Stony Point incorporation proposal faces resistance

195-22 coverrShould the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) incorporate Stony Point Conference Center outside New York City as a separate legal entity? In a conversation with both financial and mission implications and which at times turned tense, the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board nibbled around the edges of that question at its fall meeting in Louisville. The board is likely to discuss the issue head-on when it meets next February as it tries to decide whether to send a recommendation for incorporation to the 2014 General Assembly.

Among the facets of the discussion:

Finances: What are the financial implications of incorporating or not incorporating? What would be less costly for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A)? The PC(USA)’s financial team estimates there could be significant costs to incorporation, but did not provide any projections on the costs of not incorporating. Stony Point’s co-directors, Kitty and Rick Ufford-Chase, have argued that separate incorporation could give them momentum towards trying to become financially self-sustainable and would allow them to try to raise money from a broader multi-faith base, beyond traditional Presbyterian sources of funding.

Identity and mission: The Stony Point leadership is trying to create a distinct identity for the center — the proposal is to incorporate as the Stony Point Center for Multi-faith Justice, Peace and Nonviolence. A report on the center’s future stated that “increasingly, Stony Point Center’s identity is intertwined with what it means to nurture multi-faith partnerships in our pluralistic and global society.” Of what value is that for the PC(USA)? Is it better for the denomination to be involved with that — or let Stony Point pursue that multi-faith work independently?

Property: The Stony Point property about 40 miles outside New York City is potentially valuable to a financially-struggling denomination. While there have been no specific proposals, there was mention in the discussion that one alternative could be to “monetize” the Stony Point property. The financial implications of trying to do that are tangled and have yet to be spelled out publicly — including the $1.5 million accumulated debt that Stony Point is said to owe the denomination, Stony Point’s struggles to become self-sustaining and restrictions on the property that may affect how the proceeds could be used if sold.

Reluctance: Is there behind-the-scenes opposition to the idea of incorporating? If so, what are the reasons for resistance?

That last question bubbled publicly to the surface after two days of polite-but-strained wrangling over the Stony Point issue — and visible frustration from board members who have, at the board’s request, spent two years investigating the possibility of incorporation, as part of a plan to try to improve Stony Point’s tenuous finances.

In September 2012, the board voted to “affirm and approve a path and process to establish Stony Point Center as a separate legal entity,” although it did not actually approve incorporation, and created a Stony Point transitional task team to develop a plan to present to the board in September 2013.

The transitional task team built on the work of another board task force, created in 2011 to “study the missional alignment, viability, financial sustainability and management performance of Stony Point.”

That task force report stated that with shrinking financial resources, the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board “remains committed to focusing on ministries that can only be done at the national level. Given this new reality, the Stony Point Task Force anticipates the viability of Stony Point Center to be challenged by decreasing resources in the PC(USA). While the mission alignment between Stony Point Center and the PMA Board is strong, continuing to operate Stony Point from offices in Louisville, Kentucky, will not enhance the viability of resources we have to offer the world as a witness of Jesus Christ.”

New evaluation. The Stony Point transitional task team came to the board’s September meeting with a recommendation for incorporation and a 131-page report. Instead, the board voted 17-14 on Sept. 26 to send the question to a new three-member evaluation committee, after being told that standards the board adopted in 2007 for creating new corporations would require a separate independent evaluation. That evaluation committee would consider whether the proposed incorporation would be both justified and viable — in other words, would revisit the question of whether separate incorporation is a good idea.

The morning after the board voted to do that, Melissa DeRosia, a pastor from Rochester, N.Y., who led the transitional task team, asked for 15 minutes on the agenda. DeRosia said she wanted to make sure the board could meet the procedural requirements if it chose to send an incorporation recommendation to the 2014 General Assembly. DeRosia argued that the 2007 standards state that “ideally,” the board “should be able to consider a proposal at least twice before a vote is necessary to forward (or not) a proposal to the General Assembly.”

By discussing the matter both in September and February, she said, “we know we have followed these criteria and standards to a T.”

Dottie Smith, the PC(USA)’s treasurer, responded to a question regarding financial implications by saying the estimated costs of incorporation would total about $4.7 million over five years — including nearly $1.5 million in accumulated debt, capital expenses and provision of about $1 million in a six-month operating fund to cover cash flow needs. “We do not believe that Stony Point is viable financially,” Smith said.

Asked what the costs to the PC(USA) would be of not incorporating Stony Point, Smith said she did not have projections for that.

DeRosia told the board: “This is the first time the transitional task team has seen these numbers.”

Jack Hodges, a transitional task team member, responded to Smith’s presentation by making a motion for more information — asking that the financial team provide details at the February meeting regarding the $1.5 million in accumulated debt it says Stony Point owes.

James McDonald, corresponding board member from COTE and the president of San Francisco Theological Seminary, asked what he said might be viewed as an “impertinent question.” McDonald said he understands why some are arguing for incorporation and “I also see great resistance to that, and attempts to slow down or derail the process.” The impertinent question, McDonald said, is “what are the goals of those people who are opposing the incorporation of Stony Point?”

Matt Schramm, chair of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board, responded that the board has not yet voted on incorporation, “so no one has officially said they’re opposed to it.”

And “that is precisely the point,” McDonald responded. “There is no clear sense of what the problems are. There is a positive plan that is being proposed. People have worked very hard on this. Each time, it seems to be delayed or pushed aside,” without explanation. “Something needs to be said by those who are in fact opposing it. Get it out on the table so we can deal with it.”

Linda Valentine, executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, said: “There is a perception that the staff has a position on this. The staff wants to be sure that the board has the facts so the board can make a decision.”

At that, Hodge made the motion for the finance team to provide more information about the report that Smith had made. “Transparency,” he said, “is what it’s about.”

Timeline. In agreeing to refer the matter to a new evaluation committee, some board members said they wanted to make sure that “due diligence” would be done regarding the possibility of incorporation. The evaluation committee is to be made up of three people who have not served either on the Stony Point Task Force or the transitional task team. The board did adopt some adjustments, suggested by board member Chad Herring in a Finance Committee discussion. Under those amendments:

  • The evaluation committee has a Dec. 31 deadline to complete its work.
  • The committee will consult with DeRosia, chair of the transitional task team, before making its final recommendations.
  • The evaluation committee will provide educational opportunities for the board regarding its findings before the board’s February board meeting.

In proposing these amendments Herring said he wanted to be sure that the evaluation committee would complete its work in time for its report to be considered by the board in February. Doing that would mean there still would be time for an incorporation proposal — if that’s the way the board decided to go — to be send to the 2014 General Assembly.

“Time is of the essence for Stony Point,” Herring said. 

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