Just as COVID was hitting us all in March, the conference center’s board met to chart a strategy for the uncertain times ahead. Out of those discussions three goals were formulated: 1) we would endeavor to serve our mission as long as we could, in new and creative ways as necessary; 2) we would maintain our capacity to return to normal operations as soon as possible; and 3) we would continue to move forward in preparation for the future, not just to return to normal but to move our work ahead in ways that enhanced our service to the church.
If you’re climbing a mountain, it can lift your spirits to pause and look back down the trail. Our board meeting in November gave me just such an opportunity, and this is what I saw. The conference center finished the 2019-20 fiscal year at end of April with a very slight budget surplus, thanks in large part to gifts to a Montreat Fund that finished with a record total. We were boosted in April and May with the receipt of a PPP loan (a loan that was 100% forgiven last week, by the way). We worked to earn revenue in new ways and continued our good Montreat Fund performance into the new fiscal year. We held conferences online, virtual gatherings that were widely and well received. We finished some important capital projects, and did our best to support our hard-working and resilient staff. There have been no panic sales, no fire alarms, no emergency meetings. And the “we” I am referring to is all of us – staff, volunteers, donors, friends. It’s been a true community effort to get this far up the mountain.
Reflecting on the past nine months, I find myself admiring the board’s mix of faith and foresight from that March meeting and the tone of optimism its members set. Yes, perhaps there was a bit of naiveté in our thinking, but that “unknowing” was born, I truly believe, from a collective instinct that God had work for us to do, and the knowledge that a host of people would support that work. The resolve of our board, staff, and so many volunteers and donors carried us along these past nine months, and leaves me feeling extraordinarily grateful as the year end approaches, and hopeful about how we will meet the challenges of 2021.
Still, as we approach the end of the year, the effects of pandemic seem to be entering yet another phase in my mind. Of course, we follow every item of news about advances in medical science that carry a realistic promise that the end of this dreadful crisis may be in view. At the same time, hopes are tempered by the realization that “the worst” somehow keeps getting worse! The numbers, and the names of the sick and dying among us, are overwhelming at times, such that I am joining many of you in preparing for a Christmas that may be a little less joyful, a little more isolated, less celebratory and perhaps a bit more mournful. How can that be a light at the end of the tunnel if the tunnel itself is growing darker? That’s not how light is supposed to work.
The contrast has me pondering what it’s like to feel this mix of emotions every year, or like some people, to feel just plain sad. The “most wonderful time of the year” isn’t always so, it turns out. Most of us have known for years – as a general matter of fact, if not directly – that the holidays can bring on sadness, of loss, or even outright despair; this year in particular, more of us may know it as a matter of personal experience, too.
This week a devotional message arrived in my inbox from a Presbyterian elder and friend, Jack Crawford, who finds comfort in the words of the apostle Paul and Philippians 4:12-14:
12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.
14 Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles.” (NIV)
Jack says, “Paul wants the members of his faith community, from whom he was separated in ways we can’t imagine, to know two things. First, it’s possible to be contented and joyful in all circumstances by relying on our abiding faith in Christ. And second, it was good to know his friends still cared about him.” Yes, God calls us over and over to turn away from the darkness and toward Christ who is our light and our salvation. But as Jack points out, even secure in that knowledge, Paul is still feeling grateful for the caring outreach of his friends.
This year has tested me, but my spirits have been lifted by lights those who have surrounded me and that surround Montreat – staff, friends, volunteers, and many more. I do believe – and in my best moments, do feel – that God is calling us all to be strong, to take heart, to trust in God. At Christmas especially, God is calling us to focus on the promise of the gospel bound up in the Christ child whose birth we celebrate. And God is calling us to reach out to others, to share in our troubles and help each other find the path forward, as steep as it may appear, that is surely there. May you all be able to see it, and behold it, and continue on your way!
More to come,