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Council considers Ghost Ranch future, Washington Office review; $10 million budget shortfall for 2009 on March 27 agenda

LOUISVILLE – While budget concerns and impending layoffs are on the front burner for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) right now, the General Assembly Council also has other concerns bubbling on the stove.

Here’s some of what was talked about in the council’s committees March 26.

            Washington Office review. A study group continues to consider the future of the PC(USA)’s Washington office, an office that’s been in transition since its former long-time director, Elenora Giddings Ivory, left in 2007 to take a position with the World Council of Churches.

            Questions under consideration include what the staffing and funding should be for the Washington office. The office now is down to only two staff members and “their work is daunting,” said council member Roger Gench of Washington, D.C., giving an update on the work of the study group.

            “Many people don’t even know the national office exists,” Gench said. And of those who do, some are very supportive, and others “disagree very much with where the national office has been and is going.” Some perceive a liberal bias in how the office has interpreted General Assembly policy, Gench said; for others, “they simply disagree with General Assembly policy.”

            The study group, led by Eileen Lindner, who is connectional presbyter of Palisades Presbytery in New Jersey, started its work in early March. Among the questions it’s considering, according to Gench:

·        What’s the role of the PC(USA) in “speaking the truth to power” — or speaking the truth to the church itself?

·        In an interfaith world, how can Presbyterians or other mainline denominations get to the table of political power?

·        And if they do, who will actually listen to what they have to say?

Ghost Ranch. The council is considering setting up a study group to decide whether to incorporate the Ghost Ranch Conference Center as a separate entity independent of the church. The proposal is that a committee would study the idea and report back to the council at its meeting in September, and that Ghost Ranch would present a more detailed business plan at that time.

The PC(USA) currently owns Ghost Ranch, which has property in Abiquiu, N.M.,  and in Santa Fe. The Abiquiu property was given to the denomination in 1955 by Arthur Pack, the publisher of Ranger Rick and Nature magazines, and his wife, Phoebe. The denomination is being asked to give – rather than sell – the property to an independently incorporated entity and perhaps to help with transitional financing to get the new entity up-and-running.

Debra Hepler, executive director of Ghost Ranch since April 2008, and Bill Ireland, a lawyer and a member of its governing board, explained that incorporating separately would avoid duplication of administrative services and improve their ability to raise funds from donors. Of about 140 camp and conference centers in the PC(USA),  the denomination only owns two directly, Ireland said – Ghost Ranch and the Stony Point Center outside New York City. The Ghost Ranch board is committed to maintaining the natural beauty of the property and to maintaining its connection with the church, Hepler said.

But some donors, for example, some connected with interfaith dialogue programs at the center involving Christians,  Jews and Sikhs, want to support the programming but “don’t want to give to the Presbyterians,” Hepler told the council’s Evangelism Committee. Ghost Ranch has diverse programming, she said – offering everything from training for interim pastors to fly-fishing – and wants to capitalize on the passions of potential donors, such as those drawn by the center’s nationally-regarded museum of discoveries from dinosaur-era archeological digs. 

The biggest risk, Ireland said, is that “we’re taking responsibility for seeing that Ghost Ranch is a financial success. … We’re going to need to be able to stand on our own two feet and be viable.”

Council member Martin Lifer of South Carolina raised questions about the center’s continuing connection with the Presbyterian church. Is it wise, he wondered, for the denomination to basically give away “a virtually priceless piece of property?”  And what would happen, he asked, if donors wanted Ghost Ranch to switch to a more secular emphasis – for example, to focus on the legacy of renowned artist Georgia O’Keefe, who lived in the area?

“That’s obviously not what we want to do,” Ireland said. But he and Hepler stressed that all Ghost Ranch is asking for now is that a group be set up to study the idea of incorporating separately – and the council would hear another report based on that committee’s work in September.

Closed meetings. The council’s executive committee had recommended a change in the council’s open meetings policy – to only allow elected members of the council to attend meetings that are closed to the public. That has provoked a debate over whether non-voting corresponding members should also be able to attend those meetings – including representatives of advisory and advocacy committees who represent the concerns of women and racial-ethnic groups and who contend that it’s important for them to be allowed to attend closed sessions to be able to raise concerns involving matters of justice.

The council could close, for example, meetings involving budgets and cuts in staff and programs – as it’s been doing all this week.

With the proposed change, “I think the message goes out very clearly that you are starting to exclude people,” Bill Gray of the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns told the council’s executive committee.

 “Budgets are moral documents,” said Gloria Albrecht, from the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy.

On March 24, the executive committee voted to amend the proposal – to allow at-large members selected because they have particular expertise, such as in financial matters, to attend the closed sessions. Carroll Jenkins, of the Advocacy Committee for Racial Ethnic Concerns, also asked for inclusion of “the prophetic voice” of the advocacy and advisory committees, because “without that presence we’ve destroyed part of the character of who we are as the Presbyterian church,” he told the council’s Justice Committee.

Racial ethnic schools. Some of the racial-ethnic schools that historically have received funding from the PC(USA) continue to have financial difficulties. Some, such as Mary Holmes College, already have closed. And the council’s Discipleship Committee is recommending that funding from the Christmas Joy offering cease this spring to Sheldon Jackson College in Alaska, because the school has no students. Sheldon Jackson suspended operations in 2007, said Rhashell Hunter, the PC(USA)’s director of racial ethnic and women’s ministries,

So the money the PC(USA) is sending from the Christmas Joy offering to Sheldon Jackson is going to pay salaries, Hunter said.

“They do not meet the criteria” of assisting racial ethnic students, said council member Mary Lynn Walters of Arizona.  “We have to be true to the donors of Christmas Joy.”

So the committee is recommending that funding from the Christmas Joy offering to Sheldon Jackson cease as of May 2009, and that no additional money be sent until and if Sheldon Jackson enrolls students and presents a strategic plan for its continued operation and an audit of its finances.

The council’s meeting is set to conclude March 27. The final day is to bring consideration of a $10 million budget shortfall for 2009 and a vote on staff layoffs. Those employees at the PC(USA)’s national headquarters in Louisville losing their jobs will be notified in the afternoon, after which some details of the budget cuts will be publicly released.