Guest Editorial: Why did White Oak Conference Center close?

After it cast a vision to build a conference center for training South Carolina Baptists through retreats and camps, the leadership of the South Carolina Baptist Convention (SCBC) asked churches to donate to the project. Many churches, if not most, sacrificed to make the vision become a reality. As thousands of churches and members across the state bought into the vision with their prayers and sacrificial giving, White Oak Conference Center (WOCC) was well on its way to becoming a reality.

Then, two decades later, in July of 2020, the SCBC made the decision to cancel all remaining bookings and close the doors citing that they intended to sell immediately. But it never sold and is now empty, falling into disrepair. And it has never been made clear why they made that decision.

In 1977, ground was broken and construction began for WOCC. It officially opened in 1979 and ws used by many churches over the next two decades. Other denominations also enjoyed the generosity of SC Baptists as they shared in our wonderful facilities.  

Additions were made in the early 2000s and again in 2009. Baptists were asked again to donate funds for the Beecham Auditorium and other buildings. With these funds and funds from churches’ Cooperative Program gifts, additional investments and improvements were made in the first thirty years for WOCC. SC Baptists were proud of what God had done in this beautiful retreat/camp/conference facility. It was used for many training events and meetings.

At some point, top officials of the SCBC and its Executive Committee decided it was no longer an asset to the SCBC, but a liability – even stating that it was not a mission. After some time, the facility’s infrastructure began to show signs of aging, and the repair process was made very difficult due to the red tape that was in place at the SCBC. This resulted in a lot of “patch work” repairs on the conference center.

Many Baptists across the state wondered why they were not asked about such a monumental decision – to sell it – since they were surely asked to give the money to build it and for additions through the years. It just seemed to be a logical question for most Baptists, “Why did we not have a say in the matter?”

Nevertheless, in 2016, the Properties Committee of the Executive Committee of the SCBC decided to sell WOCC during a time when there was not a President of the Convention in place. When Dr. Gary Hollingsworth was hired to lead the convention, he was given the directive to continue with the sale of the properties of the WOCC. The actual vote to dispose of all properties in White Oak, SC, was confirmed after he was hired.

To otherwise solidify their intent to sell WOCC, the SCBC planned to use part of the potential sale of the Baptist Collegiate Ministries Building at the University of South Carolina as a way to improve White Oak’s deferred maintenance issues. White Oak staff and employees were told to go through and compile a “wish list” of improvements for present and future wants. The sale of the BCM building at USC did not go through and the funds for White Oak’s future improvements never became available.

Meanwhile, the SCBC Properties Committee took the “wish list” for WOCC and concluded that the price tag for the improvements was too expensive. They felt that in order for WOCC to function that it was necessary to make such improvements. This was not true from our perspective as the “wish list” published by the Properties Committee had requests for recreation upgrades, food service, A/V improvements, and maintenance equipment upgrades, not only the immediate and dire maintenance needs from the staff lists.

During summer camps as many as 500 students per week came through the gates of WOCC for decades and over the course of those camps, thousands of children and young people came to be saved by faith in Jesus Christ and their lives were eternally changed. Many young people were called to preach, to ministerial positions, and to missions. Other youth camps outside of summertime were held at WOCC with similar results. Special conventions and concerts were also held, which without WOCC would not have been possible. It would be interesting to know how many choir retreats and camps were held by the convention and individual churches. There were many churches who held annual staff retreats, deacon retreats, planning retreats, and many, many more.

Why did the churches of the SCBC that paid to build the facility not have a say in the fate of it? WOCC was, and can still remain, a wonderful place for God to use for Christians in the state of South Carolina instead of resources being allocated out of state. It seems to us that it became more about the dollar than the mission. You cannot put a dollar value on a soul, a calling, a path to maturity in Christ, or the building of unity and fellowship among Baptist churches in “conferences” together. What dollar value can you place on these?

It has now been over a year since White Oak was closed to the public, yet no sale has occurred. SummerSalt and KidsSalt, which are the main summer camps, used another institution this year while WOCC sits empty The SCBC is now asking for sealed bids for prospective buyers through September 2021. Eventhough WOCC is closed, Baptist are still paying a lot of money every month to maintain the facility that is totally closed for use.

After 42 years, that is the current fate of WOCC. 

I have only one voice, but I say, “What a waste of millions of CP dollars! And if you let me vote, I will vote to keep it open as I have spent many years there and have seen firsthand what God can do with it.”

Bill Wilkes, member

First Baptist Church, Winnsboro

Eddie Baughman, member

Sandy Level Baptist Church, Blythewood

Contact us: (803) 767-5711 | P.O. Box 675, Blythewood, SC 29016 | [email protected]