The Magazine: What is the job description of the Church Center?

by

by The Rev Nathaniel Pierce

The perceived high cost of the Church Center at 815 Second Avenue in New York City generates many comments. Why? Let’s begin with a basic job description. The purpose and function of the Church Center is to:

1) Carry out the basic functions of any international organization:

  • support the Presiding Bishop and other elected officers
  • manage trust funds and other monies
  • support the elected national bodies (Executive Council; Committees, Commissions, Agencies, and Boards [CCABs], etc.)
  • manage the building or facilities
  • make arrangements and pay for the cost General Convention

2) Support programs that no diocese or group of dioceses could ever do on their own (as authorized by General Convention), including:

  • resettling refugees
  • maintaining a transitions office for clergy and laity
  • supporting 75 missionaries in the field
  • supporting “Jubilee” centers of ministry
  • supporting historically black Episcopal colleges (used to be three, now down to two—hello?)

3) Support all dioceses (domestic and foreign) and covenant partners in their ministries:

  • provide financial support for dioceses in need (Navajoland, South Dakota, etc.)
  • honor promises made in covenant partnerships
  • support networking initiatives (The Episcopal Network for Stewardship [TENS] programs, etc.)

4) Be a communications link and collegial participant with the Anglican Communion, ecumenical partners, and international agencies

  • develop a collegial relationship with Anglican provinces and dioceses
  • support international agencies (e.g., the Anglican UN office in New York City)

I found it helpful to examine this job description because I now understand why there is so much criticism of the financial cost of this work. Look at this list again: are any of the four in public view? In a parish you get to see your rector and experience your church building at least once a week. If you are lucky, the bishop (or a bishop) visits your parish once a year. But almost all of the functions listed above are offstage, definitely not in public view. Thus, the Church Center will always, and again I say, always feel as though it costs too much money. Why? Because almost all of this work is outside our field of vision.

In the interest of streamlining things, which one of the four would you delete? What responsibility would you add to the list of four?

 

The Rev. Nathaniel W. Pierce, serves St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Quantico, Maryland (Diocese of Easton), and serves on Executive Council from Province III.

 

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Bill Carroll
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Bill Carroll

None of these functions requires property in Manhattan, and some of them are irrelevant or better carried out at the diocesan and congregational level, or by missional networks among dioceses and congregations. The Presiding Bishop's office and staff should be the main purpose of whatever HQ we have and the functions should be carried out by that staff. Accessibility, including price concerns for meetings, including a streamlined Executive Council, might also be a consideration. I can't imagine Manhattan is ideal on any of those counts.

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Janet Aguhob
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Janet Aguhob

The four roles identified in this piece all look important to me, and I am unable to pinpoint one that could be eliminated. Instead I'd like to comment on the title question, "What is the job description of the Church Center?" and present my perception of the Episcopal Church Center (ECC) from three phases of my life with the church as part of the laity. As a cradle Episcopalian who was an active parishioner, I never knew there was an ECC. I was marginally aware of the General Convention and that awareness was limited to the uproar over the Book of Common Prayer update and women's ordination. I believe that the average church attendee's awareness of the General Convention is similarly limited to the "controversial" topics only and I agree that parishioners' awareness of the ECC is nil. When I became a parish office employee, at first my only knowledge of "815" (815 Second Avenue in New York City, the ECC's address) was that it was the place to which I sent the parish report every year. As I came to know our rector's work as a General Convention delegate and a member of one of the Executive Council committees, my awareness increased. However, had our rector not been so involved, I don't know that 815 would have remained on my radar after the parish report was sent in. As a Church Center employee for a little over 3 years, I remember being constantly amazed and dismayed at how isolated we were from parishioners and parishes. The building does bear an uncomfortable resemblance to an ivory tower, after all. I often thought it regrettable that there is such a disconnect between the front lines of the church--the parishes and the folks in the pews--and the place that is the center of church governance and representative of the Episcopal Church to the nation and world. Parishioners literally have the connection between themselves and the Church Center in the palms of their hands--the Book of Common Prayer, the Hymnal, Lift Every Voice And Sing, and Wonder, Love and Praise--but most are not aware that these books of worship were created under the supervision of the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music that is supported by the ECC. I only became aware of this myself after I became a Church Center staff person. Parishioners consistently receive communication from Episcopal Relief and Development (ERD), but do they know that ERD's ministry is based at the Church Center? Some New York City parishioners might, but those outside of the Big Apple most likely do not. Maybe a supplemental question could be "How can we eliminate the disconnect between the Episcopal Church Center and the people in the Episcopal Church?" I hope the ECC can find ways to close the communication gap with parishes/parishioners and help them see the Church Center as something other than a money drain. [I hasten to add that the ECC, like any organization, has a responsibility to constantly look for ways to be more efficient and cost-effective.] Maybe the Episcopal News Service could post biannual reports on the ECC ministries and CCABs that parishes can download and distribute in bulletins and newsletters. I hope parishioners will eventually feel that the work done at the Church Center is connected with and supportive of their faith journeys.

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Eric Bonetti
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Eric Bonetti

I'm not sure that any of the functions listed really work.

A primary function of the national organization, and to a lesser extent, the dioceses, should be to provide centers of excellence. Parish having HR issues? Your diocese should be able to serve as a resource. Diocese having issues? The national church should be able to serve as an expert.

The present reality, however, is very different. The national church has very little connection with parish or diocesan life, and my experience with both suggests that neither makes any meaningful effort to respond to requests from parishes or the laity.

As to the management of trust funds and other national resources, the national organization is wildly cost-ineffective. Can you imagine a mutual fund in which more than 1/3 of revenue goes to overhead? Yet that is exactly the paradigm we face with 815.

To be clear, I am a die-hard loyalist. But 815 has got to focus on service delivery, versus prservation of its oversized, creaky infrastructure. And the same goes for our dioceses.

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