by Henry G. Brinton
For roughly 40 years, Camp Glenkirk was the primary camp and conference center for Presbyterians in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area. Located in Gainesville, Virginia, it sat on the edge of Lake Manassas and had a serene and rustic feel, giving generations of campers an experience of the glory of God in creation.
By the late 1990s, however, suburban sprawl was overtaking Gainesville and the sound of birdcalls was drowned out by hammers. National Capital Presbytery put Glenkirk on the market and sold the 233-acre tract to a national homebuilder.
National Capital Presbytery took the millions it made from this sale and bought 358 beautiful acres in Middleburg, Virginia, an area with zoning that would protect the site from the type of development that compromised Glenkirk. Members of National Capital Presbytery dreamed of creating Meadowkirk, a first-class camp and conference center and borrowed millions of dollars to develop the property with a swimming pool, dining hall and hotel-style lodging.
Unfortunately, this dream turned into a nightmare when it became clear that Meadowkirk could not survive without National Capital Presbytery making its debt payments of roughly $70,000 per month. Meadowkirk’s income covered its program costs, but never made enough money to service the debt. And so, after an honest assessment of the situation, Meadowkirk was sold in 2013. The presbytery lost millions of dollars, but also eliminated a debt that was threatening the presbytery’s financial integrity.
So, what are the lessons from the sale of Meadowkirk?
- Debt is sticky. When National Capital Presbytery bought land in Middleburg and constructed Meadowkirk, it established a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization run by the Meadowkirk board. The presbytery’s master plan was to give ownership of Meadowkirk to this board, but the burden of debt on the property made this transition impossible. The $70,000 per month debt payments remained with National Capital Presbytery and would have drained the presbytery’s coffers if the property had not been sold. In retrospect, the presbytery should have developed Meadowkirk slowly, with funds from a presbytery-wide capital campaign being added to the proceeds from the Glenkirk sale.
- Losses cause grief. Although the members of National Capital Presbytery agreed that Meadowkirk needed to be sold, the process of letting go of the property was full of uncertainty and grief. As chair of the Meadowkirk Sale Task Force, I was acutely aware that the property might not remain a retreat center — it could have ended up in the hands of a buyer who wanted to turn it into a vineyard or an equestrian center. Uncertainty about the future of Meadowkirk was compounded by grief over the loss of money that had been invested in the property and would never be recouped. The market simply did not support a sales price that came close to National Capital Presbytery’s total investment.
- God can be trusted. After about 18 months on the market, Meadowkirk was sold to purchasers who wanted to continue to run it as a Christian retreat center called “Meadowkirk at Delta Farm” with an ongoing relationship with the churches of National Capital Presbytery. This was good news for the presbytery, which was suddenly freed from making huge debt payments every month while retaining access to a first-class retreat center. I learned through this experience that God can be trusted to be involved in any process that is grounded in honesty and integrity, even when there is uncertainty and grief along the way.
Meadowkirk’s new executive director is a Presbyterian, Scott Henderson, and I have agreed to serve on the new Meadowkirk Board to assist with the transition. Meadowkirk’s new vision is to become the premier Christian retreat center in the Mid-Atlantic region, a vision that is quickly becoming a reality as Meadowkirk’s staff and board make connections to the broader Christian community. (For more information, visit Meadowkirk online at meadowkirk.org.)
In the end, the sale of Meadowkirk achieved the presbytery’s master plan of giving ownership of Meadowkirk to an independent board, the best possible outcome for any church-related camp or conference center.
HENRY G. BRINTON is the pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Fairfax, Virginia.