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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