Lead Us Not Astray, Reverend James Cooper

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

When the congregation learned of plans to shutter the Heuss House, there was an uproar. Cooper publicly asked the city to reconsider, to no avail. But his growing number of critics were unimpressed by his attempt.

"Cooper gave some lip service, saying he tried to talk to them," a former vestry member says. "But he didn't make any real efforts until the issue had already been decided." A congregation member who lives in the neighborhood agrees. "Trinity had a chance to turn that around," he says. "Talking to members of the Community Board, it was clear that if we wanted to make a fight of it, we could have. Bloomberg was up for re-election in 2009. There was room for leverage."

After the Heuss House closed, Cooper's administration started a new program for the homeless: On Sunday afternoons after services, members of the congregation now assemble bag lunches to be handed out in front of the church on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

The first Trinity church was erected in 1698 (this Gothic facade dates to 1846). Until recently, it seemed unshakable.
Voice Media Group
The first Trinity church was erected in 1698 (this Gothic facade dates to 1846). Until recently, it seemed unshakable.
Trinity hired Reverend James Cooper to serve as the church’s rector in 2004. “We had our doubts about him,” said one former vestry member.
Leo Sorel; Source: trinitychurch.org
Trinity hired Reverend James Cooper to serve as the church’s rector in 2004. “We had our doubts about him,” said one former vestry member.

As one former vestry member put it: "We went from a 24-hour, 365-days-a-year drop-in center for the mentally ill with social services, social workers, transportation for people, a food program, a clothing program to, on Sundays afternoon, members of the congregation pack lunches in brown bags? To equate those to me is so indicative of Cooper's lack of vision."

The Heuss House wasn't the only program to fall by the wayside during Cooper's term as rector. The church no longer runs Frederic Fleming House, a home for the elderly on 22nd Street.

"It's a pattern," says a former vestry member. "Every service organization that he did not initiate of has gone away."

The closure of these programs didn't look good for Trinity, particularly coupled with the church's increasingly meager philanthropy budget. With about $1 billion in assets and almost $200 million in annual revenue, mostly from rental income, Trinity's charitable giving over recent years has nevertheless hovered around $2.7 million—scarcely 1 percent. 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.

"It's embarrassing, frankly," says a former vestry member. "This is a church that is in a position to really be making a difference in the world, and it simply isn't living up to that responsibility."

At the same time, Cooper has restructured his staff in a way that some worry could produce a conflict of interest. The same person who oversees spending on the congregation is now also in charge of philanthropic programs. For many, this arrangement disturbs the church's balance between inward- and outward-facing responsibilities.

Cooper's critics also point to what they see as his preoccupation with grand building schemes of dubious utility. In June of 2011, he and his staff unveiled plans to hire architects and consultants for a massive overhaul of the property at 68-74 Trinity Place, where the church has its offices. The plans were ambitious—they entailed tearing down the existing buildings and rebuilding a tower with luxury condominiums above and more spacious church offices below.

But some vestry members failed to see just why Trinity needed this enormous project, which would mean substantial borrowing.

"We never got an answer to that," says one former vestry member.

The vestry's building committee directed the staff to come up with a mission program for the buildings before they started the design work. It never happened. As the architects' plans developed, it emerged that the day care center the church has long run in the current building would have to go; the consultants had concluded that housing it in the new luxury tower would be too expensive.

"Every leader wants to build a monument of some sort," one former vestry member says. "I think that was a big part of what was going on there."

Despite more and more vestry members growing concerned about Cooper's suitability as rector, they kept their worries to themselves.

"It was a sort of politeness, I suppose," says one. "Part of it was how Cooper ran things. So many of the conversations were in private. There wasn't really a forum for us to learn how others on the vestry were thinking about him."

Eventually, though, the dam began to break. At a May 2011 retreat where Cooper was expected to lay out his ideas for the church's mission, the rector fell flat in the eyes of many on the vestry.

"There was no vision," says another former member. "It was just 'Keep doing a little bit of this and of that,' what we were already doing."

After the retreat, vestry members began for the first time to discuss the issue, and were surprised to learn that about half of the 22-member council had serious problems with Cooper. They approached the vestry's senior officers, wardens Peter Gevalt and Charles Royce.

According to documents the Voice obtained, the wardens decided not to take the matter to a full meeting of the vestry, and instead sought the advice of the bishop for the Episcopal diocese of New York, Rt. Rev. Mark Sisk. Through the wardens, the bishop urged the dissidents to give Cooper a chance to leave quietly, on his own terms.

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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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