This Month in Montreat – October 2020

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Greetings! In the effort to keep you informed on the latest happenings at the conference center, I have three stories to share with you as the leaves begin to reveal their many colors this fall in Montreat. 
The first story is the program story. It begins with conferences, of course, as we continue to blend virtual, hybrid, and in-person gatherings as we are able. 

  • “Rethinking Evangelism” (planned in collaboration with the Presbyterian Mission Agency) will take place October 12-14. 
  • On October 18 we’ll host “Sacred Earth, Sacred Soul: A Virtual Program with John Philip Newell.” 
  • Our Crossroads Antiracism Training event will take place as scheduled October 23-25. 
  • Our annual winter gathering of College students will adapt as well, as we offer campus ministry retreats with lodging discounts and retreat curriculum. 

Gatherings and activities for all of these events primarily will be virtual, with some limited on-campus participation. In sum, in spite of COVID-19 and all its effects, we continue to gather people in service to our mission. 
As we peek ahead to the summer of 2021, we are planning optimistically, even though we are privy to no secret information on the likely progress of COVID-19 – we possess no crystal ball. We have, however, discovered a great capacity this year among our staff and all of our critical volunteers to work a plan on faith and adapt as necessary. We are moving forward, therefore, with hopeful confidence that next June will be met with a return to normal programming. 

The second story is the financial story, held here on a rather complicated spreadsheet that our leadership team monitors with a daily reverence. Revenue this year has come from a variety of sources. We look back with gratitude on the number of churches who participated in our online summer programming. That program revenue, combined with strong gift revenue from individuals and churches and the loan from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, has helped immensely. We’ve also experienced some hospitality revenue resulting from guest Sabbath experiences at Assembly Inn, and our endowment’s performance in the market has held up well thus far. 

Meanwhile, we have reduced expenses substantially. Like most non-profits, personnel represents our largest annual budget expense, and so we have trimmed across the staff through salary reductions, and a hiring freeze. While these steps have been difficult and working conditions remain challenging for all of us, staff support and morale remain high. Along with the general canceling and postponement of programs and lower operational costs, these steps have helped us reduce our overall expenses year-to-date by around 60 percent. 

Despite these savings, we have had to cover additional cash needs from several sources in addition to the PPP loan we received in the spring. Those sources have included reserves built up from budget surpluses, as well as some significant gifts. (No permanently restricted endowment funds are affected.) 

The use of reserves and gifts for the purpose of covering operational needs is not something either our Board or staff takes lightly. We are currently working on a plan for a development effort to restore whatever reserves we may need during this period. If you love Montreat, count on hearing more from us about that. Meanwhile, as we move further into the current fiscal year and begin planning for the next one, we monitor the relief talks in Washington, D.C. as well as the ongoing guidance of government and medical authorities about meeting spaces, lodging, and workplace safety. The situation evolves by the day.

I’ll close with a good news story. This month we learned that the conference center is to receive a grant of $995,500 from the Lilly Endowment which will be used over the next five years to grow and expand the scope of our congregational vitality programming. As you may know, in recent years we have increasingly focused on developing new initiatives that promote congregational vitality (young adult ministry, stewardship). Part of Lilly’s “Thriving Congregations” initiative, this grant is the first the conference center has ever received from the Lilly Endowment. While the grant is restricted and doesn’t directly relieve the financial picture outlined above, we have labeled this as a sign of the good work already happening in Montreat and of the promise of more good work to come in service of the church. 

Were I asked to title this collection of stories today, I’d be tempted to choose “From the Rollercoaster…” Such is life for the conference center in these days of COVID. In truth, however, that title wouldn’t fit, because our overall perspective here remains upbeat. Amid our own challenges, and the even greater challenges that many others face, we look behind us and around us and recognize so many blessings, and evidence abounds that more good tidings are on the horizon. Thanks be to God!

More to come,

Richard DuBose