Thursday, March 7, 2013

Moving the Episcopal Church's national offices


The report, Locating the Episcopal Church Center for Missional Strategy by senior management of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (DFMS) contained a couple of surprises.

The Episcopal Church (TEC) is, at least in part, a hierarchical organization. General Convention (GC) sits at the apex (or in the vortex, depending upon one's view!) of our denominational decision making process. Although some of GC's decisions are advisory or exhortatory, some decisions (for example, changes to the canons) are authoritative.

The 2012 GC passed D016, which states, in full: "That it is the will of this Convention to move the Church Center headquarters away from the Church Center building at 815 2nd Avenue, New York." D016's intent seems straightforward, especially in view of the House of Deputies' debate of D016 and related resolutions. Discussion emphasized the multifaceted issue of finances (reducing overhead to make money available for mission) as well as deputies desiring a more central location for TEC's offices.

Some deputies advocated modifying D016 to stipulate that TEC sell its building at 815 Second Avenue before General Convention 2015 met. After spirited exchanges, the Deputies defeated mandating a deadline, deeming it financially unwise, e.g., potential buyers, having done their homework and learned of the deadline, might wait until the deadline approached and then low-ball their offers, preventing TEC from obtaining the building's full fair market value.

DFMS management proposing that the Executive Council revisit the decision to sell 815 Second Avenue required commendable chutzpah. I, for one, do not want TEC staffers to defer unhesitatingly and unthinkingly to every GC decision, an abdication of their duties as TEC stewards and servants. However, Locating the Episcopal Church Center for Missional Strategy would have been timelier and more credible if issued prior to GC 2012. The idea of relocating the Church Center is not new. Good stewards look ahead, assess alternatives, and convey recommendations to decision makes in a timely manner.

Their rationale for concluding that TEC should maintain its Church Center at 815 Second Avenue in New York is not persuasive. Careful exegesis of the report suggests that staffing issues weighed more heavily in reaching that conclusion than did the other three factors (partnerships, justice, and maximizing financial resources for mission).

TEC does not exist to support its staff. TEC staff members, like diocesan and parish staffs, are servants of the Church. Being a servant is not always easy. Working conditions may be demanding and the pay lousy. But job satisfaction, serving God, and laboring alongside God's people, not the working conditions or pay, make the job worthwhile.

If relocating TEC's Church Center prompted 70% or more of the gifted and dedicated staff who now work there to seek employment elsewhere, this would temporarily disrupt mission. Yet other major organizations have relocated out of New York City to another city and continued functioning, sometimes even improving effectiveness and efficiency.

Suggesting that Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM) might close if forced to relocate was particularly troubling. If EMM's very survival depends upon one key staffer, or even a handful of them, then EMM is already in trouble. What happens if that staffer(s) retires, suffers an extended illness, or voluntary resigns?

The report explicitly assumes that relocation would result in a two-tier salary structure. Why make the assumption? Alternatively, TEC could reduce the salaries of personnel who relocate to a level commensurate with what new hires with the same qualifications and experience would earn. Some firms and non-profits that relocate adopt this approach.

Transitions can be difficult, particularly in this economy when not relocating requires finding a new job. If the Church Center relocates, TEC can and should fulfill its obligations to current DFMS staff through appropriate relocation assistance, generous personal support, severance pay, etc. Additionally, organizational development studies have repeatedly demonstrated that good executive leadership can engender positive staff morale in even the most trying of circumstances, including relocation.

The DFMS report cites preserving important missional partnerships as the primary justification for retaining the Church Center at 815 Second Avenue. On the one hand, GC 2012 may have passed D016 with insufficient information to assess the consequences for TEC's New York based missional partnerships. On the other hand, perhaps GC 2012 – or the Spirit speaking through GC – expected that relocation would create new missional partnerships, incarnating different priorities and involving different constituencies. In his recent Daily Episcopalian post, "There's an elephant in the living room—now what?" Eric Bonetti's response to the DFMS report highlights TEC's need to change. Maintaining status quo priorities and partnerships will not reverse TEC's steep, persistent numerical and fiscal declines. General Convention, not the DFMS staff, sets missional priorities.

Furthermore, phones, email, videoconferencing, and other technologies enable close cooperation without requiring physical co-location. At least one other denomination successfully moved its national offices out of New York to another city. The DFMS report acknowledges, even with transition costs and a two-tier salary structure, financial savings. Presumably, these savings allow for the costs of staff travel to meetings in New York City necessary to maintain important mission partnerships.

The report's discussion of justice emphasized the King Holiday, marriage equality, gun violence, and immigration. These are important issues and I strongly support the executives' views on all four. However, TEC exists and ministers within all jurisdictions. Identifying four particular issues as litmus tests for possible Church Center locations is unreasonable when God calls TEC to bear a global prophetic witness. Litmus tests imply that Episcopalians should relocate to jurisdictions that pass those tests. Instead, God might just be calling TEC to locate its Church Center in a city that fails the public policy tests so that TEC can work more proactively and effectually to change public policies.

The report's financial analysis summary is at best frustratingly vague. Some of the vagueness is attributable to what the report labels proprietary information, a term that presumably connotes the estimated fair market value of the building at 815. After wisely investing assets, paying relocation costs, and even establishing a two-tier DFMS staff compensation structure, relocation increases funds available for mission. Critically, the report omits any indication of relocation's relative financial advantage or the estimated number of years before we realize that gain. Without that data, a meaningful cost-benefit analysis of relocation versus remaining in New York is impossible. The omission of this information reinforces the impression that staff concerns, not finances, justice issues, or preserving missional partnerships, were key in executives concluding that DFMS should retain its offices at 815 Second Avenue.

Choosing a location for the DFMS staff offices is really a secondary issue. New York is a great city and many people deem it a wonderful place to live. The same is true of many other cities. Headquarters of major corporations and other large organizations literally dot the nation. Mission, as the DFMS executives write, is the primary issue.

One motto that guides many entrepreneurs is carpe diem, seize the day. Perhaps God is calling Episcopalians to again be spiritual entrepreneurs, walking in the footsteps of the twelve disciples and of William White, Samuel Seabury, and other early American Episcopalians.

Is God calling TEC to sing a new song in the twenty-first century? What new missional priorities might God envision for us? What new models of corporate ministry might God have in mind, e.g., models more dependent upon volunteers and part-time personnel than full-time staff? What might the national Church look like in a world that relies less upon brick and mortar structures and more upon virtual realities? Would housing DFMS staff offices in underutilized parish buildings scattered across the nation generate rental income and direct mission involvement for those parishes, reduce DFMS overhead, and trigger new, almost unimaginable, missional partnerships that reenergize God's people?

New York's real estate market has remained surprisingly strong during the present economic downturn. Is D016 a unique window of opportunity to capitalize upon both the Church's financial assets and the forces for institutional change that any relocation will inevitably unleash? What is the Spirit saying to God's people? Or has the Spirit already spoken through D016 in unexpected ways?

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