The Rev. Pete Peery’s roots at Montreat trace back to 1952, when as a 5-year-old he traveled from his home in the mountains of southwestern Virginia to vacation with his family in this fabled western North Carolina enclave.
“My uncle, a missionary in China, bought a little house here. I remember a missionary commissioning service back then, but we came for vacations, not conferences,” he says. “Mostly my memories of those days are just running through the place.”
The casually dressed Peery still runs through the Montreat Conference Center, but with greater purpose now — he’s the newly installed 16th president of the spiritual mecca for generations of Presbyterians. Sitting in his office — comfortable, even though the air-conditioning has gone out on this warm summer Friday — Peery can see nearby Assembly Inn, framed against the towering trees and distant mountain ridges that have drawn so many Presbyterians to this narrow valley at the southern tip of the Blue Ridge mountains.
Peery knows this place well.
“In 1966 I worked on summer staff as a busboy at Assembly Inn,” he says. “Margaret (his wife) and I had our first home together here, upstairs in Left Bank (a rustic multi-purpose building on the shores of Lake Susan at the heart of the Montreat campus) in 1971 when we served on the ministry team here.”
And 25 years ago the Peerys built a house just outside Montreat’s stone gate, next door to the home of the late J. Randolph Taylor and his wife, Arline. Peery served as Taylor’s associate at Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Charlotte before serving 14 years as pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Asheville, NC, just 15 miles west of Montreat.
Though his roots run deep at Montreat, Peery says he “never in a hundred years would have thought about this (the Montreat presidency).” When the presidential search committee first contacted him in May of 2008, “I thought they wanted a reference for someone else,” he says.
But it was Peery they were after.
“It was a huge question whether after 34 years I was being called away from pastoral ministry,” he says.
One search committee member disarmed that misgiving: “Montreat needs a pastor,” Peery was told. “I had never thought about it that way, which really got the hard thinking started,” he says.
Like Moses seeking a way out of God’s call, Peery says he tried a few other dodges.
“Don’t you know how old I am?” Answer: “We need a seasoned pastor.”
“If you’re only talking to me because you have to have a preacher on your list ...” Answer: “We need someone who knows the church and understands how it works.”
“I finally had to take seriously the importance of Montreat to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and what good stewardship requires of Montreat,” Peery says. “It’s a crucial institution in the church because of the way it has shaped so many people’s lives for ministry — clergy and lay — Presbyterians who have had an encounter with the holy here and who are forever profoundly changed by it.”
He speaks of the mission of Montreat as celebrating relationships, nurturing congregations and deepening Christian discipleship. It’s been a consistent mission throughout Montreat’s existence, but is a challenging one today, Peery says, “because the eco-system of the Presbyterian Church — because that Sunday-school/church-camp/church-related-college pattern of nurture since birth is not as strong as it once was.”
As recently as 20 years ago a vast majority of Presbyterians had grown up in the denomination and most of the church’s leaders attended PC(USA) colleges.
“We cannot assume nurture in and by the church from birth any longer,” Peery says. “It’s better for diversity in our church, but it makes Montreat even more important as formative for Presbyterians.”
That, of course, requires change, and changing an institution with such deep roots and storied traditions meets with resistance, Peery says.
“Montreat is so dear to so many, many people that just moving a rock in the creek causes objection from someone,” he says. “It’s like we’re messing with people’s life stories.
“Montreat has done so much for so many for so many years that it just assumes it’s doing it for a church it knows,” Peery says. “But we can’t assume that. We need to continue to do what we do for the church that is, but also for the church that is emerging that is far different from what many have known. We must be open to where God may be leading.
“And as a leader,” he says, “I’ve got to remain calm. We all have to remain calm.”
That includes weathering the global financial meltdown.
“Good timing, don’t you think?” Peery says with a grin. “I agreed to come in August (2008), and in September it all crashes.”
The crisis has affected Montreat — donor giving fell from $775,000 to $725,000 for the fiscal year that ended April 30 — “but most of our donors continue to give,” Peery says. About half of Montreat’s annual occupancy is church retreats, so as congregational budgets are stretched thin, the bottom line at Montreat feels the pressure.
Working with groups to hold down their expenses by offering fewer amenities is helping, he adds, “but that also reduces our margins.” Staff salaries have been frozen, but no layoffs have been necessary.
Montreat-sponsored conferences seem to be holding up. As Peery speaks, the third week of the annual Montreat Youth Conference is in full bloom, with a near-capacity crowd of 1,300 teenagers in attendance.
And some events are growing. By moving the annual college conference from May to January this year and scaling back some services — like laundry — to make it more affordable, attendance ballooned from the low-hundreds to 1,000. “College kids aren’t used to clean sheets anyway,” Peery says.
“We can’t do what we do here without major support from congregations — money, yes, but more importantly, leaders and staff for our events. Congregations share their pastors, youth and other leaders, and we are deeply grateful,” Peery says.
He seems comfortable in his new role at Montreat.
“Now it seems right to me,” Peery says. “I feel confident that I can help Montreat become the place it needs to be.”
Loosely quoting new Union Presbyterian Seminary President Brian Blount, Peery says that means continuing to be a place “where we may go and talk about things that really matter and don’t have to vote on anything or resolve it all.
“It’s an oasis.”