Lead Us Not Astray, Reverend James Cooper

In August 2011, Trinity Church's rector was asked to leave. He stayed with a vengeance.

"We had our doubts about him," says one former vestry member. "But we figured, we have a strong vestry, we'll help him along."

Cooper had built a thriving church in Florida, helping to grow the congregation from 50 to 6,000 over the course of 32 years. For the Trinity parish, still devastated by the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, his community-building skills were important.

But the vestry made it clear to Cooper that rebuilding the church community was only one of the position's responsibilities. As rector, he would steer Trinity's traditions of philanthropic giving and moral leadership, but also preside over the church's property holdings, making sure that the source of Trinity's security was preserved. Cooper had experience with building projects, having overseen the construction of a retirement community for Christ's Church; it wasn't exactly Manhattan real estate, but it was something. Further, in a recognition that the church shouldn't rely too heavily for its annual operations on a topsy-turvy real estate market, the vestry asked Cooper to spearhead the creation of a "second farm," a diversified endowment that would keep Trinity's coffers full even in a downturn.

Trinity’s wealth dates to 1705, when Queen Anne granted the church 215 acres in Manhattan. Its remaining holdings, centered on Hudson Square, are worth an estimated $1 billion and produce $200 million in annual income.
Source: Trinity Real Estate
Trinity’s wealth dates to 1705, when Queen Anne granted the church 215 acres in Manhattan. Its remaining holdings, centered on Hudson Square, are worth an estimated $1 billion and produce $200 million in annual income.

People associated with Trinity tend to view it as exceptional, as an institution far greater, more complicated, and more august than an ordinary church, and they tried to impress this perspective on Cooper. Like your average parish church, Trinity has a rector and a vestry, but its structures of government have historically been different, with the relationship between rector and vestry closer to the corporate model of a CEO and a board of directors. The vestry is relatively strong and provides guidance to the rector. And its composition includes not only congregants, but also the kind of high-profile lawyers and executives you might find on a corporate board. That's partly because Trinity's operations, with its real estate management and philanthropic work, are so complex that it pays to have vestry members who can lend their expertise in these areas.

But there's also an even more fundamental reason.

"It's a separation-of-powers issue," another former vestry member explains. "For a church like Trinity, where you have substantial assets, it isn't necessarily a good idea to have members of the congregation making all the decisions."

Left to their own devices, in other words, a vestry of parishioners might choose to focus the church's resources on musical programming and mission trips—to spend the church's millions, that is, on themselves. The purpose of Trinity's independent vestry is to make sure the church looks beyond itself and maintains its commitment to philanthropy and engagement with the wider world.

"Jim never got that," says a third former vestry member of Cooper. "Jim never got that the vestry was his boss. There was that challenge from the very beginning."

And from the beginning, Cooper's term at Trinity raised eyebrows in the vestry. He negotiated an unprecedented compensation package, which by 2010 stacked up at $1.3 million. While his predecessors had made their homes in comfortable midtown apartments at church expense, Cooper had other ideas. He persuaded Trinity to buy a four-floor townhouse in Soho to the tune of $5.5 million. The 4,000-square-foot home, built in 1899, sits on Charlton Street, in the middle of a block full of classic Federal and Greek revival buildings. In its designation of the neighborhood as a historic district, the Landmarks Preservation Commission took special note of Cooper's new home, praising its entrance as "particularly handsome and large in scale," with "exquisite" detail and "opulent wood carving and plasterwork."

"He talks about it as being an investment for the future, a place where future rectors can live," says a former vestry member. "But as a space, it doesn't make any sense. Its layout wouldn't work for anyone who has children or anyone who has trouble with stairs. The house is for Jim, not for the church."

On top of the luxurious residence, Cooper also negotiated a further housing stipend—about $115,000 in 2010—to cover his vacation home in Florida.

"Trinity is a wealthy institution, and the rector has a lot of responsibilities, but it's also a church," says a member of the congregation. "When people learned about the house and his salary and everything, a lot of us thought it was really unseemly."

Trinity has a long legacy of social activism and giving, from working for the uplift of slaves in early New York to backing a little-known bishop named Desmond Tutu in apartheid-era South Africa. Trinity's charity was both local—its rectors launched shelters and housing programs all over New York during the 20th century—and global, with a fully staffed philanthropy department making millions of dollars in international grants.

"The philanthropy has always been a really central part of the identity of Trinity," says one former vestry member. "That's one of the reasons people felt so strongly that things were going wrong in recent years."

In 2009, New York City announced that the John Heuss House would be losing its lease. For 20 years, the Heuss House, operated by Trinity in a city-owned building on Beaver Street, had served as a drop-in center, providing food, shelter, and services to more than 150 mentally ill homeless people a day. It was the only homeless drop-in center in Lower Manhattan, and members of Trinity's congregation took pride in providing such necessary services.

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