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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19 Responses to "Should We Sell the Church Center? Part 1"
  1. Restoring unity is the job of every Episcopalian. All members are expected to work at it. See page 855 in the prayer book:

    Q. What is the mission of the Church?

    A. The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

    Some people interpret the 17th chapter of John's Gospel as Jesus praying for the success of the ecumenical movement.

    I doubt Jesus was praying for important Christians to fly to Constantinople, Rome, or Geneva to create the One True Church for us all.

    Jesus sounds more like Julian of Norwich and John of the ross. More like the Wesley brothers.

    Yes, let us discuss what the Church is FOR. What each of is is FOR.

    The Prayer Book offers a beautiful assignment--maybe starting with ourselves first and influencing others by HOW WE LIVE rather than what we say:

    Restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

    George Swanson

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  2. Thank you Del, for raising this question again. You have identified some of the issues, but the central one is, what are the staffs supposed to do? It really does not matter where the offices of the Presiding Bishop, President of the House of Deputies, Treasurer, and Secretary of Convention are located, if that question is not raised and answered. Because as you say, form follows function.

    Looking forward to part two...

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  3. Perhaps we should sell the all the property on that island while it still has some value --before the water rises too high what with melting ice caps and such...

    Margaret Watson

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  4. Thank you, Del, for your clear separation of the two questions: 1. What should the form (organization) of the Episcopal Church be to conduct its God-given mission (function) in the early 21st Century? 2. Should the Episcopal Church sell the building that houses the existing Church Center? The first question is strategic and, to my way of thinking, the important one for TREC and General Convention. Once we have settled on answers and established our strategy, we can develop action plans with their associated costs - and figure out how we're going to pay for them. The question of selling 815, the building, is a tactical one of asset management, important to answer in a responsible way, preferably by folks with asset management expertise.

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  5. In this discussion it may be helpful to recall that both the PC(USA) and the ELCA "relocated" new communions (aka denominations) following the merger of related but separate bodies. In the case of the UCC, it was trying to consolidate entities once in different locations (which was the after-affect of the 1957 merger). All this suggests that the case of TEC, while appearing similar, is different: the presenting issues are different, the politics are different, etc.

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  6. Overall an excellent analysis of the issue. I do take exception to your assertion "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." I agree with the first part of that statement; however, I think most Episcopalians would point to the Cathedral of St. John the Divine or the National Cathedral as places which function as those symbols of Episcopal identity.

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  7. What Margaret Watson said.

    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.

    The National Cathedral is such a symbol. DC real estate is cheaper than NYC, but not by a whole lot. Is there space to spare in the cathedral compound for the office to relocate there?

    June Butler

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  8. Yes- there is a lot of space in the old College of Preachers' building - even dorm rooms. Not quite the Penthouse at 815 but might be good for inexpensive lodging for meetings.

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  9. I'll share here a story I told Gay Jennings a few weeks ago.

    As a South Carolina Episcopalian, I've been involved in the transition of our diocese, and much of that transition has been informed by the need to reconnect with our Episcopal heritage, since many of our now-departed leaders dedicated themselves to tearing TEC down.

    I was in Manhattan on business a few months ago, and decided to visit 815. I'd never been, and I figured I could pick up some materials (like the tracts one finds in TEC churches), browse the bookstore, or even pray in the chapel.

    Admittedly, I didn't have an appointment. But I didn't really have an agenda, either--just wanted to visit the HQ of my Church...feel connected to the larger organization. You can't imagine how precious that connection is in our diocese these days.

    So I enter the lobby of 815 at about 1pm on a Wednesday. A security guard who I can only describe as annoyed asks me my business. I'm a little thrown--there's no welcome center, no sign beyond the facade that I'm in a place associated with religion. I ask if there's a reading room or information desk.


    I ask if there's any brochures, newsletters, or TEC printed media I can take back home.


    So I stand there like a chump and then head back out onto Second Avenue.

    I'm not qualified to comment on real estate values, but selling the current "church center" might allow our leaders to re-imagine what a "church center" can be. If right now the "center" of our church is little better than Trump Tower in terms of atmosphere and outreach, what good is it?

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  10. I am sorry to hear this is the state of the Church Center -- when I used to visit there was a welcoming helpful presence at the desk, a bookstore and chapel -- this sounds like a fortress -- the sooner we get out of there the better.

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  11. Del's money quote, in my opinion is:

    "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?"

    I think this is right on. And I think we still don't know the answer to the strategic question.

    My sense of the the common thread of the testimony at the Church Structure Committee at General Convention was, "we know we've got to change from the Christendom model of the Church, and the Church Center is the #1 symbol of that outdated model, so let's send a message that we are moving from Christendom and sell the building."

    I don't think most people were concerned at those hearings so much about finances as they were about missional direction.

    Should the Church Center be sold at this time? Reasonable people of good will can differ.

    I do know that the capital improvements were financed in an imprudent way.

    I do know that owning a large building *anywhere* is not necessary for a staff primarily of administrative support. Most of the program staff are either working in their own accommodations apart from the Church Center in the NY area or in other parts of the country. If we don't have a locus for our staff in NYC anymore then why does selling the building at 815 Second Avenue and moving the Church Center evoke such emotions? If the majority of the staff isn't there, then what advantage is there to having a Church Center in NYC?

    It seems to me that I hear that the PB spends most of her time flying from place to place. I also know that the staff at 815 are recommending Maryland as a less expensive palce to travel to and to hold meetings than in NYC. Although it might sense to have the Church Pension Group in NYC where the financial center is--although being in Omaha hasn't seemed to hurt Warren Buffett much--what is the logisitcal advantage for the Church Center to be in NYC? In other words, if the staff is not really located in NYC anymore, and if the PB could live anywhere, and since it so expensive to have meetings in NYC, maybe we would be better served as a church for our Church Center to be located more in the center of the action for the majority of our members.

    I do know that building management is not in our core competency. While I agree with Del that the strategic issues are different from the financial issues and should not be confused or intermingled, I do believe that the financial issues do relate to what financial resources are available to us for the mission of our church by virtue of our owning--and leasing--parts of the building at 815 Second Avenue. I suspect that Del will address this in his next installment.

    We could determine that owning a building is not central to our mission but the income from leasing parts of the building will help us to fund other operations. Thus, it would be prudent to keep the building for the income. I look forward to Del's discussion of the financial and logistical consequences of this issue.

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  12. Del has centered on the real issue. For most Episcopalians what the staff at 815 does has zero impact. For most congregations the three main things want help with are:

    1. Attracting new members

    2. Enhancing or starting children and youth programming.

    3. Finding ways to connect with the community around them.

    We don't have unified marketing campaign, like the United Methodists, which is something a denominational headquarters should do.

    We don't have a denominational curriculum for children's Christian formation.

    The national youth event has enrollment limits, is too expensive and has no real publicity about what our youth would get out of it - other then "spend time with other Episcopalian youth"

    There is no denominational VBS program.

    All of these are things that a denominational headquarters could provide.

    There is no "tool kit" of how to get a ministry started - and while there are some good community engagement tools on the web-site they are so hard to find that most people get frustrated before finding them.

    This leads to the perception that the staff at 815 is disconnected, irrelevant and a waste. Now this may or may not be true - but what is true is that our denominational headquarters is not supporting our congregations in their major needs - Evangelism, Formation and Grassroots community engagement. Until that changes moving from New York will not solve the problem.

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  13. Several months ago I asked someone to post to the HoB/D list, a question I had about planning for the human needs of any staff who would lose their jobs in the event of a relocation.

    I am thinking of administrative assistants, clerks, low-level analysts and others who do not earn enough to support a move. I also wonder about people whose parenting and/or caregiving duties would keep them from moving.

    My message was met with a resounding silence.

    I have seen no hint anywhere that any material planning has been even contemplated, to take care of the needs of people who will be left jobless. I suspect that many of them are over 40, and as we are hearing from all over, members of that demographic are nearly unemployable after losing a long-term position.

    Is there _any_ shred of interest in the human cost to those who will be forced into unemployment?

    This is not to say a move should not happen; it is to say that writing off the lives of faithful servants as mere "collateral damage" should be intolerable to us as Christ-followers.

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  14. 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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  15. 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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  16. 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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  17. @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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  18. 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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