Those wishing to boil the issue of a new lodge in Montreat down to its simplest essence need only consider the following question: Should the Montreat Conference Center be allowed to develop a part of its campus on Assembly Drive – currently occupied by three lodges – to expand its service to more guest groups year-round as part of its mission and ministry? For many, however, the issue of the new lodge has raised larger questions as well about the conference center’s vision for the future and our relationship to the church. These questions go to heart of the mission of the conference center.
Conference attendance, while stable, isn’t growing. Total membership in our affiliated denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), has been moving downward for decades. The mainline institutional church today is considered by some to be more an artifact of 20th century Christianity than a vital presence in the current one. How can any denominational conference center hope to move forward against such headwinds? Shouldn’t this conversation about a new lodge include consideration of a culture that is less receptive to the conference center’s mission and ministry? Some ask bluntly, “Why build a new lodge for a dying church?”
In attempting to address these questions, let’s start by acknowledging a baseline. The conference center has faced the trends cited above for more than fifty years, and it’s still here. It has weathered cultural changes, institutional schism, and theological conflict. The conference center adjusted to the effects of church reunion in the 1980s, and overcame serious financial hardships in the 1990s and 2000s. It’s still here.
It’s here because the conference center adapted and evolved with these changes. Youth conferences became the largest annual gathering of Presbyterian youth beyond the local congregation. New program models for adults (College Conference, Women’s Connection) reached beyond clergy and staff. Congregations continued to value the faith formation that is uniquely nurtured by retreats. A devoted cadre of staff, board members, volunteers, and donors connected the conference center to generous individuals, families, and congregations, such that fundraising meaningfully supports our capital development. The Montreat Fund and a growing endowment make possible important programs that infuse the church with vitality and subsidize our recreation and wilderness activities. One could argue that today more people think of Montreat as a place of surpassing importance in their respective spiritual, theological, and cultural narratives than ever before.
The demographic trends in the denomination look daunting. For analysis I’ve turned to Frank Spencer, a fellow Montreater and president of the Board of Pensions for the PC(USA) – the folks at the Board know a thing or two about the data of the denomination. In his forward to Gradye Parsons’s book, Our Connectional Church, Frank makes a strong case that the denomination isn’t going anywhere. In fact, there are actually possible scenarios for growth. Frank acknowledges that many congregations are unlikely to grow in the years ahead due to demographic factors, but he also notes that seventy-four percent of Presbyterians make up larger congregations that are well situated in growing communities, particularly in the Sun Belt. The truth, Frank says, is that “the PC(USA) is far from dead. In fact, there is realistic hope that it might get even stronger.”
That, however, is not even the most important point of Frank’s message. He contends that the world needs the Presbyterian voice more than ever. Contrasting our beliefs with more dominant expressions of Christianity in America today, Frank points out that “our Reformed tradition offers a very different theology, relying on the strength of grace, faith, and the authority of Scripture. This understanding manifests itself in inclusive community, connected ecclesiology, and an imperative for social justice. It is a witness that is still very important in today’s world.” For the conference center, I take Frank’s words to mean that our charge isn’t to wonder about the future health of the denomination, but rather to help make it so.
Meanwhile, I’m baffled by assertions that the new lodge represents an attempt by the conference center to extend beyond its “target market.” Guilty as charged! First, there are many Presbyterians we’ve yet to welcome to Montreat. Even so, we must reach out beyond the PC(USA), and in fact we already do. We open our doors to our Presbyterian denominational cousins as well as to other groups representing our Reformed tradition. We host a multitude of other Christian groups and even sometimes groups from outside our Christian faith. (I remember in particular a small group of Sikh leaders we hosted in Assembly Inn some years ago for a few days of prayer, planning and retreat. I remember their convener telling me simply: “Sikhs don’t have a Montreat. Thanks for making a place for us.”)
Our missional goal for all of these groups is not necessarily to create more Presbyterians, though we’re open to that conversation. Our broader aim is to do our best to represent the very virtues that Frank describes as our collective witness. We don’t hide the cross while these groups are here; we offer it as an invitation of hospitality and welcome.
A new lodge stands to enhance that invitation, and so the MRA board made a faithful decision to build one on our campus in the heart of our valley. Consider board member valerie izumi’s eloquent statement from the board’s recent meeting:
“People come from far and wide to learn and grow and to broaden their understanding of how to live faithfully and with a deep understanding and love for the breadth, beauty, and depth of God’s beloved community. If indeed ‘All Are Welcome Here’ as our website claims, we must make way and make space for all to come. This is our faithful response to God’s powerful call to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.”
Expect the conference center to continue caring for Montreat as a place of respite and renewal for Presbyterians of all stripes, and for those who have loved Montreat for generations. Expect us to open our arms to the spiritually curious and skeptical (say, for example, the young adult who attends church once a year in Anderson Auditorium as a favor to her grandmother). Expect us to continue to invite and host those from other denominations and faith traditions, and those from no tradition at all. Today, more than ever, Montreat must serve as a portal for those seeking new opportunities to encounter God. Perhaps they will find it here as so many have before them.
Next week, I’ll turn attention to the conference center’s relationships with neighboring institutions, the Town of Montreat, and cottagers generally. So…
More to come!
Montreat Conference Center