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

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

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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815 is not an elephant; it’s a scapegoat. Not to mention a red herring. If true transformation/growth/evolution/etc. is really not possible without selling real estate in Manhattan, we’re in much bigger trouble than we realize.

David Decker-Drane

Evanston, IL

Eric Bonetti

@Jim Naughton: Yours point about assumption and bias is excellent.

My intent in talking about 815 (a white elephant, if there ever was one) was to use it as particularly poignant example of how we assume that, because there’s an elephant in the living room, and he seems reasonably happy, we need to continue to have an elephant in the living room. But there’s much more to this than just 815–we need to be open to change, to fresh ideas, to innovation at all levels of the church. I truly believe that the church is poised for wonderful things…if we can let go of our anxiety and fear long enough to allow for growth and progress.

Eric Bonetti

Jim Jordan

There are two threads in the discussion: First, should TEC sell 815? The

answer to that is easy: let the financial wizards figure out the best

financial solution. My intuition is that the bishop quoted in a comment by Bishop Whalen is right, never sell in Manhattan.

Second, should TEC HQ move from New York City? I’m inclined to agree with

a comment made by Ann Fontaine; it doesn’t matter where the hard-working, dedicated staff closest to

parish/mission ministry do their work.

There does seem to be a perception that TEC’s leadership, at a policy

level, would be different if it were subject to the assumed parochial interests of the “Heartland” instead of the assumed parochial interests of the urban East Coast. I’m not convinced of that.

Seems to me that the broad diversity of TEC includes five broad

geographically-based cultures: Eastern US, Southern/Southeastern US,

Heartland US, Western US, and extra-US. (There are many diverse cultures

within each of these broad, overlapping divisions.) IMHO, a move of TEC HQ

to the Heartland soon would result in antagonism about the assumed parochial attitudes of a TEC HQ unduly influenced by the assumed parochial

interests of the Heartland culture.

I’ve used “assumed” a lot here. IMHO, we all need to examine our assumptions and cultural biases as we discuss a move of TEC HQ. How do we get from assumption and bias to an objective decision?

Nathaniel Pierce


I am not sure where there is any disagreement. Yes, the $30 million is a “sunk cost.” Whether we sell the building or not, it is a loan which will have to be repaid. Right now renting unused space in the building helps out with the payments.

Scenario (A) — We sell the building and move to a new location (buy or rent). That transaction (selling the building and obtaining new space plus the cost of moving) will cost $XXX. We still have to pay off the $30 million.

Scenario (B) — We keep the building and continue to pay down the $30 million loan from rental income.

My sense is that Scenario (A) has a higher cost than (B) — one factor to be considered in the decision making process. Do you disagree with that?

Nathaniel Pierce

Diocese of Easton

George Clifford

Nathaniel, I respectfully disagree. Having taught financial management, the $30 million in renovation is now a sunk cost, i.e., spent and non-recoverable, regardless of whether the renovation added to the building’s value. The time to have debated the merits of spending the $30 million was before the Church committed to the renovation contract(s). The building and ground on which it sits are worth what a buyer today will pay. That value, irrespective of any loan balance or renovation cost, is the critical number with respect to comparing possible future courses of action. The loan constitutes a separate issue, related to maximizing investment income and not to whether the Church should sell 815. Borrowing money can be good stewardship, e.g., borrowing for less than 4% APR to earn more than 6% annually. Other factors beyond return should influence decisions about borrowing, e.g., the amount of risk one is willing to accept. Discussions about selling 815 reflect more confusion than clarity by conflating the building’s value and the outstanding loan.

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