Jon Wicklund ’97, S’02 Named Bethel Seminary Alumnus of the Year

Trout Lake Camps and Bethel both played key roles in Jon Wicklund’s childhood and journey into ministry. In 15 years as Trout’s executive director, Wicklund has led a season of growth, maintained close ties to Bethel, and cast a vision to help young people connect with the gospel.

By Jason Schoonover ’09, content specialist

October 14, 2020 | 3:30 p.m.

Jon Wicklund ’97, S’02

As executive director of Trout Lake Camps, Jon Wicklund ’97, S’02 maintains close ties to Bethel and he notes the camps often serve as a “farm system” for young people interested in a ministry career. Wicklund is the 2020 Alumnus of the Year for Bethel Seminary.

During his second summer as a boy at Trout Lake Camps in Pine River, Minnesota, Jon Wicklund ’97, S’02 rededicated his life to Christ in the camp chapel, a place where the gospel has been presented to children and teens more than 14,000 times since 1965. Years later, Wicklund’s family rediscovered an old letter detailing his mother’s account of her own decision to follow Jesus on the shore of Trout Lake. Today, Wicklund keeps the letter as a reminder of the significance of Trout Lake Camps' work. “It’s just extremely powerful to see how God changes lives at that location,” he says. “For some reason, He’s moving in a powerful way there.”

As executive director of Trout Lake Camps, Wicklund strives to keep Trout a place where young people can have similar powerful experiences. Along with extensive growth at the camp during his 15 years, Wicklund casts the vision to keep everyone—from chapel leaders to full-time staff—dialed in on communicating the message of Jesus. “Whether it’s kids out on horses, whether it’s kids on the zip lines, whether it’s kids out on the water, we want everything that we do to be a way in which kids can really experience a meeting place with God,” he says. For his years of dedication, Wicklund was named the 2020 Bethel Seminary Alumnus of the Year.

Wicklund traces his passion for ministry to Trout Lake Camps and Bethel—and his deep ties to both. He grew up blocks from Bethel’s Arden Hills, Minnesota, campus, and remembers going to Market Square, a former campus gathering space, to play video games over the summer. And multiple generations of his family have attended Bethel: his grandparents in the 1930s, his parents in the 1960s, and Wicklund in the 1990s—along with his siblings and, more recently, some nieces and nephews.

Wicklund studied biology as an undergraduate student at Bethel and loved it. Though he considered medical school, his involvement with Campus Ministries pulled him toward ministry, as did his summer work at Trout Lake Camps. Both helped him grow spiritually, challenging him to take prayer seriously and learn Scripture. Then one summer at Trout, Wicklund was playing basketball with a camper named Nick, who asked Wicklund about Jesus. Wicklund shared the significance of Jesus in his life, and Nick said he’d like to follow Jesus. They knelt on the basketball court together and prayed for God to transform his life. “That was a significant experience for me,” Wicklund says.

A few years after Wicklund and his wife, Aleeta ’97, both graduated from Bethel, Aleeta took a job as a Bethel resident director, and Wicklund decided to attend Bethel Seminary to learn more about his faith. “For me personally, going to seminary was an enjoyment and a thrill to dive deep into Scripture and to learn the languages of Greek and Hebrew, and be challenged in that area of ministry,” says Wicklund, who earned a Master of Divinity with a New Testament concentration. Along with developing a network of believers and lifelong friends, Wicklund commends his professors for teaching Scripture in ways that felt fresh, new, and deep. “Bethel Seminary taught me how to communicate the gospel to different types of people,” he says.

Wicklund’s close ties to Trout Lake Camps and Bethel continue. Trout, which is part of Converge—formerly the Baptist General Conference—maintains close ties to Bethel Seminary. Converge—and Wicklund’s—Twin Cities offices are located at the Bethel Anderson Center just a few levels from Bethel Seminary

Since becoming executive director in 2004, Wicklund has led Trout Lake Camps to significant growth. Joel Nelson, Converge director of church expansion and growth, commends Wicklund for taking strategic steps to address Trout’s short-term needs and to project a long-term vision. That’s led to the addition of 20 to 30 buildings to Trout’s Pine River, Minnesota, site, including the Timber Ridge and Wild Woods camps. Nelson summarizes Wicklund’s working style and personality in two words: pace and purpose. Wicklund is always on the move, energizing those around him with his high-octane pace, but his purpose drives everything. “At Trout, everything that happens is put through the matrix of fun, safe, and gospel,” Nelson says. “If there is some business opportunity or camping emphasis that is presented to him that doesn’t wholly contribute to the purpose of Trout, he passes on it.”

Wicklund’s efforts aim to keep Trout a “meeting place with God” for the 4,800 campers who visit each summer, and the additional 2,000 campers each spring and 2,000 each fall. He sees Trout Lake Camps as a place where distractions are removed so young people can connect with God. Trout leaders carefully construct camp schedules to weave in biblical instruction multiple times each day in various ways that engage children, using drama, videos, personal testimonies, activities, and more. Wicklund often hears kids call their time at Trout, “the best week of my summer.” “I think that’s a phrase that really captures what the Trout Lake experience is about,” Wicklund says. “It’s a chance where kids can meet God and learn more about Jesus.”

But Trout Lake Camps don’t just reach kids. Wicklund describes Trout as a leadership-development organization where high school and college-aged people often start ministry careers. In fact, some Trout employees—like Wicklund—started as campers and young workers before joining the ministry.

“Not only are people being introduced to Jesus, but also people are making decisions about wanting to go into full-time ministry, and those are really the two best things about Trout Lake Camps. It’s almost like we’re a farm system for potential seminary students.”

— Jon Wicklund ’97, S’02

Wicklund enjoys the variety of duties and skills the role requires. He leads Trout’s ministry efforts, crunches numbers with his MBA background, leads fundraising, seeks government approvals for projects, works with architects during expansions, engages with campers and volunteers, and much more. “What really energizes me is the fact that the job changes every day, and it’s not routine, and what I love about it is the overall purpose and how it makes a difference in kingdom-building,” he says.

Wicklund gives the credit to God, recalling many times he has felt Him move in unexpected ways. One example came in 2012. That summer as Trout Lake Camps was looking to expand again, Wicklund was greeting volunteers when one asked if the camp was interested in acquiring his mother’s 100 acres of adjacent land. That October, a donor offered to fund the land acquisition, helping close the deal by December. “We acquired 100 acres of land in a matter of six months to build a brand new camp called Wild Woods,” he says. “Those are defining experiences where I sit back and say, this is not Jon doing this; this is God doing some unbelievable work in a lot of different people’s lives that allows us to reach more kids.”

Wicklund is most satisfied to see Trout’s mission just as strong today as when the camps formed in the 1940s. To him, that is a sign of a job well done. “I want to be able to look back and be just as excited about the ministry as when I first arrived,” he says. “For me, to be able to leave fired up that the gospel is still communicated, the foundation of the ministry is strong, it’s biblically focused and laser-focused on reaching kids for Christ. If I can leave and those things are done, I would be thrilled,” he says.

The Wicklunds live in Arden Hills most of the year, but spend much of their summers at Trout Lake Camps. They have three children: Hannah, 16; Matthew, 14; and Aaron, 9.

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