There’s an elephant in the living room–now what?

by

by Eric Bonetti

One of the wonderful things about The Episcopal Church is that we so rarely are all of one mind. High church, low church, broad church, Evangelical, Anglo-Catholic – we come replete with widely varying views and perspectives. Yet there’s one thing we all can agree on: The proverbial elephant is on our living room.

How did he get there? We’re not entirely sure. Is he big? You bet. Is having an elephant in the living room a good thing or a bad thing? Not sure. Some say he’s a harbinger of great things to come. Others say he’s making a mess and likely to smash everything in sight when he gets a chance. But of one thing there is no doubt: There is an elephant in our living room.

The elephant, of course, is the need for change in The Episcopal Church. Faced with an aging population, declining participation in almost all mainline churches, declining giving, and young people for whom church membership no longer is normative, we have a pressing need to ask questions like, “What do we want the church to be in 3 years? Five years? Twenty years? What is our role in the larger world?” In short, we need to engage in strategic planning.

Some will argue that we just need to be better at what we do. In these cases, people often say, “But we know what we need to do. We need to spread the good news, serve others, and worship God.” Fair enough, but there are many ways to do all of these things, and as the old adage says, “If you don’t have a plan for the future, you surely will get there.” In short, acknowledging that the elephant is in the living room accomplishes just that—it owns up to the fact that there is an elephant in the living room, but no amount of cleaning, dusting, or vacuuming really does anything about the elephant. And sooner or later, the elephant gets bored, and when he decides to move about the house, the results are likely to be bad.

At the same time, prayer alone is not likely to solve the issue. We want to be open to the still small voice that helps us separate right from wrong—and sometimes the mighty wind of change that comes from the divine working in our lives. But just as prayer alone isn’t enough to keep the elephant fed and comfortable, neither is prayer alone going to help us map out a path forward for The Episcopal Church.

In fairness, recent years have been ones in which the church has had to focus on survival, versus strategic planning. Faced with those who would topple our duly elected hierarchy and seize church assets, time, attention and resources have understandably been consumed in protecting the larger organization. With much of the litigation now behind us, however, we now are in a position to take a serious look at our hopes and dreams for the future, and to engage in meaningful visioning and strategic planning.

The need for strategic planning is nowhere clearer than in the recent Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS – another name for The Episcopal Church) recommendation that the church keep its headquarters at Church Center, located at 815 Second Avenue in Manhattan. Situated on some of the most expensive real estate on earth, the building is just a short distance from the United Nations headquarters and projected to cost roughly $11 million in the coming triennium – a huge chunk of the national church’s budget. As a result, a resolution was passed at the most recent general convention to sell the building, with discretion to sell at the most advantageous time. This conclusion was supported by a study prepared by real estate giant Cushman & Wakefield, which noted that real estate ownership and management is not a key competency of the national church.

DFMS, however, cites a number of reasons for keeping the white elephant that is our headquarters building. Among these reasons are its proximity to “missional partners,” including the Church Pension Group, Trinity Wall Street, and others. Another reason cited is the high cost of travel to other cities, which overlooks the fact that videoconferencing is both environmentally friendly and cost-effective. Most tellingly, DFMS cites continuity of service delivery as another reason to keep things as they are, which appears to be nothing more than a thinly veiled (and logically challenged) argument that the best way to maintain business as usual is to not change a thing.

But do we want to conduct business as usual? Maybe so, but current economic realities suggest this isn’t an option available to us.

The DFMS recommendations also don’t account for data and input from the budget committee, the Restructure Task force, or a possible visioning process. In short, even though DFMS doesn’t know the details of the future, it essentially says that the existing church headquarters building is the right fit for the future, at least for now, resulting in thin but brash statements such as:

There is no doubt that remaining in New York, consolidating operations at 815 Second Avenue, and leasing additional space, contrary to uninformed speculation, would have a more positive effect on the budget than relocating to another city.

In short, the DFMS recommendation basically says that the elephant in the living room is happy. He likes it in there. He’s there now, so if we just make some tweaks in how we care for him, everything is good. But nowhere do we address the issue, “How do we know we want an elephant, whether in the living room or elsewhere?”

Of course, these issues aren’t confined to the national church. All across the church, including our dioceses and parishes, there’s a need to plan, to set goals, and to vision the future. Consider: How often do we hear people talk about the need to grow the church? But how often do we see a specific plan, with hard numbers, evaluation criteria, and specific objectives?

A loose approach to such issues can readily lull us into a false sense of security. If, for example, a parish is located in a fast-growing area, its membership may increase steadily over time. But if the pace of growth doesn’t keep up with that of the surrounding community, the parish may not, in fact, be holding its own.

At the end of the day, there definitely is an elephant in the church’s living room. He’s big enough that you can see him from just about anywhere in the house. But ignoring him and hoping for the best is not a solution. Nor is it enough to feed him and care for him regularly. While these are the right things to do, they don’t address the underlying issue. But if we ask the right questions, if we work together, if we pray, if we are open to possibilities, we may discover that the big thing in the living room of the church isn’t an elephant at all—it’s a wonderful opportunity for growth and change that’s just waiting for us to look it in the eye.

Eric Bonetti is a nonprofit professional in Northern Virginia with experience in change management and strategic planning. He is an active member of Grace Episcopal Church in Alexandria VA.

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Kurt
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Kurt

Well, Cynthia, I have no problem moving the National Church HQ to DC. What I DO have a problem with is the idea that we should sell 815.

Kurt Hill

Brooklyn, NY

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Cynthia Katsarelis
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Cynthia Katsarelis

As a parishioner in the pew, 2000 miles away from 815, I'd really like to know what 815 is doing for TEC? It seems completely irrelevant to my life and the life of my parish. I get that decisions from General Convention have an impact, but 815?

It "feels" nice to think of the national church headquartered at or near the National Cathedral. It seems like that could give us more relevance to our national life. That maybe we could be more relevant in lobbying for human rights, gun control, and other moral issues.

Not that any decisions should be made on my feelings, I'm not a financial person. I'm just expressing what seems more relevant and important to me.

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revsusan
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revsusan

Perfect timing on this one: I'm literally on my way out the door to our annual two day vestry/staff conference where the theme this year is ... wait for it ... "Reorganization for Transformation." -- and we've invited the elephant to be part of the planning team! 🙂

Seriously ... sending this link to our team right now to add to the resource list. Cheers!

Susan Russell

All Saints Church, Pasadena

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Kurt
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Kurt

I think that we should resist the temptation to achieve short-term benefits by selling Church properties, including “815.” Land is finite. Sure, like all mainline Churches, TEC is contracting. But, who’s to say that in ten, twenty, thirty, forty years things may be different? We have to look to the long-term, as well as being practical. I think that our general rule should be to rent properties, rather than sell them outright.

For example, a small Episcopal congregation (in an area where there are one or more other Episcopal parishes) has to close down. Let’s not jump to sell the property; maybe the local storefront Evangelicals would rather rent a real church rather than a mall store meeting space. Perhaps in twenty-five years we can say to them, “Sorry, sisters and brothers, you’re going to have to find a new home. Our expanding membership requires us to re-activate this building.” We will have a well-maintained worship space ready to go, and not have to invest resources in buying land, constructing a building, etc.

Kurt Hill

Brooklyn, NY

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Susan Snook
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Susan Snook

Great essay, Eric. I just want to be clear that the "DFMS" who made the recommendation was specifically composed of high-level staff who work at the Church Center. Viewed more broadly, "DFMS" could be seen as the General Convention (which voted to sell the building). Or, legally speaking, it could be seen as Executive Council, which has legal authority as the board of directors to sell the building. As a member of Executive Council, I can only say that we heard the report and referred it to committee, which will study the issue carefully. But this report and its unexpected recommendations represent the staff wing of DFMS only - not either of those other governing bodies.

Susan Snook

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