Good evening, and welcome to the Montreat Patrons Reception. It continues to be such a privilege to stand before our Montreat Patrons and express thanks on behalf of the staff and board and hundreds of volunteers who make Montreat possible for our conferees and retreat groups, for children and youth and families, for campers and hikers, and literally thousands of others. I want to express directly to you how much your support means to everything we do here.
This year, I’m here to thank you for helping us complete a fiscal year that was, seemingly, perfectly normal! We outperformed our budgeted expectations in the fiscal year ended April 30, and this spring and summer have seen a continuation of that trend, meaning that good programs, good hospitality, and good recreation become outstanding programming, hospitality, and recreation. The point is that your financial support continues to matter, and all of us who work here are so grateful.
Now – and this may shock you – in delivering these programs, we get a lot of feedback on how we are doing. No, it’s true. Occasionally, a voice from our constituency makes some noise, expressing a concern about something we’ve done, or have tried to do and failed, or haven’t done and “very obviously” should do, or most famously, something we’re trying to do and shouldn’t do.
Focusing on these voices of concern at a donor event may seem counter-intuitive, but let’s face it. This is my ninth summer and my ninth Patrons event as president, and many of you have attended every one of them. I may be running out of ways to hold your attention.
So, let’s talk about some of the “different views” that Jane Frist refers to in her poem. Generally, in my experience, when Montreaters express concerns, they fall into three categories.
The First Voice of Concern
The first voice of concern is the outright complaint, which usually comes very quickly. It’s very straight-forward, specific, and unambiguous. Sometimes, the voice in this category includes challenges to the MRA’s missional commitments (If you were truly a Christian organization…”). Sometimes, the complaint concludes a formal theological statement, often very directive in nature (words like “Go to _____!” are not unprecedented 😊).
Concerns expressed in this category are often anonymous. Generally, addressing these complaints is difficult and, frankly, the motivation for doing so can be hard to find. Nevertheless, if anyone hearing me tonight has expressed one of these, thank you for your concern!
The Second Voice of Concern
The second category of concern is also pretty straightforward. Specifically, people in this category just want to be heard, they want an apology, some empathy, and they want their problem solved. For the person voicing concern in this category, the key is to listen attentively, apologize and empathize, and solve the immediate issue so that everyone can move on. The person stating, “My room key doesn’t work,” usually doesn’t care to know why; he or she just wants to access the room. Diagnosing the real problem can come later after the immediate issue has been addressed.
The Third Voice of Concern
Like those in the second category (and definitely the first), the person in the third category also wants to be heard, and a sincere response of empathy and apology is a good idea, too. Of course, the person also wants their problem solved. But the third voice of concern is differentiated from the others in two important ways:
- First, the person shows a motivation to find a solution not only for themselves but for many Montreaters.
- Second, solving that problem improves our ministry qualitatively and quantitatively, enticing current and potential Montreaters into deeper relationships with the conference center and its programs.
Even if these voices begin with a complaint, they can quickly become voices of aspiration, of hope; they can prompt constructive, good-faith conversations. Sometimes, these voices prompt real change.
Now, let’s be clear: Not all concerns that come from hope can be addressed. In fact, I’d estimate that the majority of the time, the conversation ends only with better understanding of why things are the way they are. There’s a good bit of accumulated wisdom that our board, our staff, and our volunteers already put to daily use.
Still, a knowing glance at our current programming reveals what can happen when the “Third Voice of Concern” speaks up. Here are some examples mined from a few minutes’ conversation with our staff:
- It was a parent’s concern that initiated our desire to hold conversations this summer about the challenges today facing our teenagers, leading to a program that we launched on Thursday night on the mental health challenges of adolescents and their families.
- In 2021, the community elevated a concern of just how few indoor spaces we had to gather and connect, sparking the renovation of the Huck.
- The proposed new Lodge emanated from feedback we received from people concerned about the state of our existing lodges.
- A special needs coordinator and associated summer staffing arose from an initial community concern.
- It can be argued that the entire wilderness program as it exists today grew in large part from community concern, interest, and involvement.
Conferences, too, have been impacted by the third voice of concern:
- The Jeremiah Project, a leadership development program within our youth conferences to nurture young people to consider ministry as a calling…that came from a community concern.
- Our annual college conference was reimagined in the 2000s thanks to the bold advocacy of a young seminary student and former summer staffer.
- Women’s Connection, a conference which ten years ago was drawing less than 100 women a summer, this summer may draw as many as 1,000, thanks in large part to a donor’s initiative and gifts to support leadership for that conference.
…and this list was generated by half-a-dozen staff members, interrupted in the middle of the workday. There are many more examples. So, what is the connection to you, tonight? What makes this review of categories of concern relevant for a donor event?
It’s relevant because it’s my experience that when donors voice concerns, they almost always fall into this latter category. Your concerns tend to be missionally grounded. Sure, you want your problem solved, but you’re usually willing to stick around for a longer conversation. You can see the big picture, and you are attracted to solutions for the good of the whole constituency. Not only do your financial gifts shape our present and our future, but so do your voices, as does the spirit that characterizes the tone and content. For that we are grateful.
I know I need to say at least something tonight about the lodge project. As you probably know, a judge has revoked our permit, but we still have not received the judge’s order, so I shouldn’t comment specifically. I will say, I wish I had seen a more evident embrace of our missional commitments from those opposed to our lodge project. According to our original timeline the lodge would have opened by now. One of the sights I can’t get out of my mind are the people who aren’t here who could be here and should be here.
Our only response to this situation will be to move forward, to continue to focus on the conference center’s primary mission, which is to serve the Church of Jesus Christ.
With all the talk about preservation, I wonder if people remember what that mission really means. Well, today, it means we protect wilderness areas, we provide parks, we provide recreation, we provide arts and crafts. We provide spaces for a church to worship, for a heritage center, even space for a post office. But before we provided any of that, we were, and still are, a particular kind of convening ministry.
I have noted the importance of community voices tonight, but Montreat, since its founding, has spoken with a distinctly important voice of its own. It’s a Reformed, Presbyterian voice, that believes in a sovereign, loving God, whose love is revealed in Jesus Christ. It’s a voice that celebrates the life of the mind and encourages a deep engagement with Scripture, a voice that proclaims that all people are born in the image of God with great capacity for creativity and hospitality and justice. It’s a voice that believes we are sinners, and must confess, regularly, and that we are Reformed and always reforming. We grow in our beliefs by convening – with each other, with the church, and society.
The conference center’s voice has demonstrated that growth through more than a century of progress and of struggle. Whether or not you are Presbyterian, the virtues of this voice are worth preserving in the world, worth amplifying, worth passing along to others. We’re missionally called not only to share that voice with each other but all those within hearing distance, especially with those we don’t yet know in current and future generations.
The voice of the conference center isn’t distinct from your voice; it includes your voice, and you lift it up within the context of that mission. You continually encourage us to make Montreat a place of respite and renewal for families of believers, but also for the families of the curious and skeptical, for those who are here and not yet here – for anyone seeking a portal to new understanding and encounters with God. (And that voice is growing, which is why we now need to hold this event outdoors!)
Thank you for the voice that strengthens us and strengthens Montreat as a place of welcome and meaning. As I close, don’t respond with polite applause. Instead, celebrate with each other. Go ahead – make some noise!
President, Montreat Conference Center