GATLINBURG, TN – The hills are alive, with the sounds of ministry.
Actually, it’s the Great Smoky Mountains that are alive with a record-breaking 10-million visitors and only a handful of ministry volunteers to meet their spiritual needs. Smoky Mountain Resort Ministries has been working to fill that void for the past 42 years and is once again recruiting volunteers for this summer tourist season.
Actually, volunteers are in demand year-round but the summer vacation months have the highest need for young and old to show God’s love to those standing in awe of His creation. And it’s not too late to plan a mission trip for the coming months, says Director Bill Black.
Its roots are in the Sevier County Association of Baptists … and just as deep in Georgia Baptists.
Black is a native of Swainsboro, where he grew up in First Baptist Church.
He jokingly says he “was ‘kicked’ out of children’s choir because … they said … ‘he cannot sing.’ That’s when I was taken in by the Woman’s Missionary Union as a Sunbeam and later became a Royal Ambassador while it was under the WMU program area. I learned missions from those programs and attending Camp Pinnacle.”
His mother was a WMU leader who always had visiting missionaries in their home for dessert or a meal.
“It was a classic wonderful Christian home that prepared me for ministry. John Spivey, who pastored in Georgia and served with the Georgia Baptist Convention as it was known in those days, was an early mentor,” he continues.
In the mid-70s Black explored ways of being involved in creative ministry, first as a summer missionary through the Home Mission Board. Resort missions was in its infancy and he found himself working in an HMB ministry called Christian High Adventure. That’s where he learned much about risk and creativity in missions.
By his second year at Southern Seminary he knew he wanted something more than traditional ministry but there were no clear cut options.
Eventually Black found himself back in Georgia, serving in the pulpit as pastor of Ochlocknee Baptist Church from 1979 until 1981. Still searching with his calling, he resigned the pastorate and took the plunge that year to join what would become Smoky Mountain Resort Ministries
Initially he served with SMRM as its first missionary through the Home Mission Board, along with other trailblazers like Debbie Wohler at Lake Tahoe, CA and Lynn Davis in Maryland. The ministry was well received and was frequently featured in Christian publications profiling the need for a Christian ministry in parks and resort settings.
In a major restricting around 2005, the North American Mission Board – successor to the HMB – eliminated all funding for resort ministries nationwide and SMRM became an independent 501c3 non-profit working closely with the Tennessee association. Georgia Baptists, not content to see the ministry fold after decades of spiritual commitment and investment, stepped up their involvement and has kept the wind in the ministry’s sails.
Black said that today, in its new incarnation, the ministry has its own Board of Directors who are responsible for raising all of the ministry’s operating funds. Three of those board members are Georgia Baptists – Doug Martin of First Columbus, Pastor David Lambert of First Thomson, and Eric Spivey, pastor of First Cornelia. Spivey, son of John Spivey, also serves as Board Chair.
The ministry serves more than just vacationers seeking a little R&R from their busy lives. It provides a year-round presence to those working in the hospitality businesses which serve those guests.
Outreach includes campground ministries including children’s camps similar to:
- Vacation Bible School formats in up to as many as six campgrounds; and campground worship services, block party-like events, and watermelon “feeds” to gather families together in the evenings.
- Evening campground Bible studies such as that led by former Georgia Baptist State Missionary Linda Johnson, who has a strong track record with resort missions and helped found Southern Baptist outreach to Olympics events.
- Special Event Ministries which are popular missions outlets such as involvement at the Gatlinburg Craftsmen’s Fair held each July and October. The ministry hosts a popular Kids Corner during the July fair – a crafts booth where children participate in DIY projects such as painting bird houses and making sand art crosses. Volunteers use the event to build relationships with parents which can be expanded on later in the campgrounds or as they meet around town at other venues. Volunteers also provide pre-parade entertainment for the Fourth of July Parade with witnessing opportunities for as many as 80,000 visitors.
- International Student Workers, who can easily number 1,500, frequently need the friendship of Americans to help them navigate their temporary culture. The college employees from around the world – Mongolia, Jamaica, Africa, Europe – make Gatlinburg their home until their summer work/travel VISA expires. Black and his volunteers provide special meals in the students housing units where as many as 100 meals can be served on Monday nights.
Smoky Mountain Resort Ministries volunteers also provide transportation to the student workers to popular local hiking locations and shopping malls. The interaction provides intentional time to build friendships and witnessing opportunities.
There are also ministry opportunities to permanent residents who work in the hospitality industry year-round. Their needs for spiritual help in times of personal crisis can go unnoticed if they are not involved in a church. In those instances the volunteer serves as an unofficial chaplain.
- In the winter, a Ski Ministry at Ober Gatlinburg provides employee devotionals and Bible studies, skier Sunday worship services, and a chaplain relationship for employees and guests.
In short, in such a creative environment the missions opportunities are only limited by the imagination, Black says. The wildfire that devastated Gatlinburg in November 2016 clearly demonstrated that flexibility, with Black serving around the clock. For the first 30 hours he was part of the receiving team at the Rocky Top evacuation center. Part of that early ministry saw Black distributeing gifts cards from WMU groups to those affected by the fire that claimed 14 lives. The fire ministry resulted in many other expressions of care and involvement for the next year.
While the summer season is right around the corner, Black says he still has opportunities for volunteers of any age, ranging from church groups to senior adults or early retirees. He is especially praying for church groups who can commit to a week of ministry.
Individuals can click here for a Summer Missionary Application. Summer missions begins May 27 and ends August 7.
Churches or organizations can click here for a Mission Team Application and view an outline of a typical week’s schedule.