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Southern Baptists Announce Possible Sale of Glorieta Conference Center

By   /   October 3, 2011  /   No Comments

After several years of financial losses, trustees of New Mexico’s largest faith-based gathering place have decided to explore “disposition” of Glorieta Conference Center, located along Interstate 25 between Santa Fe and Pecos. Trustees who oversee the Southern Baptist Convention’s western conference center also announced they will cease year-round operations at the end of October, close the centers’ retail store and lay off 16 of 23 remaining year-round employees.

   Holcomb Auditorium

The potential sale also follows a period of sagging membership in Southern Baptist churches, and declining enrollment at the western camp’s conferences. Reports from the denomination’s annual convention indicate LifeWay Christian Resources’ two conference centers, in New Mexico and at Ridgecrest, N.C., hosted about as many guests in 2010 as they did 30 years ago. Southern Baptist Convention reports indicate combined attendance of about 100,000 at the two centers last year and in 1980 alike. Based in Nashville, Tenn., LifeWay Christian Resources is a agency of the Southern Baptist Convention that oversees a broad range of publishing, educational and outreach functions.

The potential sale of the Baptist center signifies trends among Baptists away from national-level training events and betrays a trend among Americans away from religious affiliation. Fewer Americans today express affiliation with Baptist, Southern Baptist or Protestant churches than any time in recent history, while an increasing number express no religious affiliation.

Glorieta Conference Center Director Hal Hill said LifeWay Christian Resources’ various divisions have gradually scaled back the number of events set for Glorieta over a period of several years, and the number of people who enrolled for those events continued to decline. The New Mexico camp will continue to host seven weeks of summer youth events, which have grown while other training events suffered declining enrollment, said center director Hal Hill.

   Inside Holcomb Auditorium

A summer youth program that commingles summer recreation with faith-based training, launched in 1979, quickly exceeded capacity and continues to grow. That program, also held at the Southern Baptists’ Ridgecrest Conference Center in North Carolina and at various other locations, will continue at Glorieta into the foreseeable future. The program attracted 6,000 youth to Glorieta this year, while Collegiate Week – also scheduled to continue in the foreseeable future – attracted another 2,000.

Hill said the center’s executive staff will explore a wide range of options for disposition of the conference center property, focused primarily on potential agreements with other Baptist or Christian organizations. Although trustees have instructed staff to explore ways to dispose of the property, Hill said “God isn’t through with this place yet.”

   Director Hal Hill

“It’s not like LifeWay is saying anybody with the most money can come in and buy this place,” said executive director Hal Hill.

Nonetheless, Hill said LifeWay’s Chief Financial Officer, Jerry Rhyne, “is answering the phone” to discuss options for disposing of the center’s property. And potential dispositions aren’t limited to agreements with other Christian organizations, according to a video statement from Byron Hill, executive director for conference centers and camps at LifeWay Christian Resources (no relation to Glorieta director Hal Hill.)

In the video statement explaining the cutbacks, Byron Hill said reduced operations are not a permanent solution for the financial problems facing the Glorieta facility. Any plans for disposition of the center, however, must be approved by LifeWay trustees.

Historic Junctures

The Glorieta conference center formally opened as Southern Baptist training camp with “Pioneer Week” in 1952. Since that time, the center built out a sprawling facility on about 2,200 acres along I-25, including indoor housing for an estimated 2,000 guests. A lighted steeple towering above the center’s main auditorium has been a landmark to I-25 travelers since 1966.

   Outside New Mexico Hall

At a 1959 convention, voting messengers from Southern Baptist churches around the nation declined a proposal to make Glorieta and Ridgecrest permanent locations for the denomination’s annual conventions. The decision didn’t slow growth of the newer location in New Mexico nor at the North Carolina “Southern Baptist Assembly,” established in 1907.

In addition to dormitories and hotel-like accommodations, the Glorieta center today includes primitive cabins, an RV park, classrooms, an 800-seat dining hall that can serve as many as 6000 meals daily, a lake where guests enjoy catch-and-release fishing, a miniature golf course, horse stables, tennis and volleyball courts and a landscaped prayer garden. Approximately 75 smaller residential buildings owned by individuals or various church groups are also located on the property. Those buildings were built on land leased from the Baptist agency.

Hill estimated the main Holcomb auditorium, built in 1966, seats 2,400 adults. An attached chapel can seat 600, and three other auditoriums throughout the campus each offer between 150 and 600 seats. Yet many of the buildings depend on aging infrastructure, built around plans that didn’t include year-round operations at the mountainous, 7,500 foot elevation. Most are uninsulated. And without financial support from the Southern Baptists’ Cooperative Program funds, the center depends primarily on product sales such as lodging revenues to meet maintenance costs.

   Garden Apartments

Leaders cited changing practices among churches, structural changes in statewide Baptist associations, rising fuel cost that limited guests’ travel plans, increased utility costs, a volatile economy and extensive maintenance costs as contributing factors to what the center’s Web site says are ongoing budgetary shortfalls.

Roads and buildings on the 59-year-old conference center have aged, but a walk around the campus reveals few signs of chronic disrepair. Hall said significant maintenance costs for roads, sewers and other infrastructure contributed to the budgetary difficulties. Visual signs of age include cracked plaster at the bottom of the center’s landmark steeple, cracked roads and sidewalks. A few older residential buildings have been decommissioned after repair costs soared.

Maintenance costs have weighed on the conference center’s budgets, but the Southern Baptists’ operational agency has invested millions during the past decade to update accommodations there. Trustees of LifeWay Christian Resources (formerly the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board), in 2000 endorsed a 15-year plan to revitalize the agency’s camps in North Carolina and New Mexico. At that time, neither of the camps had opened new accommodations for 27 years.

   Covered playground shows signs of wear

Yet even 11 years ago, efforts to raise capital for the conference centers within the denomination had fallen short. Trustees’ 2000 revitalization plan would have meant about $85 million in upgrades for the two camps by 2015. Some upgrades were implemented. A 60-room Hall of the States hotel at Glorieta was built at an estimated cost of $4 million in 2006. That was part of a three-year, $8-million investment. Rooms at the more upscale of Glorieta’s accommodations were recently offered to guests at $69 a night, but bookings were not available for dates past Nov. 1.

As attendance at Baptist programming events waned, the Glorieta center has in recent years provided space for other purposes, including Catholic and Methodist denominational meetings, meetings of Cancer Services of New Mexico and, for 26 years, the annual conference of the state Aging and Long-Term Services Department. Press reports about the end of that state-agency’s long-running conference echoed nationwide controversy on issues of Baptist morality about which denominational leaders, and a majority of church messengers at annual conventions, have refused to not back away.

Revenue Declines Follow Trends Away From Religion

Trends among American’s religious affiliation pose a dilemma for Baptists. While the denomination in recent decades has corporately encouraged active civic participation, their civic stances have at times been unpopular. And an increasing number of Americans either don’t care for any religious affiliation, or have found fellowship in Christian groups unaffiliated with major Protestant denominations. The growing number of unaffiliated churches give those seeking a place to share Christian faith more choices in how their faith will be expressed.

Southern Baptist leaders say the foundation on which their faith-practices rest remains rock solid. The denomination espouses a practice based on acknowledgment of their fundamental tenets, adherence to their moral principles and forgiveness. Yet a 30-year-old “conservative resurgence” within the denomination and an inexorable slide away from any religious affiliation among Americans has rocked the nation’s second largest religious group.

   Outside Glorieta's 800-seat dining hall.

As an evangelically-oriented denomination, Baptists often measure success by the extent to which they are able to persuade others to join their faith. Baptism – the hallmark ordinance of Baptist churches — tends to be a measure of that effort. The 332,321 water immersions Southern Baptists conducted in 2009 was the lowest number in at least 28 years, and well below a 28-year average of about 375,000 a year, as reported in 2010 convention documents. The number peaked in the late 1990’s when the annual number exceeded 400,000 for four consecutive years.

A drop in the number baptisms isn’t the only indicator of recent declines. A 2008 Pew study found that the number of adults affiliated with non-denominational Protestant groups has tripled in one generation. During that same time, those affiliated with major denominations has waned.

At the time of the Pew survey, more than 8 percent “of the U.S. adult population was raised Baptist but is no longer Baptist” the survey found. At the same time, Baptists have attracted only about between 4 and 5 percent of the population that was not raised Baptist. Overall, Baptists were losing their share of the market in religious affiliations.

The still-predominant Protestant denomination isn’t the only group losing adherents, though. By the same measure, those affiliated with Catholic churches had declined 7.5 percent. Catholics, however, represent as large a portion of the population today as they did nearly 40 years ago. The Pew study attributed Catholics’ steady numbers to new converts and to immigrants who replace those who otherwise leave Catholic churches after being raised Catholic.

Still, Baptists have enjoyed some success in attracting new members. Immigrants have replenished Catholic congregations to maintain a more or less steady percentage of the current U.S. population, but Baptists overall have attracted more members who were not raised Baptist than any other group – with one significant exception.

   Looking out from Holcomb Auditorium

Baptists share of faith-group adherents slid more quickly than did that of non-denominational protestant groups, but the fastest growing group, as compared to childhood religious experiences, are adults unaffiliated with any religious organization. That number more than doubled, to now include 16 percent of the overall population studied. While fewer than 2 percent at the time identified as “atheist” 12 percent were affiliated with “nothing in particular.”

Another survey, General Social Surveys conducted by the University of Chicago, found the number of respondents who identified as Protestant had dropped from 61 percent in 1988 to 51 percent in 2008. The number affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, whose agencies operate the Glorieta conference center, fell even more precipitously – from nearly 17 percent in 1988 to less than 7 percent in 2008.

While the number of people surveyed in the General Social Surveys Poll more than doubled between those 30 years, raising the margin or error between the two studies, Gallup has conducted a less specific poll of religious preference since 1948. The Gallup poll found the number who identified as Protestant declined from 69 percent in 1948 to 45 percent in 2010. Most of that decline occurred after the mid-1960s, when the number who expressed no religious preference – now at a record 14 percent – began to climb.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s own Annual Church Profile has found similar declines. In 2011, the denomination reported a fourth consecutive year of declining total membership.

While membership numbers, and public demonstrations of religious conversion have declined, the denomination has enjoyed success in starting new churches, revealing some progress in local-level activities that has not translated to fiscal success for national conference centers. Yet the denomination’s media profile, both here in New Mexico, and nationally, has often been defined by political controversy

Conservative Stances Prove Controversial

The conference center was the focus of media attention in 2007 after a state agency sought another location for an annual meeting that had been held at Glorieta for the previous 26 years. One Associated Press news report said the center refused accommodations to the Aging and Long-Term Services Department’s annual conference after a dispute about contract language that stipulated conference subject matter could not contradict Baptists’ faith-based ideals.

   The base of the landmark Holcomb spire

Hill said this week the dispute arose after an attorney for the state agency questioned contract language, but that center staff who attended a workshop presented by a marketing group for RainbowVision found nothing objectionable in the workshop content. He disputed media accounts that claimed his center had canceled the event. Rainbow Vision is a Santa Fe residential community whose original marketing focus was geared toward resident’s preferences of sexual orientation. Hill said to his knowledge the center has never questioned the sexual orientation of guests who visit the Glorieta center.

The three-day conference attracted as many as 1,000 guests to Glorieta in some years, but the estimated $51,000 in revenue the conference generated in its final years was only a fraction of the center’s overall operating cost during those years. The conference was relocated to a Sandia Pueblo facility the following year and this year met at Isleta Pueblo’s Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Albuquerque.

As public discussion and widespread acceptance of sexual orientations other than monogamous heterosexuality became more common, so did Southern Baptists’ outspoken advocacy for traditional values. The Glorieta conference center – and most Southern Baptists would say “God’s love” – may be accessible no matter a person’s sexual orientation, but in 2010 the SBC passed a resolution opposing efforts to overturn the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with regard to sexual orientation of military service personnel.

While standing by a long-held view that “homosexual behavior is intrinsically disordered and sinful” the convention resolved that “we also deplore all acts of violence by anyone for any reason relating to this issue, whether it be violence against homosexuals, or violence by homosexuals.”

The denomination historically recognized throughout the 20th Century for advocating against use of alcohol in recent years has adopted several resolutions affirming its opposition to homosexuality, including opposition to hate-crimes laws that afford particular protection with regard to sexual orientation.

In 2002, gay-rights activists interrupted Southern Baptist’s annual convention, accusing them of complicity in crimes against gays. Yet today, the SBC’s Web site denounces the notorious efforts of pastor Fred Phelps and his followers at Westboro Baptist Church, which is not affiliated with the SBC. “We share concern over the unbiblical views and offensive tactics of Fred Phelps,” the Web site states.

The convention in recent years has passed several resolutions commenting on other public policy matters. One 2010 resolution opposed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, because it afforded particular protections related to sexual orientation. Another urged “governing authorities” to end the oil spill resulting from the Deepwater Horizon accident which at that time remained uncapped. That resolution encouraged “persons, communities, industries and governments to work together to find ways to lessen the potentiality of such tragic accidents and of devastating pollution in order that we may protect what God loves…”

In 2007, the convention passed a resolution reaffirming its “historic action in 1995” that denounced “racism, in all its forms, as deplorable sin.” The 2007 resolution commended member churches that “intentionally reach out to all persons regardless of ethnicity.”

In 2007 the SBC also adopted a detailed resolution expressing doubt about climate-change science that attributes global warming to human activities, while urging governments to “begin to take steps to help protect vulnerable communities and regions from the effects of the inevitable continued cycles of warming and cooling that have occurred throughout geologic history.”

Other New Mexico Conference Centers Also Struggling

Some Southern Baptists attribute their denomination’s waning numbers to politically controversial stances, and conservative religious doctrines, yet Glorieta’s Baptist managers aren’t alone in downsizing their operation and finding ways to dispose of property acquired as destinations for spiritual retreats in New Mexico. Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center, located on 21,000 acres near Abiqui, last year announced it would cease operations at a prominently located Santa Fe center. The Ghost Ranch Santa Fe site, at 401 Old Taos Highway across from the Post Office and federal court buildings, has been listed for sale.

   Banners promote Glorieta

The Presbyterian retreat center in Abiqui continued operations. Though nearly 10 times as large as Glorieta on the map, Ghost Ranch at Abiqui can provide accommodations for only about one-fourth as many guests, and lacks the massive auditoriums that make Glorieta attractive to large faith-based groups.

Meanwhile, some newly built conference centers in New Mexico have suffered similar financial setbacks. Both the Apache Mescallaro Tribe and Pueblo of Pojoaque have in recent months announced bond-restructuring agreements after revenues failed to meet projections in bond-supported developments.

While the announcement that Glorieta could be sold came as a surprise to many, Hill said trustees had not discussed the decision in public to avoid creating “noise” that would complicate their effort to reach a difficult decision. Now that the decision is publicly known, he said, church members and others interested in the future of the Glorieta center have a fair way to participate in planning for the center’s future.

Records of the SBC’s 2010 annual conference — the most recent convention records available online at the time of this report — say the conference centers in North Carolina and New Mexico together hosted about 100,000 guests in 2009 and anticipated 110,000 guests the following year. “Future Plans” for Glorieta at that time included springtime and wintertime events, and a new two-week family camp. The plans recorded at the June, 2010 convention in Orlando, Florida did not include reductions or cutbacks.

Events scheduled for Glorieta’s final weeks as a year-round conference center included a gathering of retired pastors, a festival of marriage, a regional Christian writers’ conference and a summer staff reunion.

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  • becky

    I continue to pray along with many others that this beautiful conference center will continue to be “The Light on the Mountain” for many years to come.

  • Michael Carnohan

    Glorieta has been a special place for me over several decades. I was sadened when I heard it was for sale and as a result temporarily closed. It is a wonderful property with a wonderful potential for many functions. I pray it will, by God’s grace, once again flourish.

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