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What the pandemic taught Montreat about conference centers (and hospitality)

Richard Dubose discovers the vulnerability that settled in with the pandemic allowed Montreat staffers to understand what authentic and faithful hospitality includes.

Montreat Conference Center is a ministry devoted to hospitality as a portal for helping people encounter God. We’ve provided this ministry for generations, primarily through our affiliation with the Presbyterian Church, a relationship that remains firm as we evolve to meet the needs of the changing world around us. That evolution took on new meaning and importance in the recent COVID-19 pandemic. As the worst of its impact subsided, we began to reflect on lessons learned and how they might prepare us for ministry to come.

Life moves pretty fast,” said Ferris Bueller, but it’s impossible to overstate the suddenness with which the pandemic descended upon Montreat Conference Center in March 2020. The fact that we are still standing and, by some measures, are in stronger shape, shouldn’t obscure the first lesson: We were vulnerable. It’s not that we aren’t mindful of large-scale external events and their ability to disrupt our ministry. Pandemics, however, are kryptonite to conference centers, and Montreat wasn’t ready for this one.

We realized that our usual programs wouldn’t work in a COVID world. Montreat annually gathers people by the tens of thousands, often mixing them up together in worship and programming, recreation, dance, and in the arts. As we watched local congregations cancel activities here and hunker down at home, we followed suit. Unlike most congregations, however, program and lodging account for the majority of our annual revenue. While we transitioned to virtual programming – and it was good programming – the pandemic was a financial abyss for our place-based ministry.

Becoming acquainted with such acute vulnerability, however, led to another lesson: how resilient we could be. Our staff found new reservoirs of ingenuity and creativity. Our board remained resolute with our plan to remain open and ready for the pandemic’s end. Our donors stepped up significantly. Sometimes, lacking a path forward, we imagined our way to resilience. I remember one discussion of a seemingly unsolvable problem ending not with a solution, but with a prediction. As we rose from the table, deflated, my colleagues and I imagined a workday far into the future, post-pandemic, when somebody will walk into our offices and proclaim, “We’ve got a big problem.” Remember this moment, we told each other; if we get through this, we can get through anything.

In 2021 and 2022, we found ourselves benefiting from a third lesson, as the pandemic seemed to remind Presbyterians of just how valuable Presbyterian conference centers are. At our best, our conference centers practice an authentic and faithful hospitality that helps people make room for Christ’s love of self, neighbor, and stranger. At our best, we build new relationships and communities, often encouraging engagement with those who differ markedly from one another. At our best, we view our work through a Presbyterian lens, one reason that conference centers are such powerful places of formation and renewal for individuals and congregations. Today, whether because people are relishing the privilege of gathering again – or because the world seems especially to seek this kind of hospitality right now – demand for our retreat facilities has recovered, and more.

So what do we take from these lessons as we move into the future? Well, while vulnerability can trigger concern – and the desire for a stronger balance sheet – that feeling of vulnerability can also help us understand what authentic and faithful hospitality includes. It begins with vulnerability in the acts of invitation and welcome that we must carry out each day. Authentic and faithful hospitality requires vulnerability if we are to create spaces in which individuals and groups can be vulnerable with each other, feel safe with each other, and grow in their faith individually and in community with each other.

Further, we are claiming confidence from a renewed appreciation of our resilience, knowing that seemingly insurmountable challenges can be overcome, drawing on God’s promises for the church and its work in the world. And we are claiming hope and affirmation in the new enthusiasm we are finding for being together in Montreat. Rather than being a slight delay in our ongoing work, the pandemic tested us, informed us and shaped us for the challenges to come.

Recently, the conference center’s board launched a planning process to chart a new, post-pandemic course for our mission of hospitality, and as we plan, we are fortified by the lessons of the past three years. While we can’t understand in real time everything about the church and world we now serve, our recent experiences form a foundation on which to grow, to pursue new opportunities, and to build our ministry. Further discoveries await — and Montreat is not the only conference center thinking this way. We hope you are ready to support one close to your heart, and we all welcome your participation in the journey ahead.