Putting Our Money Where Our Mouth Is

For ten years I had the privilege of leading an historic endowed congregation in Lower Manhattan. Of course, it is difficult to imagine a parish functioning in expensive lower Manhattan without an endowment.  There are five Episcopal parishes below 14th Street, all five of which exist in the shadow of the great Megillah of endowed parishes, Trinity Wall Street. In fact, my parish–St. Luke in the Fields–owed its very survival to Trinity.  For a hundred years it had functioned as a Trinity chapel in the West Village, in effect a wholly owned subsidiary of the Wall Street parish. In 1976, in the midst of a real estate meltdown (Trinity is a major landowner downtown), Trinity decided to shed its “chapels.” They gave the newly constituted vestry of St Luke’s title to an entire city block (including three rows of Federal townhouses suitable for market rate rental) and a million dollars. By the time I was called as rector 18 years later, shrewd investments had tripled the dollar amount, the rentals were grossing $700,000 a year, the school was flourishing, and the parish one of the most active and innovative in the city.

But endowments are a mixed blessing, at the mercy of stock market volatility and the hard-to-resist temptation to increase the yearly draw beyond the usual 5% to hide a deficit (a practice that in the past our own seminaries understood only too well). Endowments are also notorious breeders of institutional complacency. It takes a bold leader to move a congregation from reliance on the benefactors of the past to a readiness to invest their own money in the present, preserving the endowment to help guarantee the future. And of course, the great majority of Episcopal parishes cannot match the reserves of our better endowed parishes, and struggle just to keep the lights on. As I say, church endowments can be a mixed blessing. They can be seen to encourage the  creation of  a two-tiered set of churches–those that have (and will continue to flourish) and those that don’t (and won’t).

I write all this in Atlanta, where my Bexley Seabury colleagues and I are attending the annual gathering of the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes, known as CEEP. For the first time, our ten Episcopal seminaries are present as full members. All ten seminaries owe our continued existence in large part to our endowments, and to the generosity of our alumni and supporters. Of course, we are all here in Atlanta with our development officers, hoping to win friends and influence influential people.

But the good news is that this is not a gathering of wealthy and complacent Episcopalians. There is a palpable sense of mission here, and a clear desire to address the financial and spiritual crisis faced by all our congregations and institutions, endowed or not. It is clear to me, as it is to many participants here, that our large endowed parishes have a moral obligation to nurture and support the kind of leaders we need to engage God’s mission as our church has been called to engage it. We have the resources to do it. We need to find the will. This means raising up lay and ordained leaders who will help us, in effect, re-invent what it means to be church, especially for the fast-growing number of younger people who think what it means to be church is to be exclusive, strident and censorious on the one hand, or boring, complacent and outmoded on the other.

In the next ten years, there will be a massive wave of retirements of priests like me–members of the boomer generation who are in some ways responsible for the present mess we are in. My hope is that my colleagues here at CEEP can put our mouths where our money is, and redouble our efforts to raise up new leaders for the long run, in ways that will rejuvenate and strengthen all our congregations, endowed or not.  The Gospel demands nothing less.

About the author: Jaime