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Former COO joins conversation on Episcopal Church “overhead”

Former COO joins conversation on Episcopal Church “overhead”

Linda Watt, who retired as chief operating officer of the Episcopal Church earlier this year commented on our earlier item examining various way to cut the “overhead” of the Episcopal Church. We thought her remarks were substantial enough to merit their own entry.

As the former COO at the Church Center, perhaps I may be well placed to offer some additional insights regarding the side effects of a “shut down 815” decision. Let me say first that I have a very open mind on this subject and there are good arguments to be made for a move of the church staff to another location. But to be realistic, such a proposal would have to consider a number of concerns that may not be immediately apparent. One is the significant (not to say devastating) impact on Episcopal Relief and Development, the Episcopal Church Foundation, the National Association of Episcopal Schools and the several smaller agencies also housed at 815 rent-free and whose other building expenses (utilities, cleaning, etc) and some administrative costs are fully underwritten by the Church budget.

Additionally, it is incorrect to assume that a move away from New York would not involve layoffs. Many if not most of the Church Center staff would likely not be able to leave New York due to family and other considerations, so there would be financial costs (severance,etc., plus the move itself) as well as operational interruptions and downtime for recruitment, training, and the like. The staff includes many technical, financial, and administrative folks who are not clergy (or even Episcopalian) who provide dedicated service to Church programs (e.g. missionaries, migration ministries, financial operations, refugee loans, communications, to name a few) and who would have to be replaced in a move scenario. These employees currently reside in locations in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York, many with commutes of significantly over an hour each way and in some cases two to three hours. So even a move to, say, mid New Jersey would mean the loss of valued employees.

Over the past four years, the staff and been downsized as many Episcopal Cafe readers are aware. Additionally, between 20 and 25% of the staff are geographically dispersed – in Washington DC, Los Angeles, and numerous other locations in the US and abroad. Costs for those employees are lower and additional space (beyond the 3 floors rented to the Ad Council) has been put on the rental market. I mention this so that we will all be on the same page regarding where the staff actually is. One of the primary reasons to have dispersed staff is so that they will be more accessible to dioceses – to counter the “New York-centric” argument which sadly may still have some currency left over from earlier days. Giving staff members the opportunity to telecommute or work from regional offices also enables the Church to employ very high caliber individuals who are not able to relocate to New York City.

Another consideration for a potential move is the residence of the Presiding Bishop at 815, for which provision must be made either in a “sell the building but stay in NY” scenario or a “move to some cheaper location” one.

And, there are the direct financial considerations, notably the value of the building during the current downturn and the initial and ongoing costs in whatever other locations might be considered.

During my time at 815, I repeatedly stated my willingness to consider other location options for the staff. Members of the Church Center leadership, contrary to the “chatter” around the Church, has been quite open to non-815 possibilities. The realities I have articulated above may help readers to understand more fully the considerations and factors involved. The central question, though, really concerns the mission, purpose, and direction of the staff – the debate about which is underway in what I very much hope will be a healthy and productive and Christian way.

The only comment I’d make is that if the Episcopal Church is reconsidering the frequency with which its governing body convenes to conduct the church’s business in order to cut overhead, it may makes sense to reconsider whether it should continue paying the overhead of the other church-related organizations that Ambassador Watt mentions.

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Karen

While I don't deny this is an important topic, how I wish we could have at least the same lengthy and passionate conversations about mission.

(Editor's note: Thanks for the comment. Please leave your full name next time.]

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IT

I'm an outsider with a taste for politics. I think it is vital that throughout any changes, TEC maintain a national identity and presence in NY. It is a traditional seat of power in this country.

As an institution, you are still are influential beyond your numbers and that presence gives you authority to speak on political and social issues, and a much needed counterpoint to the rightists who are busy throwing the poor, women, the gays, and the brown under the bus of politics.

As your own Bishop Robinson points out, it's important to pull the suffering victims out of the river, but it's even more effective to go upstream and stop the person who's throwing them in the water in the first place. And surely that too is a form of mission.

If you downsize your PB and leave NY, your political voice diminishes proportionately. And cedes the weight of political authority to the fundamentalist religionists.

My 0.02....

Susan Forsburg

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Lois Keen

Tom writes, "Based upon our Anglican heritage and taking into account our current and likely future mission context, how would we design a church for the 21st century and beyond, and how could we re-design the current structure and way of being church to more closely resemble that design?"

This is exactly what the congregation I serve is doing on the local level. It ain't easy on this relatively small scale, much less the larger scale of the entire TEC structure, purpose and mission. It took the church I serve five years to get to this point of finally doing this work, by the way.

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Tom Sramek Jr

It seems like we're confusing adaptive and technical challenges here. By his own admission, Bishop Sauls has presented the House of Bishops and, through them, the wider church, with an adaptive challenge. It seems to me like he is essentially tasking the Special Commission with re-designing the entire church based on the Kingdom purpose he has outlined. This is beyond the technical solutions (moving ECC, cutting staff, changing meeting frequency, etc..) to a full re-examination of what it is to be the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Proterstant Episcopal Church in the United States of America.

Things like reconsidering paying the overhead of other church-related organizations calls into question whether those organizations should exist in their current form, if at all. THIS is why a separate Convention session is needed--one does not do such wholesale repurposing and restructuring while attempting to do normal Convention business as well. As Bishop Sauls mentioned, the person elected as the next Presiding Bishop could be elected to oversee a church very different from what we now have. He or she could even also be a diocesan bishop and retain that position, if the role of the PB was substantially scaled back.

All this is to say that it is easy to get wrapped up in specific, technical details like meeting frequency, ECC location, and cost-cutting. First, however, we need to ask this question: "Based upon our Anglican heritage and taking into account our current and likely future mission context, how would we design a church for the 21st century and beyond, and how could we re-design the current structure and way of being church to more closely resemble that design?"

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jmwhite1

Let me start by saying that I don't necessarily think that the Church Center should move out of 815. Being in a major hub city is a definite advantage. However, NYC is not the only world city in America to fit the bill and that's assuming we need a centralized headquarters office to begin with.

Ms. Watt's has undoubtedly given this more attention than I ever have. Her response points out that such decisions have pastoral as well as economic considerations.

However, her reasons sound, to me, to weigh heavily on the need to not upset any current arrangements; to allow the inertia of the present to hold off the possibility of the future. In other words, her reasons for saying sound, to me, like the kind of things insiders say. It would be surprising if it were otherwise. It is easy enough for me and other commenters to be dispassionate because these are aren't my friends and co-workers. Doesn't make it any easier to honestly weight the merits though.

Jon White

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