By: Linda Bloom
Within two years, the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries will permanently vacate its longtime headquarters at the Interchurch Center in New York and move south to Atlanta.
That decision was approved in a closed session Oct. 3 by the mission agency’s board of directors, but was not made public until its 160 employees in New York were officially informed Oct. 6.
In a new configuration for the agency, staff will be assigned to three new regional offices in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
The departure from the offices at 475 Riverside Drive on Nov. 1, 2016, will coincide with the end of the board’s current lease.
The Board of Global Ministries expects to purchase and renovate the large Grace United Methodist Church complex on Ponce de Leon Avenue for its Atlanta headquarters, with the congregation continuing to worship there.
“It’s a unique chance to bring the global church and the local church together,” said Thomas Kemper, the board’s top executive, in an interview with United Methodist News Service prior to the announcement.
Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, board president, called the plan for relocation “a vision for ministry that is truly global…and grace-filled for those who give and those who receive.
“The theology of this is definitely rooted in ‘The world is my parish,’” she said, referring to the well-known John Wesley phrase.
The mission agency will seek any needed approvals by the denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration and the Connectional Table for the purchase of the Atlanta headquarters site.
"New York has been a wonderful home for many years and there is sadness in leaving," Ward said.
Being a presence in the world
Earlier attempts by the general church to move the agency’s headquarters from New York — home to mission organizations since the founding of the Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1819 — have failed.
This time, the push for relocation came from board leadership, based on the desire to create an international network and the need to lower costs to finance the plan. “Nobody is forcing us out of New York,” Kemper said. “It’s a totally different decision.”
A member of The United Methodist Church in Germany, Kemper said he had a mandate to expand the board’s international connections, which “needs to be expressed and lived in the way we have our staffing and our presence around the world.”
Hong Kong “may be a possibility” for the office connecting the denomination’s work in China, the Philippines and Southeast Asia, he noted. Earlier this year, the agency hired its first Chinese staff member, Liu Ruhong, who works in Nanjing.
The Africa office will be in a French-speaking country, either Côte d’Ivoire or Democratic Republic of Congo. In Latin America, office space would be shared with The Upper Room, a global ministry that supports spiritual formation. “We are in conversations on what this could look like,” Kemper said.
In Europe, the Board of Global Ministries will not establish a separate office but work cooperatively with the European Commission on Mission of the European Methodist Council. Ulias Tankler, a current staff member, is based in Estonia.
As at the U.S. headquarters, regional office staff will have some international representation. “We want to keep the same diversity in the office,” Kemper explained. “There could well be an American in Hong Kong or a Filipino in Africa.”
The case for Atlanta
Factors favoring the mission agency’s relocation to Atlanta, Kemper said, included the availability of international travel through Hartfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport; a lower cost of living that would attract individuals and families not willing to move to New York and the ability to partner with organizations ranging from Emory University to the Carter Center.
But the real advantage to Atlanta, said Jan Love, dean of Emory’s Candler School of Theology, is the local denominational connection, beginning with Mayor Kasim Reed, a member of Cascade United Methodist Church.
“The church is a player on a different level here in Atlanta,” she explained. “In almost any arena in which one works or partners, there are prominent United Methodists in that arena. That gives you access to partnerships much faster.”
Before taking her current position at Candler, Love was top executive of the Women’s Division of the Board of Global Ministries from 2004-2006 and served as a board director as a young adult in the 1970s.
So when the exploration of Atlanta as a possible new headquarters began, Love helped board officials get acquainted with the city “and the extraordinary resources that are here.”
Possibilities for partnership
One of those resources is the Rollins School of Public Health, named for a prominent United Methodist family. The dean, James Curran, she said “is extraordinarily excited” about possible collaboration on a whole range of partnerships with the Board of Global Ministries.
“Rollins has been deeply involved in all of the major health crises that you’ve heard about in the world, most prominently HIV/AIDs,” Love said, adding that the school also focuses on basic community health issues. Other Emory partnerships could be available through the schools of theology, nursing and medicine.
She also introduced board officials to staff at the Carter Center, involved in “a range of the kinds of issues that matter a lot to The United Methodist Church and to GBGM,” and to the historic African-American Clark-Atlanta University and Gammon Theological Seminary, pointing to the dense concentration of African-American leadership in Atlanta.
What tipped the balance for relocation in Atlanta, Kemper said, was an “amazing deal” on the Grace property, brokered with the help of Bishop Michael Watson of the North Georgia Annual Conference. The Board of Global Ministries will assume the property for the cost of paying off its debt, he said and expects to amortize the investment within five or six years, based on savings over the rent and other costs the agency would be paying at the Interchurch Center.
That debt is about $1.9 million. Preliminary estimates call for $6 million in renovations over a two-year period. Furnishings and equipment raise the overall estimate to $9.5 million.
Selected staff will be invited to relocate to Atlanta, Kemper said, but all support staff will be hired locally. Projected additional costs for the relocation, including severance for 100 staff persons and moving expenses for 60 staff persons, brings the total estimate for the mission agency’s relocation to $15 million.
Leaving New York
A couple of decades ago, the Board of Global Ministries, which then had more than 500 employees, opposed an effort to move it out of New York. At the time, the Lutherans, Presbyterians and United Church of Christ had all moved denominational offices from New York to other cities.
The 1988 United Methodist General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body, approved a 15-member task force to do a feasibility study. The cost of remaining in New York was a key consideration, but the task force also recognized that some church members questioned whether being in New York kept staff “out of touch with the grass roots.”
Supporters of the New York location pointed to church’s historic mission presence in the city; to the opportunities for ecumenical cooperation there and to a multicultural and social diversity that existed in few other places. The task force’s $9 million relocation estimate was disputed, with the board’s treasurer fixing the cost at $16.6 million.
A site selection task force established by the 1992 General Conference proposed building a five-story headquarters for the mission agency at the Reston Town Center in Reston, Virginia, at a cost of up to $72 million, including interest. A legislative committee of the 1996 General Conference rejected that recommendation, effectively putting an end to the process.
The debate over the move “became very, very politicized from my point of view,” explained Love, who grew up in an Alabama family committed to achieving racial justice and remembered being both amused and saddened by false characterizations painting everyone in the Deep South as rigidly conservative.
Ward believes the mission agency's expanded global presence will open up new opportunities for mission. "The regional offices will help us grow in the mutality that we seek in mission," the bishop explained. "We deeply believe that this configuration will be fruitful for the vision of our church."
Linda Bloom is a writer for the United Methodist News Service.
Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church