A few big gray mammals sat by the campfire at last month’s meetings of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board (PMAB) The elephants were trying to ask what Karl Barth would term the “Whence? And Whither?” surrounding the identity and future of the Stony Point Center (SPC).
The elected members of the PMAB discussed the possibility of incorporation for the third time — being presented with a proposal for the conference center to become “an independently managed, constituent corporation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)” to be renamed, “Stony Point Center for Multifaith Justice, Peace and Nonviolence.” But by a “back-to-the-drawing-board” vote of 17-14, the PMAB referred the question to an evaluation committee to reconsider the proposal without discussing the merits and downsides of incorporating SPC in this new form.
Whence: “What are the goals of those people who are opposing the incorporation of Stony Point?” pressed James McDonald, president of San Francisco Theological Seminary. Whither: “Get it out on the table so we can deal with it.”
His questions generated no substantive responses, so let us venture a guess or three.
At very least, some have to be wondering, “So why does SPC want to quit the PC(USA)?” That question presumes that the SPC staff and board are seeking autonomy. Not so. Ever since taking over as co-directors, Kitty and Rick Ufford-Chase have been combining efforts and entrusting elements of oversight to the Louisville staff — right down to matching all of their accounting and legal processes to consolidate into the Louisville system. It actually is the PMAB that initiated the separate incorporation process in light of its acknowledgment that running a conference center is not “a core competency” of the PMA.
“We’re actually trying to stay affiliated with the denomination as much as possible, because we believe that what we’re doing can have a huge impact on the denomination,” says Rick Ufford-Chase.
So maybe the elephant is about money. PMAB members expressed concerns about the cost of incorporation and subsequent viability — these are hard times for conference centers, and SPC needs major upgrades to match the other centers in the region. Left unsaid was the possibility of selling the land outright. However, past contributors’ encumbrances require that realized assets be invested in the Presbyterian Foundation, with only the interest being available for use — netting only about $100,000 per year.
So, maybe the elephant is about the change in mission from the faith formation of Presbyterians to building a community of Jews, Christians and Muslims. This does beg further consideration. But the center will always host spiritual renewal conferences and camping experiences, many of whose participants will be Presbyterians. But even Joel Winchip, executive director of Presbyterian Church Camp and Conference Center Association, urges the 155+ member centers to seek a majority non-Presbyterian campers throughout their year, given both the shrinking membership of the PC(USA), and the a broader Church’s readiness to set aside sectarianism. “The future is in ecumenical efforts,” he says.
More than that, the effort to build a multifaith community is not an end in itself, but an unprecedented effort to build a movement of interfaith cooperation that will provide “opportunities for real encounter and building real relationships with people of different faith traditions, especially in a world in which people are using religion in violent ways,” says Kitty Ufford-Chase.
Rick adds, “Fifty years from now, when people ask the question how did the U.S. move from the war on terror and multi-religious hostility to an era of multi-faith peace and justice, we want Stony Point’s fingerprints to be all over it.”
One core competency for Presbyterians is our ability to discuss the interface between theology, stewardship and mission, addressing the “Whence?” and “Whither?” questions. This kind of discussion did not happen at this past meeting of the PMAB. The elephants around the campfire went unnamed. We hope that the next meeting will name them, talk about and even embrace them.