How Pine Cove Came to Be
What should I do with my life?
Sooner or later, everyone asks that question. Many never come up with an answer, and far too many come up with the wrong answer. Some pursue things that don’t fit them. Some chase money instead of what matters. Some just settle for any old job that pays. Worst of all, millions buy into the lie that says their life is “my life,” to do with as they please.
Bill McKenzie followed a different path. By grace, he realized early on that his life was a gift from a good God who had a purpose for him. So in pondering the question of what he should do with his life, Bill gave it a decisive twist by asking, What is God’s will for my life?
Sure enough, God answered that question—just not all at once. Initially God led Bill into flying, then college, then marriage, then aeronautical engineering. As a senior propulsion engineer at General Dynamics in Fort Worth, his marching orders were pretty straightforward: “Help design a plane that will scare the Russians.” And so he did. Bill worked on projects related to the B-36, B-58, and F-111 aircraft.
By rights, Bill could have spent his whole career engineering the latest and greatest aeronautical marvels. And had that been God’s will for Bill’s entire career, that would have been fantastic. But for reasons of His own, God spoke to Bill in 1967 about a little piece of property that his family owned in East Texas, telling him in no uncertain terms, “Bill, I am going to bless this land with a showplace for My glory.”
The land, of course, was Pine Cove. And the blessing? Well, that was Pine Cove, as well. And to our great benefit Bill has told the back-story of how Pine Cove came to be in his just-released book, Live For What Outlives You: The Amazing Story of How Pine Cove Began.
For Bill, the “amazing” thing about Pine Cove’s beginning is how un-amazing and unremarkable he feels he was as the founder. To him, Pine Cove is a “who da thunk it?!” tale. He had never been an outstanding student in school. In football he was just the backup for the starting center. He did not come from a family with money. Nor did he ever feel a call to vocational ministry.
It’s true that during college he volunteered for one summer at Young Life’s Star Ranch in Colorado. “However,” he writes, “I never felt called to full-time ministry. Besides, I was an airplane kind of guy. It was in my bones. I couldn’t see that I would have much in common with a full-time ministry to kids. No, that wasn’t in the cards for me, as far as I could tell.”
So it was on to General Dynamics. But as his career advanced and his family grew, Bill gradually began to feel a sense that God wanted him to turn his family’s property near Tyler into some kind of retreat center, where people could get away to focus on God’s Word in a beautiful setting. “I didn’t have any special ability to do that—only my availability. I didn’t know any better than to believe God.”
Which is what makes this book so important, and definitely must-reading for every person associated with Pine Cove—campers, staff, Board members, donors, prospective donors, friends, and especially summer staff who are pondering their future careers. Most of us among this constituency likely see ourselves the way Bill McKenzie saw himself as he was getting started in life: just average, nothing special, not someone from whom to expect great things. We’re just people trying to make a living, raise our families, and (hopefully) walk humbly with our God.
And yet, time and again, that’s exactly the sort of person God uses to accomplish His purposes and bring Himself glory: the everyday person who honestly keeps asking, What is God’s will for my life?
As Bill wrestled to find direction, he remembers waking up each morning and praying, “Lord, I give you my life today. I will go where you want me to go. I will do what you want me to do. I will say what you want me to say.”
In praying such prayers, Bill points out (profoundly, I think) that he was yielding to God, not surrendering to Him. “I have never liked the idea of ‘surrendering’ to God’s will. It sounds as if you are fighting God until you are too weak too fight. You surrender to an adversary, but you yield to someone you worship and love.” Clearly, God was compelling Bill’s love and devotion and heart, not just ordering him to carry out an assignment.
By that means, one step at a time, one day at a time over several years, God led Bill through a series of career transitions, “chance” encounters, strategic advice from timely mentors, and finally a trip to the Republic National Bank in Dallas for the signing of a $150,000 note (more than $1 million in today’s money) by his father, Alex McKenzie. With that, Pine Cove was born at the beginning of summer 1968.
I was there the Sunday Pine Cove greeted its first summer campers. By dinnertime at the Woods dining hall, I recall 14 elementary-age campers and 21 of us staff members. By the end of the week, we were up to 18 or 20 kids. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to prove the concept, such that Pine Cove moved ahead with a bond program that raised $250,000 from folks who were eager to see the fledgling project succeed.
By the next summer, word had gotten out and the weeks started filling up. The first high school camp was also held that summer. By the third summer there were waiting lists for the elementary-age weeks, which led to Towers opening up in 1971. Then came The Ranch. Then Shores, allowing The Woods to be devoted exclusively to family camping.
Today, Pine Cove operates six youth camps and three family camps in Tyler and Columbus, Texas, along with a day camp in Tyler and Camp In the City in more than 50 cities in eight states. Meanwhile, work has begun on three new camps on Lake Hartwell in South Carolina.
And that’s why Bill McKenzie’s story actually is amazing! A simple idea that morphed into a modest dream that fueled several years of intensive prayer and a lot of hard work and eventually led to the start-up of a tiny camp is now proving the truth of Ephesians 3:20-21: “God can do anything, you know—far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams! He does it not by pushing us around but by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us” (The Message).
The amazing story of how Pine Cove began is really the story of our amazing God. He uses ordinary people to accomplish extraordinary things. Which is what makes this story so inspiring for the rest of us. Bill McKenzie is a great model of what can happen when an everyday person humbly, quietly, but persistently makes himself available to God.
In the book, Bill reminds us of the words that Henry Varley, an itinerant preacher from England, told his friend Dwight L. Moody. Moody had a gnawing sense that God might be calling him to become an evangelist, but he was just a poorly educated shoe salesman. Varley offhandedly remarked, “The world has yet to see what God can do with and for and through and in a man who is fully and wholly consecrated to Him.” God used Varley’s comment to inspire Moody to simply make himself available for however God might choose to use him. Moody went on to become a renowned evangelist on both sides of the Atlantic, possibly accounting for as many as 1 million people to have placed their faith in Christ.
Of course, not all of the amazing things God does through those who make themselves available to Him will seem as spectacular as reaching millions with the gospel or founding a world-class, multi-location camping ministry. But any and every work of God is awesome. After all, it’s not our glory at stake, but His.
And so Pine Cove has a nearly fifty-year history of person after person being surprised, if not overwhelmed, by what God has done beyond their wildest dreams. Maybe it’s the orchestration of a complete turnaround in their wayward teen. Or the seemingly impossible resurrection of their marriage, which they were convinced was over. Or the miraculous healing of a loved one from a life-threatening illness. Or the provision of desperately needed money, when all seemed lost.
“God can do anything, you know. . . by working within us, his Spirit deeply and gently within us.”
Obviously Live For What Outlives You will prove invaluable historically because it’s a firsthand account of Pine Cove’s pre-history by its founder. But what makes this book priceless is the insight it sheds on The Pine Cove Way. The Pine Cove Way is the code that summarizes Pine Cove’s mission, values, and philosophy of ministry. It’s Pine Cove’s version of the formula for Coca-Cola. Everything done at Pine Cove is assessed against The Pine Cove Way.
For that reason, at the beginning of every summer, all summer staff devote a week to being indoctrinated in The Pine Cove Way. That orientation is perhaps the most concentrated form by which Pine Cove seeks to preserve and perpetuate its strongly held culture. There’s a reason behind everything Pine Cove does, and ideally every experience any camper has while at Pine Cove traces its purpose back to The Pine Cove Way.
In short, The Pine Cove Way is our answer to the question, What is God’s will for Pine Cove?
How fascinating and instructive to realize that it all started with a young man seeking to answer the question, What is God’s will for my life?
Bill “Surf” Hendricks is a Pine Cove Board member who worked on summer staff from 1968-73.