The Okoboji Bible Conference was born of one of the earliest religious radio broadcasts in America. In 1923, Robert Roger Brown was leading a fledgling interdenominational and missional Christian church in Omaha. Representatives of the new medium of commercial radio asked him to help fill airtime by providing Christian religious services on Sunday mornings. The powerful AM signal of WOAW (later WOW) could reach across the continent and to the oceans via the uncluttered airwaves of the day.
Listeners in northwest Iowa and southern Minnesota invited Brown to minister in person to them. He chose to do so through a summer tent meeting in the attractive and accessible Okoboji Lakes area. The gathering would emphasize his passions for Bible teaching, the deeper life, and global missions. In 1935 he erected a tent on the site where the Okoboji Middle School is now located in Arnolds Park. August 4-11 marked the first gathering that year. The schedule mirrored that of earlier east coast gatherings led by A. B. Simpson at the Old Orchard Beach, Maine camp meetings.
The current Conference property was purchased in 1945 and the unique building with garage doors on two sides was erected in 1950. The Conference has continued to meet annually on that site ever since. The identity of the founder and the event were inseparable to the point that to this day one can occasionally still hear the gathering referred to as “Brown’s Conference.”
Upon the founder’s death in 1964, leadership was assumed by Robert Shuman Brown, the founder’s son. He had assisted his father musically since the beginning. Like his father, “Dr. Bob” would lead the Conference for 30 years. Often mistaken for a clergyman, Bob Brown was, in reality, a public school principal in Omaha. His doctoral designation was earned with a Ph. D. from the University of Nebraska. His wife, May, joined him, tirelessly caring for the conference and the facilities as their summer vacation routine. They continued the historic values of Christian instruction, missionary passion, and family life, enlarging age-level ministries for all. Under their leadership, the campus was enlarged and most of the existing additional buildings were added.
Bob and May Brown retired in 1994. After 60 years of heroic leadership by two men, the changing times and demands produced team leadership models involving Scottie May (the daughter of R. S. Brown), Rick Porter, Linda Harmon Swanson, Mark and Jody Stevenson, Dave and Jody Van Kley, and Steve Yost. Some combination of those persons has given leadership under various titles and responsibilities from 1994 until today.
In 2005, the board of directors acted to envision a larger future by asking Rick Porter to serve, initially in a support role and later as executive director. Rick represented the first truly full-time staff member. An office was established at the former “Kum & Go” at Highway 71 and Broadway in Arnolds Park, acquired by the Conference in 2001. In addition, a year-round, area-wide ministry outreach of the Conference launched in 2006.
Since 2009, significant transitions in board leadership have occurred as the board intentionally down-sized and introduced term limits. The board of directors is now comprised of both relative newcomers joined by some who represent the fourth generation of family involvement. Out of a rich history, a renewing and enlarging vision for the future is just now beginning to emerge.
R. R. Brown envisioned the continuity of the Conference “from 1935 until Christ returns.” Current leadership sees no reason to abandon that expectation of continuing service to Christians across the Midwest and around the world.
Times seemed to be right for the birth of a family Bible conference. It was the early 1930’s and the depression was still being felt by every segment of the agricultural Midwest. But that struggle was only superficial in contrast to the spiritual hunger that people were experiencing in their hearts due in part, at least, to liberalism that had swept through many churches and denominations during those years.
It was into that spiritual vacuum that the Sunday morning radio broadcasts by Dr. R. R. Brown, pastor of the Omaha Gospel Tabernacle and superintendent of the Western District of The Christian and Missionary Alliance, came with needed Bible-centered preaching and encouragement for Christian living. The large radio audience who heard these broadcasts over WOW (Omaha) radio became known as the World Radio Congregation. It was for these dear friends that Dr. Brown felt there should be summer Bible and missionary conference, and what better, more central place, than the Okoboji Lakes resort area in northwest Iowa.
As early as 1933, J. Francis Chase, a commercial artist and Christian lay leader in the Chicago area, encouraged Dr. Brown to make efforts to rent the Methodist Camp on Lake Okoboji to start such a conference. Even though this facility was not available, the initial efforts generated sufficient interest and momentum to assure support for such a venture. Permission was granted by the school district of Arnolds Park, Iowa to erect a 90’ x 90’ tent on its school grounds, and the first conference was launched August 4-11, 1935.
The conference opened with about one thousand people from nearly 80 cities and towns. The crowds grew daily. The closing Sunday saw actual throngs on the conference grounds. Best of all there was a marked increase in the spirit of unity and spiritual power each day. The following report captures the enthusiasm: ‘The officials of the City of Arnolds Park, cottage owners, pastors, and churches gave most generous cooperation. They united in requesting us to return in 1936. We have a registration list of about 600 names. The people of Arnolds Park and farmers, in particular, asked us to choose a later date if we decide to return next year.’
That first conference proved to be only the beginning. By the summer of 1940, it was necessary for Rogers Tent and Awning Co. of Fremont, Nebraska to provide a tent 90′ x 170′. That conference saw an attendance of Christian friends from twenty-six denominations. There seemed to be a special need for the ministry of the conference during the ‘war years’. V-Day, August 13, 1945, was an emotional day on the conference grounds.
Later that same year, on December 11, 1945, a choice parcel of land, known as the Taylor property, was purchased for $13,000. It lay just south across the street from the school grounds and became the permanent site for the summer conference. The property was dedicated August 18, 1946, with noted Christian industrialist R.G. LeTourneau giving a brief address. The familiar tent was used on these grounds until 1949, the year Billy Graham was one of the guest speakers.
Since that time, the conference grounds have been enlarged and developed. In 1950 a new tabernacle was built by William Stadtwald and his son Werner, members of the Omaha Gospel Tabernacle, the congregation pastored by Dr. Brown. The unique architectural design, featuring large garage doors, allows for seating on the inside and outside accommodating more than two thousand conferees.
CONFERENCE IN TRANSITION
1946 was a transition year for the conference. The Western District of the Christian and Missionary Alliance had played an important supporting role during those formative years. However, in 1946 when Dr. Brown resigned as district superintendent, the district decided to withdraw its official relationship with the conference (for in fact only by special permission had it held the conference at a site located in what was then the Northwestern District). It was then decided to incorporate this ministry as a separate entity affiliated with The Christian and Missionary Alliance, which action was approved by the Alliance Board of Managers. So during the meetings of that summer, the Okoboji Lakes Bible and Missionary Conference Association was formed with thirty-three charter members, mostly lay people who had attended the conference from its earliest days. It was formally incorporated in the state of Iowa on October 3, 1946, with Dr. R. R. Brown serving as president.
The name of the conference itself clearly indicated that the Bible and missions would be the primary emphases, and Dr. Brown saw to it that the conference ministry would reach the hearts of whole families. To this end, Dr. Brown invited prominent speakers and missionaries.
It shouldn’t be surprising that some through the years have referred to the conference affectionately as ‘Brown’s Conference’. This reference came, not only because of Dr. Brown’s visible leadership, but also because of the behind-the-scenes support of ‘Mother Brown’ and the children, Bob, Lois, and Jean. From the earliest days, Bob was on the platform leading the congregational singing with his trombone, in much the same way he assisted his father for many years with the Chapel Service of the World Radio Congregation over WOW. Dr. Brown’s last conference was in the summer of 1963. He passed away in February 1964, and the mantle of leadership fell to his son, Dr. R.S. Brown, who the Association elected its’ new president and director.
TRANSITION AND OUR 60th ANNIVERSARY
Normally, a transition is never easy or without its challenges. That certainly was true for the Okoboji Lakes Bible and Missionary Conference – after nearly 60 years of dynamic leadership from two Godly men.
At the November 16, 1991 meeting of the Board of Directors, Dr. R.S. Brown shared a “statement of intent” to serve, along with Mrs. Brown, through the conference of 1994, after which their services would end. The question was immediately raised as to how soon Dr. Brown’s successor should begin work with him on the planning for the 1995 conference. His reply was “very soon”, accompanied by his plea that we should continue a strong missions emphasis and spiritual basis for the Conference.
At its June 19, 1992 board meeting, a motion was made to form a transition committee. The individuals would be appointed by board chairman Roger Watke, with the advice and consent of Dr. and Mrs. Brown. The transition committee was to function until a new director was named.
During the 1992 Conference at the annual Association meeting, Chairman Watke reported that the responsibility of the transition committee was “to identify a transition director who will work with the conference director and the transition committee to ensure the ongoing ministry of the Okoboji Lakes Bible and Missionary Conference.”
Following this statement of purpose, the minutes then state: “The Association warmly received the announcement that Rev. and Mrs. Anthony Bollback have accepted the call to be the transition director.” Rev. Bollback, a former superintendent of the Western District of the C&MA, had given leadership to the Conference for several years overseeing the School of Prayer and Missions, Pastors’ Day, and serving as V.P./Assistant Director.
In his annual report to the Association one year later, Dr. Brown shared his retirement plans: “May and I will retire from our official role after the 60th Conference. This will be the Diamond Jubilee Conference, August 5-14, 1994. If the Lord gives strength we plan to direct that Conference.”
BUILDING ON AN EXCELLENT FOUNDATION
Naturally, there was some apprehension as the Conference moved forward without the leadership of Dr. R. S. Brown – but just as he had to go forward after the passing of his father, R.R. Brown, so also the board of directors went forward confidently…but prayerfully.
In the June 1994 newsletter, Interim Director, Rev. Anthony Bollback responded to Dr. Brown’s farewell message with these thoughts:
As the 1995 program takes shape, you can be sure that the Conference will continue the great ministry and work of Dr. R.S. Brown without interruption. I believe we’ll be experiencing an ever enlarging ministry for the Conference under God, and a thrilling continuation of the work started 60 years ago by Dr. R.R. Brown. One thing which has stood out in my mind as I have worked with the conference is that this is a work of God rendered as a sacrifice of praise to our wonderful Lord by our united efforts.
True to his title, Reverend Bollback served in the final years of Dr. R. S. Brown’s tenure, then the board called a new director who had served variously as a board and staff member through the years. Rick and Dianne Porter began their term of leadership in 1994 co-leading with the transitional director. In 1995, Rick Porter became the executive director while also serving as pastor of a large congregation in Abbotsford, British Columbia.
Rick and Dianne served admirably in a season of continuing transition. Because of their church responsibilities, an operational assistant, Linda Swanson joined the team. Nearly simultaneously, a new church of the Reformed Church in America, Good News Community Church, began to use the Conference tabernacle for Sunday services during the summer. This greatly increased the activity and life of the Conference grounds. Two trends were clearly emerging: First, the value of team leadership after decades of truly heroic leadership from the Browns. And also, the importance of a larger local presence in Iowa’s Great Lakes, year-round.
Rick Porter’s resignation was effective at the Association meeting on August 6, 2001. The Association expressed appreciation to Rick and Dianne Porter and wished them well. At its fall meeting, the board read a letter from Rick in which he thanked the board for the opportunity to lead the Conference for the past seven years. Scottie May was by this time serving as the board chair. She guided the board toward exploration of a new, more effective model of Conference leadership.
At the time of Rick Porter’s announcement to resign as director, a task force was appointed to determine leadership for the future. The future was to incorporate vision, history, passion, and teamwork. They proposed a leadership team be established. The task force also recommended (and the board confirmed) the selection of Scottie May, Greg Carlson, Steve Yost, and Mark and Jody Stevenson to serve as the leadership team. The gift mix of the team is very complimentary. Steve is mainly in charge of the evening service, programming, and suggested guest artists. Greg suggests speakers and missionaries and leads the prayer times and the morning chapels. Mark and Jody negotiate and contract with all the speakers, missionaries and musicians. Year round they promote the Conference in the region as well as working behind the scenes. Scottie provides executive leadership and final decision-making.
Scottie May was asked to comment on the opportunity to serve the Conference:
It is a humbling privilege for me to follow in the footsteps of my father and my grandfather by providing a measure of leadership for the Okoboji Lakes Bible and Missionary Conference. Although my role and contribution are considerably different than that of Dad and Grandpa, it is exciting to be involved as the board and leadership team envision the 21st-century direction for the Conference. Having attended over 60 Conferences, I can say with gratitude, “the Lord has done this, it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalm 118:23).
In 2005, the Stevensons concluded their leadership. Dave and Jody Van Kley succeeded them as the Conference Pastor and Coordinator respectively, serving with Steve Yost and Scottie May to make up the current leadership team. Simultaneously, Rick and Dianne Porter returned, moving to the Lakes Area of Iowa to give local support to the leadership team along with the new executive assistant, Judy Graanstra. Rick’s new mandate was as development director, promoting and funding the Conference while also networking and initiating new ministries from the Conference center.
In 2014 the Board of Directors chose to integrate all mentions of Conference to Okoboji Bible Conference Ministries and conclude use of the historic name Okoboji Lakes Bible & Missionary Conference.
Adapted from the research and writing of the late Neale E. Strom, Former Secretary of the Okoboji Lakes Bible and Missionary Conference Association. A complete printed history is available upon request.