on the market. It’s taken five years to bring this to closure, but this has now happened.
As a condition of the sale, the Trustees passed a resolution that some portion of the sale will be used to fund an appropriate memorial for Frances and Emmet on the grounds of St. John’s as a permanent witness her faithfulness to the Church.
In addition to Nelson Woods, and addition acreage in Millington that St. John’s still owns, Frances left the whole of her estate in the care of St. John’s. It was many millions of dollars. St. John’s has lived off the income those investments yield ever since. Our annual budget is possible because of a couple hundred thousand dollars in investment earnings that make up where our pledges do not.
What an extraordinary gift!
It has long been my hope that the percentage of our budget that we can fund from our own members will increase to the point that we could direct those earning toward specific missional purposes and less so for our general operations. That dream remains and the good we could do with those resources is endless.
So if you’ve never been to Nelson Woods, I hope this gives you a snapshot of what was. And for those of us steeped in the long history of the place, let’s pause today to give God thanks for Nelson Woods even as we pray for those who will occupy it and develop the property far beyond anything we could imagine.
Give thanks for the life, legacy, and generosity of Frances Nelson. May her example inspire us for this season in the life of St. John’s.