Farmville Enterprise September 5, 2018
On August 26 as Rocky was driving towards our Black Mountain, NC Vacation Rental by Owner for a continuing education conference I was scrolling through and reading aloud our Happy Birthday messages. One was from Paul Maurer, a friend from Gordon-Conwell. He and Rocky were part of a group of cool young pastors-in-training who regularly played basketball in the antiquated cinder block gymnasium in the seminary basement in the mid 1980s. The birthday message made us remember that Paul was the president of Montreat College, so I immediately sent him a few lines saying we would be on campus.
Our conversation August 28 ended up being the most exciting thing I heard all week, as Paul described the amazing turnaround that had happened at the school. To go way back, in 1897 a Congregational minister from Connecticut with a group of clergy and lay leaders from assorted denominations bought 4,500 acres near Asheville. The purpose was to build a Christian mountain retreat, appropriately designated “Montreat,” for spiritual and physical renewal. It originally had no church connections or control. By 1906 almost all of the land was purchased by a Presbyterian minister for use by the denomination. An all-women Christian Normal School for teachers opened in 1916 which later vacillated a few times between being a junior college and a college, added majors and became co-ed. Through the years a hotel, other buildings and a dam were built in this scenic cove in the mountains. Over a decade ago Montreat College became non-denominational with promotional material describing it as “an independent, Christ-centered, liberal arts institution that educates students through intellectual inquiry, spiritual formation, and preparation for calling and career.” Through the years Ruth and Billy Graham, Montreat residents, were among the small school’s many benefactors. They were married in the college’s primary chapel.
For the past 30-40 years Montreat College faced a declining student population and after the recession of 2008 its financial situation looked especially bleak. A merger with Point University in Georgia was considered carefully for a year but the talks ended in 2014. There was a high likelihood that the school would have to close its doors.
In his office our friend Paul explained the miraculous turnaround. A couple from outside NC moved to the state only temporarily and worshiped a few times in 2012 at a church in nearby Marion. They were touched by the efforts the congregation was making to help the poor in that county. The couple sent a $50,000 check to the church and asked the minister if there were a need for more. The minister, also an adjunct professor at Montreat College, explained that the church had no debt and was in good financial shape but that he knew of a Christian college in dire straits. This humble Christian couple did not know any student, alumnus or trustee from this school nor had they ever seen the campus. They took several weeks emailing back and forth about Montreat College and then in early 2014 made a pledge of $6 million with a request for anonymity. When this was announced as the “All In” campaign March 1, 2014 several other large donors who never before had given to the school stepped forward. The trustees decided to hire a new president and Paul Maurer was named in June 2014. The college is in the midst of much-needed renovations and continues to break its enrollments records. In his 2017 President’s Report Maurer wrote, “By any rational measure, Montreat College should be closed. Montreat College is beginning to thrive because God has chosen life. A miracle is something only God can do. While we plan, there are simply too many examples of manna for any of us to claim credit. This is the meta-narrative at Montreat College. There is something strangely liberating about leading from beyond one’s competency. It’s a good place to be. Join us in giving thanks to God. Soli Deo Gloria.” “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.” (Ephesians 3:20-21)