An Open Letter to My NCP Colleagues about Meadowkirk

Dear Colleagues,

Why didn’t an alarm bell ring at our recent presbytery meeting?

I’m not an alarmist, but I believe in truth-telling. If truth be told, the situation at Meadowkirk should have us all sitting up very straight. ?Instead we heard a much-too-upbeat and vague report, which accompanied a motion suggesting that a higher debt ceiling will fix the problem. ?Being good presbyters, bent on collegiality, we simply passed the motion with almost no discussion.

Friends, Meadowkirk needs much more than a higher debt ceiling! ?If you attended the pre-meeting, you would have heard that in order for Meadowkirk to survive (alternative reading: our millions of dollars not be lost), the following constellation of things needs to happen, any one of which is unlikely:

  • the bank agree to convert construction loans into permanent financing

  • the Board secure tax exempt bond financing

  • the Inn be booked every single weekend in 2009, plus 2 weekdays

  • an influx of $3 million

Can anyone tell me why the alarm didn’t ring?

Might I add — all of this predates the current financial collapse, which will not make any of the above easier!

The Meadowkirk Board is scrambling, as it should be. They need persons with expertise in fundraising, financing, marketing, and the hospitality industry, expertise which is in short supply from a bunch of preachers.

Did you realize how dire Meadowkirk’s situation is? ?I don’t understand why the Board, and the presbytery leadership, are being silent about the impending crisis. ?I will no longer be.

Your sister in Christ.

Ruth Everhart


Comments

16 responses to “An Open Letter to My NCP Colleagues about Meadowkirk”

  1. Looks like I said Finally twice. Just when you thought I was done talking…

  2. Ruth~

    With Tim I apologizing for the length our responses. I feel like I have hijacked your blog.

    Tim~

    Again thank you for the thoughtful response. It was my understanding was that a certain amount of the Presbytery’s/Meadowkirk’s investments were in risky hedge funds, but I am assuming that you are telling me that is not the case.

    I think that what you say about change orders speaks for itself. Especially, all of our realization that it is at a point of no return for overage costs. Who negotiated our written agreements with contractors? Was it someone with a long business track record? These contracts are something that I know is complicated and I would like to understand better, but fear that we do not have the space. So, on this I can wait.

    Finally, I think that you misunderstood my question about the parting of ways of people from Meadowkirk. It is my understanding that the treasurer, business manager and vice president no longer have a relationship with Meadowkirk. Seeing the financial crisis that this relationship has engendered to the Presbytery I think that it is important for us to understand if these people left under duress or protest. Although, I do appreciate your detail about enrollment. I think that when they address in detail their two year plan it would be good to distribute to the Presbytery as a whole (I already assume this will happen because it has in the past).

    Are Meadowkirk’s books available for presbytery consumption, and where would we see the outgoing and incoming detailed budget? Sorry if they have already been disseminated and I have missed their distribution.

    Finally, I do not think or know that there is any intentional attempt to keep information from presbyters. Yet, to find out in a presbytery packet and meeting that the assets of our presbytery are frozen begs the question: if someone didn’t see it coming, shouldn’t they have? Maybe at the previous presbytery meetings there was a discussion of a impending financial crisis that would freeze our presbytery’s assets, but then I missed it altogether. This presbytery and I may have a different definition of financial crisis, but I have always thought that when the bank freezes assets that is a serious problem. All I have heard up to this point have been unhindered enthusiasm and optimism. I think that is not realistic transparency.

    Having worked on missions money I am glad that you and Wilson are currently working on its distribution and segregation of the funding. That is something that I fully support.

    I must say though that your positive assessments help me understand this crisis (although I may not have as optimistic of a view) and makes me glad that people like you are dealing with it and not me. I will keep you all in my prayers.

  3. Tim Cargal Avatar
    Tim Cargal

    Brian has asked if I might respond to some very specific questions, some of which I have no specific knowledge about and some of which I have general knowledge about. One thing I don’t want to do is to spread any misperceptions that I myself may have despite having spent a good bit of time on these matters (and with more already slated on my calendar).

    Let me begin, then, by saying that what I have not found among any of those involved in this process is an attempt to hide information. Questions that have been raised in public sessions have been answered; questions I have put to folks personally and directly have been answered — in both instances I believe to the best of folks’ abilities. So, if people have questions about the decisions and actions of specific individuals, my advice (as in most all cases) is to put those questions directly to them.

    Why have the assets of the Glenkirk sale been put in specific kinds of investments? I can only answer that in general terms, but the answer at that level is because that is the advice we have received from our professional investment managers given our discussions with them about the long-term and short-term needs. I don’t mean this in any way flippantly, but when the portfolio was growing rapidly and spinning off more funds (in the case, for example, of CPM scholarships from the 2nd Alexandria fund with which I was directly involved at a point in the past) than we could prudently use in any given year, there was a general sense that the particular investment strategy balanced risk and performance. Even given the past few months, I have been told that (to date) the specific strategy employed despite its own losses continues to outperform other major market sectors. More importantly, however, this is a case where we have sought out, paid for, and followed professional advice.

    Why have “so many people parted with Meadowkirk”? I assume this is in reference to summer camp enrollments. I point that out because my own impression based on reports that I’ve received from Meadowkirk staff is that other program areas are up significantly, at least as compared to Glenkirk. That is, there is already higher weekend use of the house and cottages throughout the year than there was year-round use at Glenkirk. Summer camp registrations have been significantly lower than at Glenkirk, though up considerably between Meadowkirk year one versus MK year two. I can tell you here that Andy Woodworth, MK’s program director, shared with the MK board and NCP council members that they are working hard to address matters that may have impacted camper enrollments the past two years and to continue the increase in enrollment for year three.

    Regarding “change orders” and “locked-in to unalterable contracts,” I’m wondering if you and I share the same understanding of the terminology. My understanding of “change orders” is that they represent changes in construction plans that result from either desired modifications or mandated modifications required for permitting, occupancy certificate, or other reasons. For example, early engineering plans called for handling waste water from the site in a particular way, but permitting ultimately required a much more extensive waste water treatment facility which significantly raised costs above initial quotes. These are different matters, however, than “unalterable contracts” by which I am understanding (perhaps mistakenly) that you are referring to contract cancellation fees should we direct the contractors to cease construction (whether because costs have now exceeded budgeted projections or other reasons). All construction contracts have such cancellation fees since the builders must make their own advance contracts for specific specialized forms of labor, materials, etc. Consequently, every project has a “point of no return” where it becomes as expensive (or even more expensive) to cancel it than to complete it (even if material and labor costs may have increased). It is certainly the case at present with Meadowkirk’s development that we have passed that “point of no return” with regard to all work already underway.

    Finally, with regard to the freezing of presbytery assets: Wilson Gunn, NCP General Presbyter, has published a pair of letters that have tried to explain this situation. I won’t try to summarize them here, but will stress two points. The NCP leadership (its own staff and council leaders and representatives from the financial areas) are continuing to work (another of those meetings slated on my calendar) to segregate presbytery assets so that only the Glenkirk proceeds and earnings are connected in any way to the Meadowkirk project. Second, one thing this whole episode has shown is that we need to rethink how endowment fund earnings (like 2nd Alexandria) are appropriated for ministry projects. If Meadowkirk had never existed, NCP still would have faced the prospect that mission projects, CPM scholarships, etc. that received six-figure funding in 2008 (based on 2007 earnings) might have gone to zero in 2009 because the markets may end the year lower than they opened (thus, there would be no earnings for 2008 as a whole). This issue is one that Wilson, myself, and others have discussed, and for which the leadership is working to formulate some revised policies to ultimately bring to presbytery for approval.

    I’m sure this post exceeds all bounds of etiquette for a “blog response,” but I hope it demonstrates we are not trying to hide things in the shadows and that people are using all their God-given gifts to the best of their Spirit-enabled abilities — including recognizing one’s limits and seeking professional assistance — to respond to this challenge.

  4. Tim~

    I appreciate the positive and thoughtful tone of your response. What about the specific questions that I addressed? Are you able to answer them? I know that you may not be the person to answer them. I do not necessarily want assurances that now we can actually market the camp when it has already fallen short of its previous goals. I have attended the presbytery meetings where those goals were presented. I want to know why our assets are placed in risky investments? Why have so many people parted with Meadowkirk? Why would we be in a situation where change orders would cost us millions of dollars except we had locked ourselves into unalterable contracts? As I understand it, a multi-million dollar Presbytery risk has frozen the assets of our presbytery, and if there was not a one-time influx of capital, our staff would not have been paid, nor would some our mission commitments have been met (you may correct me if this is wrong).

    I somewhat resent the fact that we are being presented with this as just being a victim of an economic downturn or circumstances. I am sure that has played a factor in some of the financial distress, but I do not for a moment believe that there has been transparent fiduciary reporting. Rosy pictures of goals and plans are not transparent marketing nor realistic income budgeting.

    I do remember that some people asked that this plan be tabled so that the business model could be evaluated by others who have more experience in the business world. That would have at least have moved the time frame closer to the economic challenges that you pointed out. So, let’s not imply that this has not been a financial concern for some from the beginning. I suspect that it was a concern for more than are willing to stick there necks out to talk talk in public and look like opposing a camp/retreat center/corporate lodging.

    Let me just say that when numbers are presented from Meadowkirk to the Presbytery they are most often shown in powerpoint presentations with an emphasis on children. So, I don’t think that it is entirely out of the ordinary for some of us to be confused about its model, but thank you for pushing this important point.

    Plus, we may have all decided to buy into bad business models, be quiet until now, trust in those more powerful/knowledgeable than us, but that doesn’t mean that we have to enable things to stay that way. I think that sometimes it is good for us to say we were wrong.

    I hope that you will take this in the spirit that it is intended as sincere disappointment and frustration. I had hoped that things would not be where they are at the present moment. I have prayed quite often for Meadowkirk’s success (which I will continue). I will use my voice to push for positive transparency and hopefully the future solvency of our presbytery.

    I appreciate someone from the presbytery leadership chiming in on this issue. So, thank you for speaking in on the discussion here and I look forward to further dialogue. I would like to hear other leaders from our presbytery clearly articulate their thinking on this subject. As the chair of our Presbytery’s Social Justice group I feel a responsibility to talk about something that I believe limns the borders of a just use of resources.

  5. Responding to Ruth, we can reach out for volunteers that offer expertise, but it will take more than folks who can only give a limited amount of time. In order for Meadowkirk to be successful, as it now has to compete in the for profit hospitality industry, paid professional must be hired, particularly in marketing – the Meadowkirk Board and NCP, do folks with financial expertise in Bob Sutter, MD and Dick Lowery NCP. It is going to take more than numbers. Evagelism will not fill the Inn at Meadowkirk.

  6. Tim Cargal Avatar
    Tim Cargal

    Carol Howard Merritt asks, “But then, I wonder, how did this evolve from a place where we want our children to learn about God and God’s creation, to a corporate lodge? … what are we doing spending that much to be a part of the corporate hospitality industry?”
    One of the differences between Meadowkirk and Glenkirk (at least as it was at the end, if perhaps not from the beginning) was that it was not intended to be a place just for children and youth camps. The presbytery made the decision in the early development stages that Meadowkirk had to be a place that would appeal to the adults in our churches and not just the young people. That was a requirement heard widely at presbytery meetings and with congregations, not just the aspirations of the Camps and Retreats committee or the “leadership” (whether defined as staff or council). And precisely because this isn’t the 1950s or 60s (as Brian Merritt reminds us), the expectations of even retreat facilities have changed greatly.
    So, what changed was not the fundamental mission of Meadowkirk (a “place of grace” for God’s children of all ages) but precisely the business plan. To support adult expectations in the 21st century required a development plan that would require in its financial support occupancy rates that could only be met by marketing to a broader audience (churches, non-profits including schools, and corporations). The Meadowkirk staff and board both understand this strategic change (and challenge) and are working to address it–now that development has reached a point where there is something to market.
    To say that the timing of all this has proven difficult for reasons no one foresaw (Katrina’s impact of materials costs at the outset of construction; downturns in the markets and broader economy of historic magnitudes at precisely the moment when permanent financing must be arranged and bookings dramatically increased; etc.) would be a tremendous understatement. As always, we must deal with realities as they are, not as they might have been–it’s just that when reality is “negative” we tend to be more aware of its constraints than we are acknowledging of its blessings when it is more “positive” than might have been hoped.

  7. ruth everhart Avatar
    ruth everhart

    Thanks for weighing in, everybody. Nothing here is the last word on the subject, that’s for sure. We’ll hear more on Jan 27, the next Presby mtg, if not before, I imagine. Meanwhile, I’d love to see the MK Board reach out to all the presbyters with a straightforward “how you can help” kind of approach. Whether it’s suggesting really qualified volunteers to assist the board, or the names of top-notch professionals in finance and marketing, or a brainstorming session, or whatever! We need to do a better job of using the skills available to us. I think this is what Paul had in mind with that whole “body” image.

  8. john wimberly Avatar
    john wimberly

    Stushie, nice try. But the people who have been making the decisions regarding the camp (for this discussion,let’s exempt the paid and elected leadership because they have been following rather than leading at many points in this debacle) are people I have never seen play active roles in this Presbytery. The problem isn’t the same old leadership. The problem is lack of competencies that are required to run a business—marketing, financial forecasting, strategic business planning, etc.
    Whenever I bring up that the church is a business, people get hopping mad. But this camp venture is an explicit example of the fact that ministry is also a business. Mess up the business plan and the ministry plan goes up in smoke. The fact that many pastors and elders don’t have good business skills is why the church is one of the worst led/managed businesses in the world.

  9. I think this is some of the poorest stewardship of money that I have seen. I was the synod of the Northeast’s chair for grants and loans and we would review countless applications for developmental loans of property and facilities. There is no way that this business plan would have made it through our committee.

    We have to get past the “but what about the children?” stage in our development as people of God. We shouldn’t take into consideration someone’s camp experience from the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s or 90’s. The camp market in Northern Virginia is a very competitive market compared to earlier generations. How will this long range plan compete with ballet, horse, soccer, art and YMCA camps? Arlington county fills its county building once a year with booths for a “camp fair.” Is Meadowkirk planning on attending or are they only relying on Presbyterian churches that may be more than an hour away?

    Transparency is good in a representational, parliamentary democracy. This is for both the ones who are supposed to be educated voters and those who are trusted with educating the delegate. I know this will be unpopular, but why can’t these lengthy, and painful discussions take place in the middle of our democratic process? I know that none of us likes conflict and that we are all busy people. Yet, I think that almost everyone would agree that when bank accounts have been frozen it is a good time for the voters to talk.

    I do have a few questions that I would like answered, and will bring up at presbytery meetings in the future. I would like to know why the relationship ended with the treasurer, the business manager and the vice-president (from their perspective, as well as, Meadowkirks)? I would like to know why there have been millions of dollars in change orders? I would like to know why investments sat in risky hedge funds? I have not been a part of this public discussion previously except in private conversations, nor was I able to attend the very early morning information session, but I will support your efforts for more information. I am beginning to get very upset about this.

    I too love Meadowkirk, but now is it going from being a camp for children to a money making venture for the business class? If we are going to lose money anyway why don’t we go into the poor neighborhoods of D.C. and give free scholarships for children to attend camp, instead of making it completely into a money making venture for wealthy people? Let me know what I can do to help and where you see this going. I am glad that you are bringing this up for discussion.

  10. It’s the “old boys” network you’re up against, Ruth. It happens in my Presbytery, too. The same people end up in leadership positions and influential committees, making the same stupid mistakes that cost us millions of dollars throughout the entire country.

    I’ve given up going to Presbytery on a regular basis, Ruth. Too much for my blood pressure….

  11. wait up, are you sure your not talking aboiut Episcopalians in SE PA? same exact story here but I don’t know if the diocese wwas able to dump the land or not since I am out of the loop these days

  12. Thanks for your comments, folks. I agree with Carol that we have (perhaps unwittingly, at least to us on the periphery) entered the hospitality industry. Which we are ill-equipped to do. And not prepared to do. I agree with Cindy that the best response is (to quote Tim Gunn on Project Runway) “make it work.” Which is why I call for assistance to the board — not just to get our children to summer camp (you know, the world has changed, all of my church kids are already at camps) but to get corporate clients out to MK every weekend and during the week. Here’s a specific question: Has anyone approached Loudoun County Public Schools as a potential client? My husband works for LCPS and tells me they go to WVa for retreats, which raises some hackles — they should certainly be approached. If we had marketing people on board, this would have been done during the last 5 years!

  13. Cindy Bolbach Avatar
    Cindy Bolbach

    I don’t disagree with anything that’s been said, but I think we need to separate the “if we knew then what we know now, what would we do” issues from how we move forward responsibly, facing the realities of the current situation. Right decision or wrong, we’ve spent the money. We need to now figure out how best to recoup that investment. I think we need to give Meadowkirk our best shot over the course of 2009 — with everyone in the Presbytery, not just the Meadowkirk board, aware of the issues and working together to confront and solve those issues — and then realistically assess whether Meadowkirk is viable long-term, and follow through on the hard decisions associated with that assessment.

    And I have to say that I somehow like the tag, “Presbytery shenanigans.”
    Not often you get “shenanigans” associated with Presbyterians.

  14. Molly Douthett Avatar
    Molly Douthett

    Is there a way to get more kids to Meadowkirk, then? How many of our own youth and children went to camp there this past summer? I know that a big fat zero of ours went.

  15. Carol Howard Merritt Avatar
    Carol Howard Merritt

    I agree Neil. We will need to lure big corporations to make this work.

    But then, I wonder, how did this evolve from a place where we want our children to learn about God and God’s creation, to a corporate lodge? Of course, it doesn’t make sense to spend almost $30M on a camp that only 160 children go to… but what are we doing spending that much to be a part of the corporate hospitality industry?

    There’s too many ministry needs. Pastors who want to plant churches, churches that need buildings, pastors who need some mechanism to afford housing. There are so many needs that our congregations and ministries have. Why are we spending so much on a luxury lodge.

    It is beautiful. There’s no doubt about it. I feel closer to God there. But I fear we’ve severely compromised our mission as we’ve built it.

  16. It strikes me that Meadowkirk needs to become much more than a church camp. It’s success will depend on luring corporate clients to come and use it for off site meetings and small conferences. Of course to facilitate that there would need to be state of the art a/v equipment and access to the internet.

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