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Turmoil at Trinity Church Amid Board Member Exodus

By Julie Shapiro | March 8, 2012 10:12am

LOWER MANHATTAN —  Trinity Church is having a crisis of faith.

Nearly half of the church's board of directors has resigned in the past six months in a dispute with its rector over the direction and mission of the 314-year-old Episcopal church, which became a symbol of downtown's resilience and recovery in the wake of 9/11.

They accuse the Rev. James Cooper, the church's rector and chief executive officer, of lavishly overspending church funds on Bach concerts and other events, and planning an opulent overhaul of the church's office space at 68-74 Trinity Place rather than focusing on his ministry and helping the poor.

"The rector has failed to define, articulate and advance the mission of the Church," Andrew Lynn, a vestry member who resigned in February, wrote in a Dec. 16 letter to the rest of the vestry that was obtained by DNAinfo.

The Rev. James Cooper, rector of Trinity Church.
The Rev. James Cooper, rector of Trinity Church.
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Trinity Wall Street

"Rather than making choices, after full discussion with the vestry, he has tended to pursue a little bit of everything, put off difficult decision-making…and allowed the immediate physical needs (or perceived needs) of the church’s properties to devour its resources at the expense of its philanthropy."

Ten of the church's 22-member vestry — its board of directors that includes worshipers and local business and political leaders — have left.

Many of their concerns, expressed in documents and in conversations with DNAinfo, revealed a strain on the delicate balance between Trinity's three distinct and sometimes conflicting missions: to be a local church serving Lower Manhattan; to maintain its responsibilities as a major landowner managing 6 million square feet of real estate in Hudson Square; and to distribute millions in philanthropic grants to nonprofits around the world.

"The purpose for [Cooper] seems to be making things look beautiful and not trying to serve the rest of the world," said a recently resigned vestry member, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Trinity confirmed that several vestry members asked Cooper to consider stepping down, but said he decided against it.

"The rector entered a time of prayerful discernment and decided to continue his ministry at Trinity," the church said in an email to DNAinfo.

"In almost every church there exists within the leadership and congregation a range of views on mission," the statement continued.

"At Trinity, given our multiple roles as a parish in a growing neighborhood, a landowner and a funder in New York City and around the world, the possibility for discussion over balancing mission priorities is always present.  Not all views can be accommodated, but all are respected."

Concerns about Cooper's leadership grew after the 2009 closure of John Heuss House, Trinity's homeless drop-in center, when no new facilities or full-service programs emerged to take its place.

Later, when the vestry discovered that the church had overspent its 2011 music budget by $800,000, it briefly killed its popular "Bach at One" lunchtime music series.

The vestry is responsible for approving the church's budget, but was not told of the cost overrun until the money was already spent, members said. 

"Either the staff was completely not on top of the music program, or they unilaterally decided to overspend," a former vestry member said.

The church restored the program March 5, but sources said they feared there was still no plan to keep costs under control.

The breaking point for many on the vestry came when Cooper floated the plan to renovate the church's office space. Cooper hinted that he might seek to devote more of the church's funds to turn the space into a new state-of-the-art complex with a grand lobby and offices, classrooms and auditoriums, sources said.

He also told the vestry he might have to borrow money for the project or work with a private developer to build a condo tower above the new church building.

This graveyard is next to Trinity Church, which is undergoing an internal battle over leadership.
This graveyard is next to Trinity Church, which is undergoing an internal battle over leadership.
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"We felt it was inappropriate and inconsistent with the values of the church," said another recently resigned vestry member.

Several former vestry members said they were also concerned about how little money — about $2.7 million per year — goes toward international philanthropic grants, in contrast to Trinity Church's annual operating budget of nearly $200 million. Trinity could not immediately confirm these figures.

Cooper became rector in 2004, but by last summer, upset vestry members asked him to retire early to avoid a public airing of complaints, ex-members told DNAinfo.

They even went to his higher-ups at the Episcopal Diocese of New York to ask for help in dealing with Cooper, but were told to wait for him to step down quietly, sources said.

When Cooper decided to remain at Trinity, those who had asked him to step down began requesting a third-party review of his leadership, so that the vestry as a whole could get an independent opinion, former vestry members said.

Instead, Cooper appointed a vestry member who supported him to oversee the inquiry, and the review was mostly superficial, former vestry members said.

The situation finally boiled over in February, when the vestry's Nominating Committee took the unusual step of not re-nominating four vestry members who had criticized Cooper. Vestry members are generally re-nominated each year until they reach retirement age or a maximum of seven consecutive terms.

Between Feb. 13 and Feb. 24, the four members who were not re-nominated resigned, as did four other members of the vestry, according to resignation letters obtained by DNAinfo.

"I adore Trinity and am proud to have been associated with this great institution, at least during the first few years of my tenure on the Vestry," one member wrote to Cooper in a resignation letter.

"I also know that Trinity will survive long term," the letter continued. "After all, it has endured plagues, famines, revolutions, wars and a host of other challenges over its 314-year history.

"It will certainly survive your administration as well."