Conference centers struggle to adapt to changing roles, straitened finances

Both also rely on the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for fiscal support as they seek to weather a time of transition.

Leaders of Ghost Ranch and Stony Point say they are taking creative approaches to the programming and services they offer, reconsidering the role a church-based conference center plays in an economically challenged and religiously diverse world, and hoping they can turn the corner on finances in the next few years.

Stony Point, located just outside New York City, lost more than $377,000 in 2010 and Ghost Ranch lost more than $739,000, according to reports presented to the General Assembly Mission Council, meeting March 30-April 1 in Louisville.

Both have, in recent years, received new leadership and undertaken new initiatives as they faced ongoing economic concerns.

Stony Point co-directors Kitty and Rick Ufford-Chase, speaking before council committees March 31, told of their efforts to develop within their conference center an intentional community of faith drawing from Christian, Muslim and Jewish religious traditions and from a commitment to sustainable food practices. They’re trying to raise money from donors, become more energy-efficient and find groups willing to use Stony Point for retreats or residential programs.

In 2010, “the reality of the economic downturn hit us,” said Gary Batty, chair of the Stony Point governing board. Smaller groups came to Stony Point, and they stayed for shorter periods of time.

Ufford-Chase said the next few years will be crucial for Stony Point. He said that when he and his wife came there three years ago, they estimated it would take three to six years to turn it around.

Now, “we are probably right where we ought to be,” he said. But if things don’t change in the next few years, he said, it’s appropriate for the Stony Point team and the General Assembly Mission Council to ask whether it’s viable for the PC(USA) to continue to operate the center.

If the center can’t reduce its operating losses by 2012, “that’s a serious red flag,” said Cass Shaw, a member of the Stony Point governing board and likely its next chair.

Despite the financial stresses, however, the Ufford-Chases say they find their calling in Stony Point’s commitment to multiculturalism, sustainability, peacemaking and justice. Sometimes, “if we’re doing the right thing and we’re open to the movement of the spirit, the way opens,” Rick Ufford-Chase said.

Ghost Ranch. The operating deficit this year at Ghost Ranch is greater than that of Stony Point. Its situation differs in other respects as well.

Ghost Ranch has closed its site in Santa Fe, N.M. Its leaders are trying to sell or lease that property, which could be a significant source of income.

And Ghost Ranch is negotiating with the city of Albuquerque, N.M., regarding water storage in Abiquiu Lake, another lucrative possibility.

Ghost Ranch is making a name for itself as a spiritual center, with more than 300 programs annually, said its executive director, Debra Hepler. With a fundraising goal of $700,000 for this year, Hepler said she hopes Ghost Ranch’s revenues will exceed expenses by the end of 2011.

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