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Trinity Church Members Demand Elections to Choose Leaders

By Julie Shapiro | March 21, 2012 7:03am

LOWER MANHATTAN — Congregants at Downtown's troubled Trinity Church bucked hundreds of years of tradition Tuesday night to demand more of a grassroots say in how their church is run.

As DNAinfo first reported, members of the 314-year-old Episcopal church are concerned its rector, the Rev. James Cooper, is lavishly overspending on music programs and neglecting its central mission of helping the poor.

On Tuesday, the Congregational Council took the near-unprecedented step of asking for a competitive election of the church's board of directors, or vestry.

The 22-member vestry is usually chosen at a small closed-door meeting each spring, and then ratified by the congregation as a whole, but this year the congregants want the chance to cast their own votes in a competitive race, they said at a meeting Tuesday night.

An open election would give congregants the chance to express their views on the future direction of the church, and on Cooper's tenure as the church's rector and chief executive officer, said Jeremy Bates, the congregant who raised the issue at Tuesday's meeting.

"The best way to give the vestry independence, to clear the air and unite the parish, is to hold a contested vestry election," said Bates, a former president of the Congregational Council.

Most of the Congregational Council agreed and voted Tuesday night to ask the vestry's Nominating Committee to pick up to 22 additional candidates to run against the 22 largely pro-Cooper candidates who have already been chosen.  

The new candidates could include some of the 10 vestry members who recently resigned after criticizing Cooper's leadership, Bates and others suggested. That would provide a counterpoint to the current vestry members who recently said that they "unanimously support" Cooper, Bates noted.

Trinity also keeps a running list of dozens of potential vestry members who could now be tapped, including prominent figures in New York's business, government and philanthropic spheres, church officials said.

The vestry is charged with managing Trinity's three-part mission as a parish serving the Lower Manhattan community; a major landlord with 6 million square feet in Hudson Square; and a philanthropic organization distributing millions of dollars in grants across the globe each year.

Some of the vestry members who resigned accused Cooper of focusing too much on high-profile proposals, like opulent new headquarters for the church, rather than putting his energy into service projects like help for the homeless.

Among concerns was that he overspent the church's music budget by $800,000, leading to the temporary  suspension of the "Bach at One" lunchtime music series.

The next step in initiating a competitive vestry election is for Trinity's Nominating Committee — comprised of Cooper, several congregants and several vestry members — to decide whether they will follow the Congregational Council's suggestion and nominate additional candidates to compete for the vestry seats.

The Nominating Committee must make a decision soon because, according to Trinity's ordinances, the vestry election must take place on the first Tuesday after Easter, which this year falls on April 10.

Some congregants want to move the election to a Sunday as a way of encouraging more people to participate, but that would require a change to the church's ordinances, which could not be done in time for the April election, Cooper said.

Cooper, who chaired Tuesday's meeting, did not try to dissuade the Congregational Council from their vote and called the debate a "healthy conversation."