More than a time or two, Johan and Sonja Hinderlie questioned where God was leading them. But they kept moving forward despite uncertainties, and now look back with a sense of purpose and fulfillment.
The Hinderlies are retiring after 28 years with Mount Carmel Ministries near Alexandria. While both admit it wasn't the career path they expected, it definitely became a labor of love.
A NEW OPPORTUNITY
Thirty years ago, the Hinderlies were living in Wisconsin where Johan pastored a church. In 1984, a friend who served as director of Mount Carmel (MC) was leaving the position and encouraged Johan to apply.
Johan and Sonja dreamed of being involved in a camp/retreat ministry, so he pursued the opportunity. That fall, he was hired by Golden Valley Lutheran College (GVLC), which owned MC. For nine months of the year he was to be in charge of church relations at the college, and the other three months he would serve as director of MC.
The couple and their three boys, ages 8, 5 and 3, rented a home in the Twin Cities and began a new chapter in their lives.
"We didn't know what we were getting into," Sonja said with a smile, 28 years later.
The following February, Johan was asked to preach for the Psalm of Life radio ministry.
In April - after working for GVLC only six months - news broke that the college was bankrupt and would close in May. The Hinderlies questioned their future.
Because the radio ministry and MC programs were expected to continue, Johan was one of few who still had a job. But the future was uncertain, and there was no guarantee of a reliable salary.
"That was a stressful time," Sonja said. "We couldn't get a loan to buy a house so we lived with Johan's parents and with friends. We hadn't even had a summer at the camp yet, and at that point we weren't sure if we would."
At that time there wasn't much value in lakeshore property, and the board was more interested in trying to bring in money through MC to support the college's debts than to close and sell it.
So the Hinderlies focused their attention on the camp.
THE FIRST SUMMERS
The family moved to MC for the summer of 1985. Sonja poured her time into the camp on a volunteer basis to help her husband. MC hosted 700 people that summer.
"It was challenging," Johan said. "We no longer had the college from which to recruit staff, and the board of trustees was strictly focused on the college, not the camp."
At the conclusion of the first summer, the family moved back to the Cities, finally purchasing a home in November.
Johan was then appointed to serve as interim president for Lutheran Bible Institute (LBI), the corporation that ran the college and MC, to preside over its debt.
With his attention focused there and on the radio ministry, Johan hired Sonja to run MC. She hired staff, planned programming and focused on drawing in more people.
Her efforts paid off. The 1986 season saw 1,600 visitors - more than double the previous summer - and MC finished the season with a profit.
"That summer gave people hope that the camp had a future," Sonja said.
THE BURDEN OF DEBT
When the Hinderlies became involved with MC they had no idea its level of debt - a bank loan of $420,000 and an American Lutheran Church (ALC) loan for $300,000.
Financial advisors recommended that MC be set up as an individual nonprofit ministry apart from GVLC. It was established as Mount Carmel Ministries (MCM), a board was chosen and an appeal letter sent out to start paying off the debt.
"Basically we went into survival mode," Sonja said. "There was a lot of rallying in terms of support."
"Once we became independent, people knew there was no danger of their money going to pay the college's debts," Johan added. "They were assured their money would stay here to be used for Mount Carmel."
From the appeal, $150,000 was raised. The ALC then agreed to forgive its $300,000 loan if MCM stayed in operation a minimum of 10 years. This allowed the now-independent entity to establish a new bank loan.
With the immediate danger of foreclosure past, the Hinderlies focused on improving and promoting MCM and making it a comfortable place to be.
"We started to teach 'living under grace' as opposed to 'living under the law' as a basic understanding of community," Johan said.
Sonja explained this meant eliminating "rules" and establishing a more relaxed atmosphere.
"We wanted to offer a light-hearted, meaningful spiritual ministry with a healing element," she said. "That spirit is what people started to notice."
It's also what helped the Hinderlies feel more certain about their path.
"We thought when Johan took this job that we were getting into this stable and predictable thing, and then it all fell apart," Sonja said. "But in a way that was a freeing experience. We were in a position to make our own decisions about Mount Carmel and to move forward in a new way."
The ministry grew. Changes and improvements were made to programming and facilities, and fundraising continued. In 1987 a giving club - the "Proclaimers - was founded. To date, members have donated more than $5 million. In 1992 the bank debt was paid and in 1997 MCM satisfied its agreement with ALC.
The Hinderlies said this period brought a time of change for them personally as well.
"Our notions about Christianity changed,"