Ilya Marritz covers business for WNYC.
Benedict XVI is stepping down, and soon a new Pope will become spiritual leader to the world’s Catholics. He’ll also become administrator of a vast bureaucracy with hundreds of thousands of employees and vast real estate holdings. WNYC asked two religious leaders based in New York to reflect on the management challenges of leading a faith organization in the 21st century.
After Strife, Rebuilding A Smaller Church
Katharine Jefferts Schori is the presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church, the U.S. branch of the world Anglican church, with just under two million members. From her office near Grand Central terminal, she also leads churches in Taiwan, Colombia, Germany, and twelve other countries.
Almost seven years after she was elected, the church's first woman leader, she still makes an impression in her magenta blouse and white ecclesiastical collar.
In 2006, Jefferts Schori stepped into the white-hot fight over the role of gays and lesbians in the church. An out gay man, V. Gene Robinson, had been made Bishop of New Hampshire (with Jefferts Schori’s support). Conservatives within the church opposed the leaders’ inclusive approach to homosexuality. Over the next four years, almost a quarter of a million congregants departed, leaving a church that’s about ten percent smaller - and more harmonious.
“Everybody who’s in the Episcopal church today wants to be here,” Jefferts Schori said.
With a fewer members, many houses of worship were sold. Last year, it was reported that the church might sell its headquarters at 815 Second Avenue. Jefferts Schori said the building is not for sale, but church leaders are studying the “best use” of the building.
“It’s an asset of the church. It ought to be put to best use, and we’ve done that in a number of ways already. The Ad Council lives upstairs, so we’ve got some partners in this building,” Jefferts Schori said.
A former oceanographer, Jefferts Schori uses words like “evolve,” when she talks about the church’s future. She says responding to changes in society is “part of our formative DNA.” With a smaller worldwide congregation, Schori is now looking for new ways to measure the church’s impact.
“More traditional congregations that do still have buildings receive people on Sunday morning, but they also typically offer space for 12 step groups, for alcoholics anonymous, and overeaters anonymous. And those are ministries of the church,” Jefferts Schori said. “Those people are impacted by their ability to gather in that place in a way that represents something of what it means to be an Episcopal church.”
Reaching Out to the Next Generation
In another midtown office building, a short distance from Jefferts Schori’s office, Rabbi Rick Jacobs is also thinking about adapting.
Last year, Jacobs became President of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish religious group in North America that includes nearly 900 congregations and 300,000 households. After getting the job, Jacobs decided it was time to reorganize and laid off 20 staff members as well as shrank the board of directors.
“For those that want to simply be caretakers of the status quo, I think the future is not very rosy,” Jacobs said.
Jacobs said his priority is to help synagogues attract Jews in their 20s and 30s, “these people who we love, but are actually allergic to institutional religious life.” Even though they have no formal affiliation with a temple, Jacobs said, “doesn’t mean they don’t have actually ideas about god about spirituality about ethics, about living a life of purpose.”
Reaching out to the disaffected may mean eliminating the traditional model by which synagogues pay their expenses. Most congregations require annual membership dues, which can run around between $2,000 and $3,000 per household. For younger people, that can be a turn-off.
“We have a congregation outside Philadelphia that moved to a model that is completely voluntary. And they were nervous they would lose their revenue base to do that. Turns out, they’re actually doing a little bit better moving from mandatory to voluntary dues,” Jacobs said.
It might not be right for every congregation, but Jacobs says if people aren’t showing up, rabbis have to ask themselves why.
“There are many congregations, frankly, that are not particularly engaging," he said. "Frankly, you could come looking for the there there."
Even sitting at a desk, Jacobs seems to be the physical antithesis of the dull, droning cleric. He’s six-foot-four, with a strong speaking voice and restless energy. Before entering school at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Jacobs studied modern dance under Merce Cunningham. The master’s lessons, he said, are still with him.
“Balance is a pretty important thing in leadership, as is flexibility. But also learning to have a technique a disclipline, but at the same time, a more creative expression,” Jacobs said, adding that those are useful skills for the leader of any faith organization.