Former COO joins conversation on Episcopal Church “overhead”

Linda Watt, who retired as chief operating officer of the Episcopal Church earlier this year commented on our earlier item examining various way to cut the “overhead” of the Episcopal Church. We thought her remarks were substantial enough to merit their own entry.

As the former COO at the Church Center, perhaps I may be well placed to offer some additional insights regarding the side effects of a “shut down 815” decision. Let me say first that I have a very open mind on this subject and there are good arguments to be made for a move of the church staff to another location. But to be realistic, such a proposal would have to consider a number of concerns that may not be immediately apparent. One is the significant (not to say devastating) impact on Episcopal Relief and Development, the Episcopal Church Foundation, the National Association of Episcopal Schools and the several smaller agencies also housed at 815 rent-free and whose other building expenses (utilities, cleaning, etc) and some administrative costs are fully underwritten by the Church budget.

Additionally, it is incorrect to assume that a move away from New York would not involve layoffs. Many if not most of the Church Center staff would likely not be able to leave New York due to family and other considerations, so there would be financial costs (severance,etc., plus the move itself) as well as operational interruptions and downtime for recruitment, training, and the like. The staff includes many technical, financial, and administrative folks who are not clergy (or even Episcopalian) who provide dedicated service to Church programs (e.g. missionaries, migration ministries, financial operations, refugee loans, communications, to name a few) and who would have to be replaced in a move scenario. These employees currently reside in locations in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York, many with commutes of significantly over an hour each way and in some cases two to three hours. So even a move to, say, mid New Jersey would mean the loss of valued employees.

Over the past four years, the staff and been downsized as many Episcopal Cafe readers are aware. Additionally, between 20 and 25% of the staff are geographically dispersed – in Washington DC, Los Angeles, and numerous other locations in the US and abroad. Costs for those employees are lower and additional space (beyond the 3 floors rented to the Ad Council) has been put on the rental market. I mention this so that we will all be on the same page regarding where the staff actually is. One of the primary reasons to have dispersed staff is so that they will be more accessible to dioceses – to counter the “New York-centric” argument which sadly may still have some currency left over from earlier days. Giving staff members the opportunity to telecommute or work from regional offices also enables the Church to employ very high caliber individuals who are not able to relocate to New York City.

Another consideration for a potential move is the residence of the Presiding Bishop at 815, for which provision must be made either in a “sell the building but stay in NY” scenario or a “move to some cheaper location” one.

And, there are the direct financial considerations, notably the value of the building during the current downturn and the initial and ongoing costs in whatever other locations might be considered.

During my time at 815, I repeatedly stated my willingness to consider other location options for the staff. Members of the Church Center leadership, contrary to the “chatter” around the Church, has been quite open to non-815 possibilities. The realities I have articulated above may help readers to understand more fully the considerations and factors involved. The central question, though, really concerns the mission, purpose, and direction of the staff – the debate about which is underway in what I very much hope will be a healthy and productive and Christian way.

The only comment I’d make is that if the Episcopal Church is reconsidering the frequency with which its governing body convenes to conduct the church’s business in order to cut overhead, it may makes sense to reconsider whether it should continue paying the overhead of the other church-related organizations that Ambassador Watt mentions.

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