A Montreat weekly update from Richard DuBose, president of Montreat Conference Center.
Read our COVID-19 statement here.
Update #11 | May 29, 2020
Over the last couple of weeks, we at Montreat Conference Center have received and studied guidance and data from various sources in hopes that, when the time came, we could make informed decisions about the best path forward for our summer programs. That time has come, and so here is what we are planning to do:
- We are moving our remaining youth conferences, scheduled for the weeks July 12th through August 8th, to an online format. We will hold no conference activities on campus.
- Also in July, we will offer a Middle School online conference for middle schoolers previously registered for our conference in Maryville, Tennessee.
- We will accept bookings and reservations for June 12th and beyond at Assembly Inn and other lodging on a highly restricted basis for family and group retreats, and we are making our facilities available for those guests.
- We expect that some facilities, including the Montreat Store and Ten Thousand Villages (which is already open online and offering curbside pick-up), will open to the public soon, but do not have a firm date as of yet.
- The Assembly Inn Kitchen will resume its “Grab and Go – Heat and Eat” meal program the week of June 8th.
- Later in summer, we are planning to make available to guests and residents some summer recreation and arts opportunities and facilities on a modified and highly restricted basis.
- Our ten-week series of weekly worship services for the community, normally held in Anderson Auditorium, will begin online in June and be offered online for the entirety of the summer.
- The adjusted structure and scope of these programs will necessitate the employment of a much smaller summer staff than we’d previously intended.
Here is what we will not be able to do:
- We must cancel our summer clubs programming for children and youth of all ages.
- We will be unable to host on MRA property all community events that would convene people in large numbers in spaces like Anderson Auditorium, Upper Anderson, The Barn, the Dunn Pavilion, and Convocation Hall.
- We also must cancel our Fourth of July festivities and programming.
- Many of our recreation and arts activities will only be able to serve limited numbers of people due to anticipated restrictions on gathering indoors and outdoors.
For more on these decisions, please click here.
These plans are effective immediately and are intended to extend through August 8th, pending further guidance and changing conditions during that time period. In each and every case, however, our plans and decisions were made looking through the lens of four questions in particular:
1. Can we carry out the program within current government health guidelines and in ways that minimize risk? We have been guided in this area by 1) the succession of executive orders issued by the State of North Carolina, most recently Executive Order 141 on May 22nd and 2) similar restrictions and guidance from Buncombe County. Further, we’ve consulted with Town officials and medical authorities on a more informal but deliberate basis. Our conclusions from this review are that 1) groups of people and individuals who come to Montreat this summer should stay together and mix minimally with others, and that 2) social distancing and other recommended safety protocols must be observed. As we make plans to receive families, youth groups, and church retreats as guests, we must encourage activities that meet these criteria.
2. Can the program be delivered effectively under restricted circumstances? With each program we have to consider whether doing a particular activity would make sense given accommodations we’d have to make in terms of participation, social distancing, and other guidelines. We reviewed carefully the American Camp Association guidelines as well as interim guidance from the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services regarding Day Camps and Overnight Camps.
3. In a time of severe financial restrictions, can we afford to provide the program? We already anticipate the possibility that we will need reserve funds to cover expenses in the current fiscal year. We cannot run programs that would increase the chances of a further depletion of our reserves.
4. Can we provide the program with minimal staff support? In a typical summer season, the conference center brings an additional 125 people to support summer activities. They work, live, and play in close proximity to each other. We’re working this year to minimize the size of summer staff and therefore the risk of spread to and among our summer staff.
We believe that these plans and decisions establish appropriate guardrails to provide good programming and opportunities for fellowship in Montreat while mitigating risk to participants and the community. As you learn more, keep in mind that these plans could change, depending upon the evolving conditions of the coronavirus here and elsewhere. We will continue to monitor the data and guidance of the authorities and will continue to consult with the Town of Montreat and with medical professionals. We reserve the right to further restrict or cancel programs as necessary as the summer proceeds.
In other words, we will confront each new day with as much agility and patience as we can possibly muster. We invite each of you to embrace that spirit with us, confident as we are that God is with us all during this time of uncertainty and change. Our board, staff, and volunteers continue to be guided by our commitments to service and hospitality even under these limited conditions, and to keep you informed as we go. Bless you all for your ongoing support and encouragement.
More to come!
Update #10 | May 22, 2020
Wednesday, a friend described his church’s current challenges as being “like driving in fog. You can see what’s just in front of you, but if you try to look too far ahead, it’s hard to see anything at all.” Left unsaid but understood: driving either too fast or too slow under such conditions can lead to problems.
It really was not so long ago that the presence of COVID-19 was growing exponentially in some parts of the country and threatening all of us. Businesses, schools, churches…heck, society in general was cutting back, moving online or closing down entirely. Better safe than sorry. I don’t find myself pining for those days at all, but there was something definite about what we had to do, at least here at the conference center.
This week, by contrast, the view is decidedly foggy. Wednesday, Governor Roy Cooper announced Executive Order 141, moving North Carolina to Phase 2 of its reopening plan and further loosening restrictions on commerce and public life. (Governor Cooper is a Presbyterian, by the way. Growing up in my family, my mom and dad occasionally called attention to famous people who were Presbyterians, as in, “You know, son, astronaut John Glenn is a Presbyterian.” Fifty years later, I do it too, I guess.)
You won’t find a section in Executive Order 141 for conference centers. Our staff combs these documents, looking for clues of relevance for us. We transpose and discuss directives for overnight camps, day care centers, pools, schools, entertainment venues, churches, restaurants, playgrounds and parks, trails and so on. (Confession: I skipped the section on tattoo parlors.)
The point is, figuring out what we can do today seems more difficult than it was to figure out what we couldn’t do a couple of months ago. While the order does relax some restrictions, it pumps the brakes on others because data on the virus in North Carolina isn’t as promising as leaders had hoped; the threat, while evolving, remains real. This in turn makes prospects for Phase 3, not scheduled to begin any earlier than June 26th, even foggier.
Peering ahead nevertheless, here’s what the executive order suggests about summer in Montreat. First, the order provides the chance for possible programming, and we are dreaming up good ideas within the boundaries of safety that the order is defining. Second, whatever we are able to do will look and feel very different from anything we’ve done before. That’s true for conferences, summer staff, recreation…everything. Third, this all assumes that a) Buncombe County will at some point follow the state’s lead, and that b) we don’t experience a recurrence of negative trends in North Carolina.
By making mid-course adjustments, the governor is signaling that the phased reopening of the state is variable and subject to change. For more on Buncombe County’s current restrictions and recommendations, visit the Buncombe County website and visit the Town of Montreat’s website for additional information. Remember that in North Carolina, where local regulations on COVID-19 differ with state’s executive order, the stricter regulations apply. Like Executive Order 141, I’m trying to manage expectations here.
Let’s all drive carefully.
The 2020 Summer Worship Series in Montreat begins online with Trinity Sunday on June 7th. As we look toward to this very special time together and to your participation, the worship team invites you to submit a photograph from your household representing what “being in relationship” means to you, and how you celebrate it. These will be shared in the online worship service for Trinity Sunday.
To be sure we receive your photo, please email the photo to firstname.lastname@example.org by Monday, June 1st, and be sure to write “Trinity” in the subject line.
More to come!
*This post has been updated to reflect changes to the Buncombe county orders.
Update #9 | May 15, 2020
First, let’s start with some really positive news about you. A couple of weeks ago, I reported that we had closed our 2019-2020 fiscal year with a slight surplus, highlighted by what we already knew would be a record year for the Montreat Fund. And so it was, as the counting now makes clear. Gifts to the fund totaled $1,060,000, crossing the one million dollar threshold for the first time and exceeding the previous record by $159,000. We received $123,000 in “extra” gifts in March and April from people who had previously given, while many year-end donors stepped up from their previous year’s commitments.
We also received a record number of gifts. For the first time, more than 1,000 donors participated (1,022 to be exact), made possible because 68 of you were first-time donors. If you’ve spent any time fundraising, you have to appreciate numbers like that. Credit is due to our development team, who worked the phones and appeals and generally ran as hard as they could right to the end.
Beyond the numbers and the work, however, the stories that accompanied the gifts proved to be the most joyous part of the whole thing. One church in Georgia, forced to cancel its retreat to Montreat in May, converted its retreat payment into a gift of thousands of dollars. One donor contacted me to say that she had to reduce her gift this year and wanted to tell me personally. (Bless you for the call and the heart that prompted it!) One donor, an original Montreat Patron from 1962, gave an extra gift on April 30th, and then another on May 1st “to start the new year off right” and extending her streak another year.
As they unfolded, these stories landed like grace notes over the last few weeks as our staff shared them with each other, lifting our spirits and encouraging us onward. By the end, the response had been broad and deep, including emails and prayers of support from those who, because of financial reversals, could not give this year. We finished the fiscal year with a slight budget surplus because of all of you, those who love Montreat and express that love through gifts of money and in so many other ways – thank you.
Second, the just concluded fiscal year helps us contextualize the challenge we face in the new one. Consider: through early March we were running comfortably ahead of budget. This fact, along with some extreme penny-pinching and the Montreat Fund’s historic performance, helped us compensate for the loss of retreat and conference revenue over the last six weeks. As we begin May, however, we recognize that COVID-19 continues to obstruct our views and outlook much farther out than six weeks.
This week, for example, our friends at Maryville College let us know that they cannot host the middle school conference we hold on their campus every summer. They simply can’t accommodate the 500-plus middle schoolers who would typically attend.1 It’s easy to understand and appreciate the caution that Maryville’s leaders are taking in dealing with COVID-19. All leaders these days – heck, all of us, period – are weighing the choices of what we’d like to do against what we feel we must do. Montreat and Maryville College enjoy a strong relationship and we look forward to future conferences on their campus in coming years. Right now, our staff and conference planning team are studying the question of whether we will offer alternative programming for our Middle School conferees, as we have already announced for June conferences here in Montreat. We’ll communicate our plans soon.
Regardless, changes like this carry significant financial effects, a major reason that – when the only choices are “no” and “maybe” – we are holding onto “maybe” as long as we can. The “maybes” of summer are particularly important; typically, almost 55% of our annual revenue is earned during June, July, and August. We’ll know relatively quickly, therefore, much more about where we stand. We know as well that some days will bring successes worth celebrating while others will reveal new challenges. We know we can count on a few new grace notes. With each day we will learn as we go, and keep you informed.
Last Sunday I heard that Montreat had been mentioned in a sermon yet again, this time by Christopher Edmonston, senior pastor at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh. I really shouldn’t link every week to sermons with Montreat mentions, but in this case, Christopher connects, much better than I can, these questions of surprise and uncertainty to the promise that “God will stand with us and give us the words and witness to proclaim the very grace that will set the world free.” Thanks, Christopher.
If you’re in need of the serene – or just love painting – check out this new video channel from Virginia Fergus. Once a Montreat summer staffer, today Ginny is a well-known, highly accomplished artist; you may have spotted her teaching plein-air painting classes around Montreat in recent summers. Turns out, Ginny has a bit of Bob Ross in her, too.
Finally, our new Montreat Now aired last night. Thanks to Steve Lindsley, Jerry Chapman, and Clare Parry Lozano for running the anchor leg as our final leadership team, and thanks to everyone who contributed to Montreat’s brand new voyage into online youth programming.
More to come!
1. Were you aware that Montreat has hosted annual conferences for middle schoolers at Maryville, beautifully situated among the Great Smoky Mountains, every July for the last seven years? The Maryville campus has been a wonderful place to gather these youth for worship, programming, and recreation.
Update #8 | May 8, 2020
“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. I read that once on a can of lemonade. I like to think it applies to life.”
Andy Dwyer, shoeshiner and philosopher, Parks and Recreation
A new “State Of The Plate” survey reported that 65% of Protestant churches have seen a decline in giving since mid-March as congregations halted in-person services due to the coronavirus. Mixed with that grim news, however, was the finding that 48% of churches – almost half – reported that online viewing of regular worship services has grown to “double or more” of weekly worship attendance prior to the pandemic.
As part of our program research and work, we are in regular dialogue with church pastors and lay leaders. Lately, of course, our interviews and focus groups have turned decisively to the topic of COVID-19 and its possible implications for their congregations and the church. Yes, in those conversations pastors are reporting financial stresses, but also that congregational life is exhibiting promising signs of… well, lemonade.
Persuaded by circumstance, churches are finding new ways and new energy to provide fellowship, theological reflection, and hope, adapting ministries in ways that hold much promise. Here’s some of what we’re hearing:
- “We had to move to online worship and now have more people listening online than were showing up in the sanctuary before. We should have done it years ago…”
- “[The pandemic] forced us toward new ways to reach our people, ideas we had talked about but had avoided. Now we have members inviting others into our virtual gatherings.”
- “We’re studying scripture on Zoom, hosting prayer groups on Zoom. I host a Thursday night gathering with young moms – we share, and there’s a prayer. It’s been a wonderful way to end a day.”
- “For once, all the competing activities that we blame for lack of engagement – soccer practices, travel, busy schedules – they aren’t there. We can’t blame the culture right now… we’re being challenged to step into the space that has been created.”
- “This has put more responsibility on our members, and we’re finding that when we supply the right tools, they engage more, not less…We’ve organized and are now calling every member of the church at least once a week, just to check in and see how they’re doing. We’re in better touch with our mission partners, too.”
What’s really happening here? Are people newly attuned to the importance of faith and faith communities? Are we more receptive to new ideas and significant change? Is it true, as one pastor suggested, that the church has “reflected and responded to people more deeply and meaningfully over the last two months than it has over the last two decades?” Will we build on the moment so that on the day we do walk through our sanctuary doors again, we walk into a newly enlivened church?
To this last question, some are skeptical, remembering the first “9-11 Sundays” in 2001 and how church attendance gradually dissipated over the following year. Moreover, the headline of the survey remains – giving is down, and some churches simply may not survive the year.*
Still, I want to believe that something is happening, and I expect that many others carry that bias, too. If we believe that God is at work in the midst of this crisis – and we do – then we believe this crisis will lead to learnings and dynamics in our churches that carry forward and endure. Temporary adjustments in schedule, venue, and connection will lead to some permanent changes. As one pastor put it rhetorically, “Now that we’re streaming worship services, how do I ever tell the homebound that we have to shut it down someday?” In some congregations bridges have been crossed and commitments have been made.
Montreat is and must always be a placed-based ministry. We’re not forecasting or contemplating the end of Montreat as we know and love it. We are, however, seeking answers to the important questions being raised around us. We are hoping that our investments in online content and technology, the budget efficiencies we’re finding, and renewed attitudes for experimentation and exploration will survive and endure. We’re hoping these and other changes we don’t yet even understand lead us to engage more people and impact more lives, so that more come to know and love God through Montreat. To that end, the next few weeks, months, and years are going to be fascinating.
A few other notes of interest:
- Thanks to Omayra Gonzales Mendez, Chip Pope, Yena Hwang, and Jeremy Tidman, all members of the Middle School conference leadership team for 2020, who led a wonderful “Montreat Now” last night. They did a great job, and I’d like to commend Jeremy, a college senior set to graduate this spring, for the caring note struck for other seniors and all those youth experiencing important life transitions during the pandemic. Next week’s “Montreat Now” airs May 14th and represents our last in the series. Thanks to Steve Lindsley, Jerry Chapman, and Clare Parry Lozano for running the anchor leg for us!
- Here in North Carolina this week, Governor Roy Cooper signed Executive Order 138 to modify North Carolina’s Stay at Home order and transition the state to Phase 1, which will slowly ease certain COVID-19 restrictions today at 5 p.m. Those thinking about visiting the area should also check Buncombe County’s order which, where stricter, supersedes the state’s guidance. The Montreat Conference Center, meanwhile, continues to maintain limited staff presence on campus and is discouraging visitors to our main campus and facilities.
- For this week’s devotional link, I turn your attention to the worship service this past Sunday at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church. Scott Black Johnston’s sermon on Job (at the 7:45 mark) offers rich theological reflection with a generous shout-out to Montreat besides.
More to come,
*If you are an active member of a congregation or an occasional attendee – or even if you just accompany your momma on Easter or Christmas Eve – call up a pastor and ask what’s needed (if you don’t already know). Local churches are doing some incredible work in your community right now!
Update #7 | May 1, 2020
Greetings from Montreat! For more than a month, our staff has pointed to May 1st as an important milestone for making decisions that will impact our summer plans in Montreat. To that end, here’s what we’re doing:
- First, we’re moving our two June youth conferences online and adjusting our program to provide leadership, content, and activities appropriate for a streaming format. Even in the most optimistic scenario, we just don’t see a way to conduct safely a youth conference on our campus in June. We studied Governor Cooper’s guidelines for reopening following their release last week; these guidelines seemed sensible but gave us no encouragement that full conferences on our campus could be held during that time.
- Second, the Presbyterian Association of Musicians is also moving online for its worship and music conferences here later in June. We will handle inquiries on housing and other concerns as we are able, and are coordinating these efforts and communications with PAM. You can find out more about their plans by visiting their website here.
- Third, we’re delaying the arrival of our summer staff until the first week of July. We will be working with each member of the 2020 summer staff to discuss how their individual roles might be affected.
Of course, the pandemic will affect Montreat in other ways as well. We’ll provide updates at a quickening pace during May and June as implications become clear for our recreation programs and further conference plans. Right now, there are no guarantees for July and beyond, but we are in conversation with health and government authorities as well as the leaders of other camps and conference centers. We’ll let you know what we know as soon as we can do so.
Speaking for our staff here in Montreat, I have felt a sense of loss as each of these decisions approached, and I know that many share my disappointment upon hearing this news. I also know, however, that these changes offer us all new avenues to nourishment and growth. Even as we grieve the changes we must make, we will continue to look for opportunities to serve in new ways.
We do have some really good news! Yesterday, we closed our fiscal year 2019-2020. While there will be a few more envelopes arriving over the next few days, we can already report a record year for the Montreat Fund – a record number of gifts and a record number of dollars. Over the last six weeks our community has rallied incredibly with generous financial support. It appears we concluded our fiscal year “in the black,” despite having received virtually no conference or retreat revenue since the middle of March. Thanks to everyone who contributed; some of you gave more than once, and every dollar made a difference.
And thanks to all of you for staying in touch with us through these updates, for the prayers and encouragement, and for all of the other ways you continue to support Montreat!
A few other notes and links of interest:
- Our sixth installment of “Montreat Now” airs May 7th. Keynoter Chip Pope, preacher Yena Hwang, and recreation leaders Omayra Gonzales Mendez and Jeremy Tidman are preparing a special program. And thanks to Cliff Haddox and Marcus Hong for their leadership last night. That program is on now our website and can be found here: Montreat Now.
- Speaking of moving programming online, starting Monday, one of the conference center’s favorite groups, the Arts, Recreation, and Worship Conference (ARW) takes the plunge into virtual community with “ARW At Home,” bringing together some of the most creative people in the ARW community for a week of games, music, crafts, snacks, and worship. Anyone can participate here: facebook.com/recreationworkshop.
- This week, the reverend Bridgett Green, Instructor in New Testament at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary and member of our Board, offers her own reflection on our “temporary new normal.” Read it here.
More to come,
Update #6 | April 24, 2020
The big news in Montreat broke late this week. Yesterday afternoon Governor Roy Cooper announced that he is extending his stay-at-home order in North Carolina until May 8th. Also of interest, Governor Cooper previewed a phasing plan whereby restrictions would be reduced if efforts to “flatten the curve” continue to bear results.
Each phase depends on progress made against several benchmarks, including positive tests, identified cases, and hospitalizations from COVID-19 and related illnesses. In addition, the state also needs to increase its testing capacity, ability to trace new cases, and supply of personal protective equipment. Today North Carolina joined 41 other states in ordering that schools remain closed for the rest of the academic year.
We are studying the governor’s plan closely and charting its implications for our own programming. We are pursuing our own timetable of decision-making that depends significantly on the guidance of authorities. Our plan has been to approach our summer programming as incrementally as we are able, and I took heart from Governor Cooper’s measured, phased approach – it’s the path we all seem to be on right now. Throughout this period we have also remained in conversation with other camp and conference centers around the state, comparing notes and ideas. Look for more definitive information from us in this space next week.
Then late yesterday afternoon, the news broke that Lifeway Christian Resources, the owner of Ridgecrest Conference Center, will explore the sale of Ridgecrest and its associated camp ministries. I have already received numerous texts and emails asking for my interpretation of these events, to which I can only say that this news surprised us here as much as it has many others. My first thoughts upon hearing the news were directed to the Ridgecrest staff and to Art Snead, Ridgecrest’s executive director and a valuable conversation partner and colleague over the past several years. The Montreat community has benefitted from our relationship with these dedicated Christian servants and neighbors, and we wish them the best during this period of transition. (Directly responding to a couple of questions, there have been no discussions among our leadership, nor are any planned, about making a similar move in Montreat.)
Other items definitely worth your attention:
- Last night’s “Montreat Now,” with Chris Henry, Kim McNeill, and Kyrie Blocker, was wonderful and I commend it to all of you – young, old, and in between. Next week’s edition airs April 30th with Cliff Haddox, pastor of Central Presbyterian Church in Dayton, Ohio, Darci McKinnon, longtime leader of presbytery youth councils, camps, and congregational ministries, living in Oklahoma City, and Marcus Hong, assistant professor of practical theology at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Continued thanks to everyone working so hard to deliver that program.
- We are ending our fiscal year on April 30th, too, and we continue to be heartened by the donor response to our Montreat Fund appeal. If you have not made a gift to the Montreat Fund, you can do so here. There’s never been a better time to contribute to Montreat!
Finally, as we near the end of April and what has been a period of planning, but also hopeful and expectant waiting and watching, I found this relatively brief morning devotional from Dr. Joe Clifford, pastor of the Myers Park Presbyterian Church and a member of our board, particularly appropriate to the time we have been sharing here in Montreat. Bless you as you find your own ways to connect to us and to each other in the coming days.
More to come!
Update #5 | April 17, 2020
Whenever there’s an electrical outage and the lights go out at my house, I find myself reflexively reaching for light switches for the first hour or so, my brain and muscle memory somehow refusing to reckon with the reality that a lamp is mostly useless without electricity. It takes a while to adjust.
At its best, a Montreat summer runs like a well-designed house on full power. The summer’s programming performs many functions of great value and necessity; staff and volunteers give much thought and effort to ensure that the summer’s promises are fulfilled for thousands of people. Consider removing a fundamental assumption, however – that people will be able to worship, learn, and play in close physical proximity to one another – and everyone will bump around for a bit, at first unable to grasp the possible implications that the coronavirus may have for programming in Montreat this summer.
I have to applaud our staff and volunteers, our summer leaders and planning teams. Sticking with the metaphor, they quit flipping unresponsive light switches weeks ago, and are readily living into the world we find ourselves: 1) launching “Montreat Now,” a new online program for youth leaders and groups; 2) normal planning and programming, work that continues regardless of the changes taking place around us; and 3) planning for an adaptive, alternative summer should it be necessary.
The first of these tasks requires work that many of those involved have never done. The second is the job they signed up for, important responsibilities in any typical year. The third task requires taking into account a seemingly limitless number of challenges that may or may not arise, or that may be thrust upon us by government authorities, health experts, or common sense. Our group is working these three lanes simultaneously, and I thank them not for the last time.
We’ve cancelled or postponed all on-campus programming through May; our focus is now on June, the beginning of summer, with four conferences. What will June look like? We plan to communicate details by April’s end.
Regardless, the lights will come on again, and in the meantime, our eyes are adjusting to different light sources, and learning so many more ways to serve Christ through this special place. Further, all of us here at the conference center remain aware that others are facing darkness much more daunting. In that vein, however, I would point you to the eloquent Easter message of Jonathan Walton, Dean of the School of Divinity at Wake Forest University, who is scheduled to preach in Anderson Auditorium this June. Jonathan reminds that “no gravestone is too heavy for us to concede to the worst that life has to offer” and that nothing should dissuade us from our charge to show God’s love to one another. Jonathan’s sermon begins at about the eight minute mark of this video (Wake Forest Virtual Easter Sunrise Service) but the whole service is wonderful.
Three more rays of light are shining on Montreat this week. First, our fourth installment of “Montreat Now” airs April 23rd. Chris Henry, pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, and recreation leaders Kim McNeill from University Presbyterian Church in Chapel Hill, NC, and Kyrie Blocker, a student at Florida State University are leading (watch it here).
Second, as previously reported, the conference center’s application for an SBA loan under provisions of the Payroll Protection Program of the CARES Act was approved. The loan funds were deposited into our account on Wednesday and will cover a substantial portion of payroll expenses that we incur between April 1st and May 27th. While the funding does not entirely offset our expected revenue losses during that time, the loan enables us to maintain our staffing at current levels as well as our ongoing work. Importantly for summer plans, the loan also sustains our readiness for the resumption of full operations.
Finally, we continue to be grateful for the continued response to our recent appeals for the Montreat Fund in these final days of our fiscal year. Every dollar counts, and in gratitude for all the blessings that continue to surround our lives together, I convey my hopes that you are well wherever you are.
More to come!
Update #4 | April 10, 2020
Greetings from Montreat on this Good Friday as we remember the Christ who was born for us and died for us. Following are updates on several items I’ve referenced in past weeks, mixing in answers to questions I’ve received this week:
- Thanks to Laura Becker, Mich Phillips, and Mark Yaconelli for their leadership in preparing and presenting the second week of our newly launched online ministry for youth, “Montreat Now.” More than one hundred participated last night, and again, we expect that number to grow over the weekend. Over one thousand have participated in the first installment that streamed originally on April 2nd. You may view both here: montreat.org/y-ya-events/montreat-now.
- Next week’s “Montreat Now” program will be led by two more conference favorites: Cecelia Armstrong, associate pastor at St. James Presbyterian Church in Charleston, SC – “Pastor CC” – and Dr. Tony McNeill, a sought-after workshop clinician, lecturer, consultant, mentor, and guest choral conductor throughout the country. It will be special.
- I am asked, “What’s the plan with summer staff?” As with the conference season, we’re taking into account the evolving necessities of the crisis. To those reading this and hoping to join our staff this summer, I speak for so many on our fulltime staff, many of whom were summer staffers themselves and treasured that experience: we’ll do all that we can to preserve the summer – AND we have to be safe.
- On Monday, the conference center completed its application for an SBA loan under provisions of Payroll Protection Program of the CARES Act. Such a loan would greatly assist our current commitment to serve in the midst of the current pandemic. The application process proved challenging, but our finance team completed the task.
- Several have asked about how the crisis has affected Montreat’s endowment. In the first quarter of the calendar year ending March 31st, the value of Montreat’s portfolio fell 12.76%. Positions in bonds and alternative investments helped cushion the fall. Given the sudden severity of the bear market, we are thankful to have held up relatively well. Still, such a drop gives back much of the gains from 2019 and will impact budget decisions moving forward.
- Sticking with finances, on a positive note, I want to thank everyone who has participated so far in the Montreat Fund. The shock to our pocketbooks has not dampened people’s love for Montreat or desire to participate in our ministry through giving. Through April 7th, sixty-five more donors had given this fiscal year compared to that same date in 2019, with several of those donors giving a second gift since the crisis began. We aren’t counting chickens but we are cautiously optimistic about reaching our goal of $925,000 by April 30th. The gifts and emails of support continue to remind me of how grateful I am to be part of this ministry.
Speaking of blessings, one is emerging slowly outside my window every day – Montreat as a sheltering place. The virus outbreak has driven some folks here who wouldn’t normally be here in springtime. I see you outside my window, striding down Assembly Drive. Like the rest of us, I know and appreciate that we won’t see each other at a worship service or square dance over the next few days or weeks. We can’t host you at Assembly Inn.
And yet, while I hope your life returns to normal soon, if it doesn’t, stick around over the next few weeks. I hear that many of you are here in April for the very first time. I had never spent a spring in Montreat before moving here five years ago. April and May unveil vistas here that really are greener, really look bluer, and really are spectacular. Summer had always been my favorite season – not anymore. If you have to be here, make the most of it. You are in for a treat.
Martha Sloan is a member of our development staff and of First Presbyterian Church of Asheville. Her Lenten devotional, first shared with her congregation this week, is offered again here (montreat.org/a-lenten-devotional), a wonderful message on the emerging blessings around us.
As we reflect on Martha’s devotion and prepare for an Easter perhaps unlike any we have experienced, let us also all remember and pray for all those who are being visited and so harmed by this terrible pandemic. Let’s also remember those quarantined and spending Easter alone this year. And may each of us continue to take every necessary step to appreciate this time and the times to come.
Update #3 | April 3, 2020
Greetings from Montreat! There is much to share since last Friday.
First, following up from last week, our online ministry for youth, “Montreat Now,” launched last night. You can view Rodger Nishioka’s message here. More than 450 participated at launch, and we expect that number to grow over the next few days. I want to thank the entire team who made “Montreat Now” happen so quickly, and call your attention to this Thursday night’s edition that brings in Mark Yaconelli, Laura Becker, and Mich Phillips. Conversations on other programing ideas are ongoing.
Second, some of you are beginning to ask, “What’s going to happen in Montreat this summer?” The answer today is that I don’t know, except that Montreat’s summer will depend upon the guidance and directives of health agencies and government authorities. Right now, our team is planning along two tracks, the first of which assumes that our summer season will take place as scheduled. The second track must account for the uncertain trajectory of the virus in hundreds of communities, as well as at least as many variables on program and personnel considerations. In summary, we’re working on it, and we pledge to keep you posted. In the meantime, don’t hesitate to contact us with questions.
Third, a more immediate challenge is ahead. The conference center has generated no earned revenue since mid-March, and as we enter April, achieving this year’s Montreat Fund goal by April 30th is critical for us. Our development team is working overtime, and we’re asking everyone – even those who have already given this year – to consider a gift. If you feel so moved, there is a link in the footer below. Every dollar counts.
Finally, several Montreaters reached out to us with information about the CARES Act, legislation that Congress passed and the president signed last Friday. We greatly appreciate hearing from you and, yes, the conference center is applying for an SBA loan under provisions of Payroll Protection Program. Because we are committed to maintaining programing and operations through the crisis, such a loan would undergird this commitment for the time being. We will keep you posted as the process unfolds.
The reverend Dr. Aram Bae, an associate pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, and a member of our board, offers her own meditation on daily experience in this strange time. Read it here. It’s honest and real and well worth a read.
More to come!
Update # 2 | March 27, 2020
Thousands of youth and middle school conferees are looking forward to summer youth conferences here. We know this to be true because we have continued to receive new registrations for the 2020 season. This week, however, we also began in earnest our efforts to serve the youth of the church right now, in this time of crisis and anxiety.
On Thursday evening, April 2nd, Rodger Nishioka and fellow 2020 conference leaders are kicking off a new weekly series of online gatherings, called “Montreat Now.” In addition to offering each installment live, sessions will be recorded for youth groups around the denomination and beyond. Our hope is that hundreds – perhaps thousands – will participate.
At their best, Montreat youth and middle school conferences are about living in Christian community – strangers becoming friends as they worship, sing, pray and play together. We believe that convening our youth conference community now will help leaders and participants alike understand better the effects of the bewildering, often painful disruption and anxiety we are experiencing. We see an opportunity to interpret these events through a lens of theological and biblical integrity. We see an opportunity to celebrate that, even in a time of crisis, Christ is alive in all of us.
I am so grateful to Rodger and the rest of our volunteer leaders, and to staff Carol Steele and Evelyn Coleman. They are all adding this new dimension of Montreat’s ministry to their ongoing responsibilities. Bless you all!
While some good ideas lead to new services, others run aground on the ever-changing reality of the coronavirus. Wednesday, we received word that Buncombe County authorities were issuing a “Stay Home – Stay Safe” order, an important and necessary step for public heath but one which effectively limits our staff deployment and halts some new plans to serve. (For more details on the local order, see here: https://www.buncombecounty.org/countycenter/news-detail.aspx?id=18580)
This week the Montreat Store and Assembly Inn kitchen began offering inexpensive takeout meals to locals at a time when grocery store shelves in the area are increasingly sparse. In the wake of the county’s order, we’ve had to suspend that effort for the time being, lacking sufficient staff to implement our plan. Today, again following the spirit of the order, we also closed access to our recreation facilities, including trails, tennis courts, and Robert Lake Park.
These measures highlight the strange fact that, while some areas of our staff are in overdrive, others are forced to simply bide their time until conditions improve. In that vein, Lewis Galloway, a board member and Presbyterian pastor, offers a meditation on the gifts of stillness in these times. You can read his reflections here, and I encourage you to share it with others.
More to come!
Update #1 | March 20, 2020
So many people have reached out over the last week to see how we’re doing here at the Montreat Conference Center. Your prayers, your questions, and your support have lifted our spirits in so many ways. This is an attempt to tell you why, and to tell that we are responding in kind.
Many of you have asked us how we’re doing. Here are four things I know:
- We decided this week to postpone or cancel all gatherings, conferences, retreats, for the next six weeks. It’s a serious blow. Through February, we were having an outstanding fiscal year, with a clear path to finishing slightly ahead on April 30th. Canceling groups during what is normally one of our busiest periods represents a leap of faith that belt-tightening, hard work, and the loyal generosity of our supporters will enable us to end our fiscal year on April 30th with a balanced budget.
- Our Board of Directors met online this week and adopted a new budget for the coming fiscal year, itself a GIANT leap of faith, but a brave and carefully considered one. Importantly, board and staff also spent time together in worship and prayer, and brainstorming about how Montreat might serve God and our church through the crisis. Ultimately…
- We committed to remaining operational through the current crisis, to maintain our campus and our readiness for the resumption of normal programming as soon as that day comes.
- Such a commitment will require our staff to work in new ways, and they are already responding admirably to changes in role and work pattern. Of course, we’ll adjust week by week, following the guidance and directives of health agencies and government authorities.
What does “remaining operational” in the midst of the pandemic mean for a conference center dedicated to the gathering together of God’s people? That will depend upon the nature and the extent of the crisis. For starters, it means mobilizing the leadership and talent that have led our programs from the stage to come to you in your homes. Generally, it means living out our conviction that, even in the midst of this crisis, Christ calls us to make a real difference in people’s lives not just tomorrow, but today.
I feel that conviction especially because Montreaters have made a difference in my life this week. You have insisted that God is asking the conference center to convene God’s people for this time and place. Montreaters of all stripes – conference leaders, cottagers, staff – have expressed a desire to help. My friend John Brueggemann has reminded me that the coronavirus can force us only into “physical distance,” not social distance. Overwhelmingly, the message is clear: working through our ministry here, the Holy Spirit can still move people to share with each other the promise of the gospel and the good news of God’s love and grace. On this most important matter, the virus can shove it.
A more eloquent case is found at the link below. It’s a devotional offered to our Board on Tuesday by the Reverend Eileen Lindner, a board member, Presbyterian minister, and consultant to various national church agencies. Read Eileen’s reflection (read here); better yet, share it with someone. As you do, feel the Spirit moving through you – indeed, moving through us all.
More to come…