Ghost Ranch continues its legacy of hosting Presbyterians

May 16, 2018 by Erin Dunigan

Ghost Ranch is a magical place.

Just ask anyone who has been on one of the many retreats and pilgrimages or attended a workshop. Known as the inspiration for painter Georgia O’Keeffe and the site of the world’s top dinosaur quarry, the ranch is also a place of rest, learning, and inspiration.

Ghost Ranch has been part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) since 1955. It functions as a conference and retreat center located on 21,000 acres in north central New Mexico. About 45,000 visitors come to Ghost Ranch each year from every U.S. state, plus 40 or more countries, said Debra Hepler, who serves as Ghost Ranch’s Executive Director.

“What I hear most often is that people are so stressed in their everyday routine, their work, their daily life, that coming to the ranch provides a time to step back and get away from that daily grind and to find the space that they need,” Hepler said.

The ranch’s vision is that all might experience God through discovery and transformation. “That can come in very different ways,” Hepler said. “It could be a discovery of self, of learning something new, of nature and the beauty of creation, and from being in a place that almost seems timeless, and so much bigger than yourself.”

Big changes

In 2017, Ghost Ranch management changed from the Presbyterian Mission Agency to the National Ghost Ranch Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit corporation established in 1972 to support the ranch. The Presbyterian Foundation’s role with Ghost Ranch is to provide oversight and support to the Board of Christian Education, which is a constituent corporation of the Foundation. The Board of Christian Education owns the land and buildings at Ghost Ranch.

Ghost Ranch has made some important improvements and changes in recent years, Hepler said, including roof and water system upgrades and repairs. In terms of programming, Ghost Ranch added STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) educational programs for New Mexico youth in Ghost Ranch’s museums in partnership with Los Alamos National Labs and National Science Foundation. Ghost Ranch also increased the number of Holding Courage retreats for cancer patients.

And, while it’s not exactly exciting, Ghost Ranch has a new septic system. “Naming rights are still available,” Hepler joked.

On the horizon now is the busy summer season. Spaces are still available for Signs of the Times-Watershed Discipleship workshop in June, and for family week, July 1 to 7. Additionally, a workshop with author Diana Butler Bass, “Grateful: The Radical Practice for Personal and Political Transformation,” is planned for October. There are also workshops for those who are seeking discernment and direction for their 50+ years, and an archaeological dig on the grounds of Ghost Ranch. A full calendar of workshops is available here.

Looking further down the road, Hepler says Ghost Ranch is launching a major philanthropy campaign this year to raise funds for continued restoration of the aqueduct and studios, youth and other meeting space lost in a 2015 flood. Ghost Ranch also wants additional guest rooms, solar and infrastructure improvements and volunteer housing, Hepler says.

A family tradition

It’s both the setting and the programs that have brought Rev. Dr. Holly Heuer and her husband, Peter Schneider, back to Ghost Ranch for more than 30 years. Heuer and Schneider took their first trip when their son, now 32, was only a year old. “It was the landscape that we loved,” she said. “That painted desert was spectacular in every way. It was rugged, gorgeous and arid, and captured our imagination.”

Heuer, now a retired pastor, and Schneider, an architect, were able to find a mutual passion for art mixed with theology and a curiosity for new learning. “

“Each summer we just couldn’t wait to get there,” Heuer said. “The hikes were extraordinary, the vistas, and the camping became a centerpiece to our lives.” Their kids grew up with this love of camping, and the freedom that being at Ghost Ranch allowed them to roam and explore. “They could go bike riding, get lost, and find their way again,” Heuer said. “There was no way they could get too lost, so they could be as free as they wanted to be.”

Once their children were grown, Heuer and Schneider began taking their grandchildren to Ghost Ranch to continue the family tradition and help instill in them the love of place, love of camping, and love of learning. “There is something there that you don’t find anywhere else in terms of the feeling of the place, the sense of the place,” added Schneider. “It is a place of incredible beauty, and full of life.”

A big world

It is also a place that seems to ignite the potential in those who visit. “When you are there, there are all these other people, studying other things, happening at the same time,” Heuer explained. “So, you are impacted by their work, and their passion which makes it not just our family’s story, but the story of many others providing a broader context. It gives you a sense of being grounded in this big world of ideas and experiences.”

Greg Rousos, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer of the Presbyterian Foundation, agrees. “It is a special place when you are there,” Rousos said. “The landscape, the hiking, the beautiful scenery, all of it is a treasure. The Foundation deeply values our relationship with Ghost Ranch and hopes that many more Presbyterians and others will come to enjoy its magnificent setting and life-changing programs for years to come.”

What actually happens to folks when they visit the ranch? Debra Hepler admits it can be hard to put into words. “But what we find is that it is a place that speaks to a person’s heart and soul.”