All three have new leadership, brought aboard within the last year. All are thinking hard about their heritage, what they can do best, and how they can make a go of it financially in these economically-stressed times.
The Outlook recently had conversations with the new leaders at the three centers. Here’s some of what they had to say.
Debra Hepler has been the executive director of Ghost Ranch Conference Center in Abiquiu, N. M., since April 2008. She happened across a mention of the opportunity on the Web site of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and was intrigued, although she was living in Pennsylvania at the time, working for a Mennonite conference center, and hadn’t planned to seek a new position.
But she has roots in the church — Hepler is a Presbyterian elder; the wife of a Presbyterian minister; has done mission work in Africa; and has an extensive background in business. As she investigated, “I just felt like God was leading me here for some reason,” Hepler said. “It’s as unique as the landscape is here. It’s just been a very exciting time.”
What Hepler found when she headed west was both an economic challenge and a rich history.
“Ghost Ranch is very unique, first because of where we are located in the Piedra Lumbre basin and the Colorado plateau,” she said. “There’s a lot of cultural history here. The topography and geography are unique. We are a Presbyterian conference center, yet we have archeological sites” with dinosaur fossils dating back at least 8,000 years.
Ghost Ranch has a second, urban site as well, in Santa Fe — a retreat center in an urban setting.
So the visitors to Ghost Ranch include paleontologists and archeologists; artists, attracted by the connection of painter Georgia O’Keefe’s with the area; people interested in sustainable farming and renewable energy; people longing for spiritual formation.
Ghost Ranch also offers outdoor adventure programs, including camping, fishing, horseback riding, hiking, and has established relationships with nearby pueblos and with the Monastery of Christ in the Desert.
Last year, it had visitors from all 50 states and from eight foreign countries.
Like nearly every such facility, Ghost Ranch also is feeling the impact of the churning economy. As with Stony Point and Montreat, it no longer receives direct financial support from the PC(USA) to cover operating costs; the funding was cut back and eventually eliminated between 2003 and 2006. Ghost Ranch does, however, receive indirect support from the denomination – for example, legal advice or human resources consulting.
It is in the process of self-incorporating, to avoid duplication in how some business procedures are taken care of. Last year, Ghost Ranch met its budget, although annual giving was down and there are concerns about deferred maintenance.
And Hepler is trying some innovations in programming.
Ghost Ranch is starting a new Resolana series of programming, intended to attract groups year-round. The programming at Ghost Ranch is diverse. People come for private and church retreats; for training as interim ministers; for spiritual direction and training; for sessions in music and peacemaking and wellness. Ghost Ranch also is beginning to market itself more regionally, hoping to attract folks who want a break within driving distance, to keep down their travel costs.
“I’m still very optimistic about it, because people have a very special place in their hearts for Ghost Ranch,” Hepler said. “I’ve been here now for every season, and there isn’t a bad one.”
Rick and Kitty Ufford-Chase consider themselves to be the fifth generation of leadership for the Stony Point Conference Center, located about 40 miles from New York City. They took over in August 2008, at a center with a history of training missionary families before they went out into service, being a place focused on international relationship-building and social justice work.
“We also inherited an organization that was not managing to pay its own bills and a clear mandate from the General Assembly that we had to find both a clear sense of mission in what we offer to the broader church and a clear sense of where the money would come from to pay the bills,” said Rick Ufford-Chase, a former General Assembly moderator who also works as executive director of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. “That’s the challenge as we come through the door.”
Part of the answer, according to Ufford-Chase, will be to create an intentional community of 20 to 40 people who would live at Stony Point and “would ground a broader Christian community that looks something like a modern-day religious order.”
Those living in the community would make commitments around peace and justice concerns; would practice spiritual disciplines, and most likely would be “those folks who don’t quite feel the church is asking enough of them,” Ufford-Chase said. “Being part of this community would push them on what it means to be faithful — how can we be faithful to the gospel in the midst of a culture that is antithetical to the gospel?”
And that community, living at the center, would be the base for a broader community, Christians dispersed around the country who are interested in the same concerns. While Stony Point would continue as a conference center, “more and more, I expect people would come here because they want to rub elbows with that intentional community,” he said.
Already, those staff members and volunteers living at Stony Point gather for daily prayer each morning and for an “epilogue” three evenings a week; gather for common meals and social times twice a month; and fast together once a month, in cooperation with the Presbyterian Hunger Program’s emphasis on fasting to raise awareness about global hunger needs.
Stony Point also is focusing on practices of living sustainably on the land – planning to create a large community garden and explore alternative technologies, and how to integrate such approaches into the hospitality offered at the conference center, such as providing locally-grown food of high quality.
Ufford-Chase speaks of “added value” — ways of giving back to the broader church, by shaping the next generations in new ways of being faithful. Ufford-Chase said he and Kitty have said from the beginning that “we don’t think Stony Point should be a conference center first. That’s not its mission,” and the response to that from the center’s board of directors has been “overwhelmingly positive.”
He also said, “We run this place on a shoestring,” and the budget for 2008 finished in the black, although the PC(USA) does act as a no-interest bank for them when needed, which helps with cash-flow problems. And the Ufford-Chases hope to launch a campaign to raise at least $150,000 for deferred maintenance.
Over time, they hope Stony Point will become not only a place for meetings – retreats or counseling and other gatherings, but a place “where people come away from their regular lives and rub elbows with people who are being very intentional about what it means to live a faithful life.”
Montreat Conference Center
Pete Peery has a long history with the Montreat Conference Center, and that section of North Carolina. Growing up, he vacationed at his uncle’s house there. Early in his career, he and his wife served as chaplains to the summer staff there. And for the past 14 years, he served as pastor of First Church in nearby Asheville, N.C.
But Peery wasn’t expecting a call last summer asking him to consider applying to be the new president of the Mountain Retreat Association, which does business as the Montreat Conference Center. When he was contacted, however, and learned that the search committee was looking for a “theologian-pastor” to lead the center, he accepted the challenge, and began work at Montreat last Nov. 1.
One of his first tasks is to lead a strategic planning process, looking at “what our ministry should and should not be,” and “with a double bottom-line. What are we called do? And of course the economic bottom line – can we sustain it?”
Peery expects to report on that to the center’s board by mid-March, and is thinking about an article that Ted Wardlaw, the president of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, wrote several years ago about the idea of a “Presbyterian ecosystem” and the forces that shape future leaders.
Over the years, particularly in the Southern Presbyterian church, “Montreat has played a big role as a piece of an ecosystem to form people for life in the Presbyterian church and in the larger church,” Peery said. “Montreat becomes a place where persons are nurtured, where there’s a sense of vocation that gets encountered. And I don’t just mean vocation in terms of becoming ministers of Word and Sacrament … but more a sense of declaring what your life is going to be about, of being a part of the body of Christ.”
So the question for Montreat is “how do you create the kind of experience where people encounter a sense of calling? That’s very important in the life of the church right now.”
In this time of strategic planning, “everything’s on the table,” Peery said.
Montreat historically has offered some programming year after year — for example, the summer youth conferences, which bring about 7,000 people each summer and which Peery describes as “a very important ministry that we will continue,” even if it gets reshaped in some respects.
Montreat also has offered a Worship and Music conference each summer; a college conference around New Year’s; an Elderhostel program; and a preaching conference called “Proclaiming the Text.” And it has cosponsored some programs, such as last year’s “Church Unbound” conference (co-sponsored by the Outlook), trying to look into the future of Christian practice.
Montreat has worked hard in recent years to build an endowment, which has been battered by the market declines but remains an important component of the center’s financial future, Peery said.
And he describes Montreat as a place where relationships are built, “a place set apart where people can gather to nurture relationships, to stretch their faith, to find ways to live together as a body of Christ and model that here, so we can do that in our congregations,” when people go home.