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Should We Sell the Church Center? Part 1

Should We Sell the Church Center? Part 1

by Del Glover

Part 1 of 2

Could it be that the reason the discussion about the Church Center evokes such passionate discourse is that the discussion is really more about the future of the church and less about the finances or the geographical location of the building? Others have previously made this point and I wonder if it would be prudent for us to encourage a fuller discussion of it. Clearly, there are significant financial and logistical consequences to the relocation decision but it might be helpful if we explored the strategic issues in more detail first. The adage in architecture (that is also used to explains some phenomena in some natural sciences studies) is ”form follows function.” This concept may help us understand how to take an objective approach to the decision about the Church Center. That process might begin with us posing these questions:

• What is the purpose of the Church Center?

• What functions does it need to house and what staff is essential to support these functions?

• Where is the optimum location consistent with those functions?

The decision about locating (or relocating) the Church Office needs to respond to these questions. Related decisions about selling or leasing the current building need to be made, but these decisions are the financial and logistical consequences of the more fundamental issues being addressed.I find it interesting that there is no comparable discussion about the need to relocate the headquarters of Episcopal Relief & Development or the Episcopal Church Foundation or, with some hesitancy, I add to this list the Church Pension Fund. So, what is it about the location of the central office of the Episcopal Church in New York City that evokes such passionate discourse?

Others have suggested that the “issue” about the location is really about absence of a common “vision” for the Church or a lack of alignment about policies and practices. The suggestion has also been made that unless we begin to address these issues, relocating the office will only ”relocate the problems.” Looking to the decisions taken by other denomination that previously had headquarters in New York City is instructive but not conclusive. The Presbyterian moved to Louisville, Kentucky in a modern, 300,000-square-foot office facility, made possible by the donation of two former warehouses. The United Church of Christ moved its national headquarters from New York City to Cleveland, Ohio. The Lutheran Church moved its national headquarters to the Chicago area. The fact that these groups chose to relocate is not justification for the Episcopal Church to relocate its offices, but they do confirm that other denominations having wrestled with the same issues we named . . .high costs of New York City, the importance of “presence” in New York, the potential loss of critical staff members, etc., . . .but still made the decision to leave New York City. But some of these organizations also report that they continue to get comments about the policies and practices from the new ”head office” suggesting that the comments have little to do with the specific city. where the headquarters are located.

To continue to debate simultaneously the strategic and financial issues is not helpful and only serves to distract us. It might be helpful to remind ourselves how we got to this point. The Church Center was located in New York City at a time that our leaders saw the need for offices and staff to support the rapid growth of the Church. Over time the role of the Presiding Bishop evolved from one that was primarily pastoral and legislative to that of a Chief Executive Officer leading a complex corporate entity and overseeing a staff and facilities necessary to deliver services and programs to the Church.

Today, the changing dynamics in society, in the marketplace, shifting global financial structures, demographic shifts, and advances in technologies have all combined to change the way secular organizations manage their affairs and conduct business. Decentralization of decision making to allow faster and more targeted responses to local market demands have been essential to the viability of organizations whether they are nonprofit or for-profit entities. Responding to these forces, the Church is also adapting to calls for new ways to be Christ’s presence in the world.

The Church Center for Episcopalians is not a symbol of our unity; regrettably, we have no such site that functions to symbolize what it means to be an Episcopalian. It is not a pilgrimage site and so to many Episcopalians its significance is minimal. In this context it seems appropriate that we re-examine the current Church Center as we respond to the strategic questions. And some of our recent actions provide some valuable information about the course we have already begun to plot, even if unconsciously, as a first step of the implementation of a deliberate strategy. The notion of “form following function” might even be said to be already influencing our decisions about how and where we deploy Church Center staff away from the central office and evolving our structures to accommodate the environmental (specifically financial and societal forces) that are already at play.

Our task in the near-term might be to reflect on the strategic questions while taking into account the actions that are already underway so that we are more deliberate in how we respond to the major changes we and all Christians are experiencing.

In a subsequent commentary, I will offer my observations about the financial and logistical consequences of the strategic challenges before us. As we await the TREC report and prepare for General Convention in 2015, might we use this time to hone our idea about strategic issues we need to face to better serve God’s mission.

Del Glover is a layperson who lives in Providence, Rhode Island. He has served as a Deputy to several General Conventions and on Executive Council where he chaired the Finances For Mission Committee.

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Robert Martin

815 and a lot of the national structures/initiatives are in ruins because of 10+ years of theological and legal warfare. I'm not sure why we didn't expect different. Maybe getting out of 815 will help the Church in some way. If we kept the land and building we could always go back. I can hear the rallying cry now: "Next year in 815!!!"

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Eric Bonetti

@Dennis: Regrettably, I am not surprised by your experience at 815.

Although I am an ardent loyalist, I have, for example, tried repeatedly to get a specific templated document from DioVA, even asking one of our bishops to help. In most cases, I haven't even had the courtesy of an answer in more than a year of asking, and there's no sign I or my parish will get the requested resource, ever.

And the diocese wants a 14% "ask"?

Same when I asked if the diocese had turnkey stewardship materials that could be used by parishes. This would seem like the most basic of resources, but I found that here in VA, no such items existed. Perhaps they do now, but I am dubious, since I asked this question less than two years ago.

In short, if the hierarchy were a for-profit, or even similar to most non-profits, its utter lack of responsiveness and leadership by example would have put it out of business in less than a year.

Please don't misunderstand: I want to be supportive, and I get that things fall through the cracks. But with 27 staff members, Mayo House has got to get it together, and so does the national church. Otherwise, why bother? Let's just name a particularly gifted priest to be bishop, eliminate staff and overhead, and be done. While a one-person bishopric won't get a lot done, that's exactly what we get now, so why worry?

And while I'm at it, who wants to place a bet? $20 and a beer says the document I'm looking for won't show up any time soon, even with this public expression of my frustration.

Just sayin'.....

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Jonatwabash

What gets me about this discussion and others like it is the way decentralization is assumed to be the way of the future as supposedly demonstrated by unnamed businesses. But what businesses are actually using decentralization to speed growth? Can anyone point to any case studies or actual businesses for which decentralization was the solution to their problems? As far as I can tell the decentralization meme is just a marketing ploy used by social media and communications companies to try to boost their opportunities to sell ad space or their other products. The really successful businesses today all seem to be larger, monolithic sort who maintain their position primarily by buying up smaller competitors and looking for favorable regulations.

Jonathan Galliher

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Melanie Barbarito

I think Vickie Zust is right on. For the most part, I feel that the church center is irrelevant to most of us these days. In the not-too-distant past, they sponsored programs which I found to be very helpful. Charles Fulton was on staff there and did two programs: “Start Up! Start Over!” which I attended with parishioners. It had practical advice which we implemented. There was a second part to that (“Upward Bound” maybe?) which I attended. Also, very good. Very helpful. I attended an actual training session for those doing the Safeguarding God's People: Prevention of Sexual Exploitation and Prevention of Sexual Harrassment. There currently is no national training program for those, and I think there should be.

Personally, I would love to see some sort of connection among diocesan Commissions on Ministry. Those of us who are doing that work ought to be in conversation. I'm sure that some dioceses have come up with good ideas. Unfortunately, COMs, like vestries, have no institutional memory. They end up redoing and reworking and rethinking to the detriment of people in the process and to the church as a whole. If nothing else, a point person in the national church could help to make this happen.

I think they should get out of New York. I think they should move to St. Louis. Lots of room, lower rents, good airports, more-or-less centrally located.

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Jim Naughton

Mary (Oshma), I suspect that this is simply because those are the kinds of questions that would get answered only after we knew if we were moving, when we were moving and where we are going. It is entirely possible, even if we leave 815, that we would stay in NYC. I don't know how we would go about making provisions for people at this point.

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