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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8 comments
adpaniagua
adpaniagua

I am extremely proud to write that i am a former, sr. Social worker of the john heuss house, in addition to also being a baptized member of Trinity church proper.

I left jhh to become dir of social services of a transitional housing program

stevenmitchell1
stevenmitchell1

It sounds more like Reverend James Cooper has become the poster boy for out-of-control greed. Especially, in the context, that he has out-manipulated what I consider astute and sophisticated Manhattanites in their own backyard. In particular, he has according to the article, through various strategies gained control over the process of his own appointment. As the article author points out, that is akin to appointing your own jury for a criminal trial or in an instant probably more familiar to Trinity parishioners, where a CEO gains direct control over the appointment of its Board of Directors. But very clearly, he now owns Trinity Church, and if he ever does leave as pastor, he will most assuredly secure a large buyout package and undoubtedly sabotage much of it before he leaves. At this point, the only hope that the parishioners have to regain control over the Church’s sovereignty is to involve the hierarchy of the regional and national Episcopal Church. But by far, the greatest threat that Trinity Church (and I have a special fondness for this church and its constituency) faces, is that this man, James Cooper, will undermine its future continuity as an institution. It is very apropos that someone like James Cooper would emerge at the forefront of this Church in 2012 at the time that he has. His story is easily equatable with the metaphor for America's economic decline. If there is no other barometer for the depth of his self-centeredness, its deepest indication is the change in the Church’s expenditure and focus on charity, which now centers on what  benefits Mr. Cooper most personally. It is a genuine shame that another great American institution has been acquired by a schemer with narrow goals and a short-term horizon.

BestWatches007
BestWatches007

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elphberg
elphberg

Cooper is complex fellow.  He is caught in a classic cognitive dissonance situation, and elects not to grow past it, but to selectively ignore those concepts, events, people &c. who challenge his — somehow rather pedestrian — view of things.

owsspawg
owsspawg

OWS Spag Update on occupy trinity, just found out that a women from trinity church, most likely Linda Hamlin, from there PR department came out to the protest today, to ask who the medic was then proceeded to take copies of the village voice article about Rector Cooper, and toss them into the trash bins on trinity church grounds, also all the village voice news bins were empty around trinity church when only a few hours earlier thy had copies in them we suspect that the same women from trinity and others went to them took them and throw them out also I guess the Village Voice article hit home with it truth, score one for Truth, Justice and the Village Voice.PS, if anyone from the village voice see the post please drop off copies to protesters at trinity church, we will be more then happy to make sure the public see the paper, so the public can fourm there own opinion.Apollo OWS Special Projects Affinity Group and OWS Outreach Work

LorenHart
LorenHart

Even with all the criticism I've heard of Reverend James Cooper and other decision-makers at Trinity Wall Street, I was shocked to read that, "In recent years, spending on the church's music programming has exceeded its charitable giving. The church spends nearly twice its philanthropy budget on publicity alone." What!? I'd like to hear Trinity's response to those who suggest their priorities are upside down. It's unfortunate that Cooper and Trinity chose not to offer their perspective for this article. Thanks to Nick Pinto and the Village Voice for this eye-opening look into the inner workings of Trinity Wall Street.

Michael
Michael

Everybody lighten up. Lets get a couple of WASPY looking women, some cosmopolitans & scotch and party.  Do a couple of lines of coke.  Mass orgy.  Everybody will feel better. America is going down the toilet anyway.

Cassidy
Cassidy

Disgusting.  And the congregation knows nothing -- or approves, even if just tacitly??

 
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