Diocesan House is a 12,000-square-foot Tudor mansion in Rochester’s Historic East Avenue District. • Diocese of Rochester

By the Rev. Mark Michael

Two prominent religious institutions located two miles apart in Rochester, New York, plan to sell their historic buildings near the city center and redirect their resources toward mission priorities.

Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School (CRCDS) and the Diocese of Rochester announced pending sale and relocation plans about two weeks apart in May. The decisions respond to similar demographic changes.

The Rt. Rev. Prince G. Singh, Bishop of Rochester, is a board member of CRCDS, and he teaches classes in the school’s Anglican Studies program. In a letter to his diocese about the pending sale of Diocesan House, he described the sale as a liberating and mission-focused decision.

“In this era of missional Church, one of the clearest ways we are reconstituting ourselves is through becoming more nimble in following Jesus, into our neighborhoods while traveling lightly,” he wrote. “In our discernment of stewardship of 935 East Avenue, we have an opportunity to set an example by living into this dynamic approach to following Jesus.”

The Burned Over District

Rochester lies in the center of the “burned over district,” a region deeply influenced by the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century. Charles Finney, the moment’s chief leader, gave the name to central and western New York because the people there had been so thoroughly converted that “there was no fuel left over to burn.”

Thousands of Methodist and Baptist churches were planted across the region in a burst of evangelical fervor. The cities of the region later became centers of the social gospel movement, as liberal clergy led efforts for relief of the poor and social reform.

The region is now among America’s most secular, with 53.6 percent of Rochester residents saying they have no religious affiliation. Between 2000 and 2010, affiliation with the city’s mainline Protestant churches decreased by 21 percent, to only 53,463 of the city’s 209,000 residents. According to the Episcopal Church’s statistics between 2004 and 2014, average attendance in the Diocese of Rochester’s 46 parishes decreased by a quarter, to about 3,000 people.

Located firmly within the Northern Rust Belt, Rochester has a 10.2 percent unemployment rate. It has suffered significantly with the declining fortunes of Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch and Lomb, the city’s longtime major employers.

The Rev. Lance Robbins said he has seen a significant decline during his 25 years as rector of Good Shepherd Church in the Rochester suburb of Webster. “We’re becoming older,” he said. “We’re not keeping our young people like we used to. Many people have moved away for jobs.”

Mission strategy is changing in response to these new challenges, Robbins said. “Now it’s about going out and going where people are. The emphasis on buildings — we’re slowly moving beyond that.”

Liberal Protestant Landmark

The seminary is a kind of bellwether of the region’s religious heritage and changing church landscape. It developed out of the gradual merger of four 19th-century Baptist seminaries with a similar focus on liberal scholarship and activism for justice. The oldest of these was Colgate Seminary, founded near the close of the Second Great Awakening in 1817 to serve the multitude of new congregations established in the region.

The seminary’s most famous professor was Walter Rauschenbusch, the leading light of the social gospel movement. Rauschenbusch’s work attracted the admiration of John D. Rockefeller, a committed Baptist, who funded the construction of an extensive Gothic campus on one of Rochester’s highest hills in 1928. The gift paralleled Rockefeller’s beneficence to the University of Chicago and New York’s Riverside Church, similar liberal Protestant bastions.

Philadelphia’s Crozer Theological Seminary, which counted Martin Luther King, Jr., as an alumnus, merged with the seminary in Rochester. CRCDS developed an Anglican Studies program, which has been offered since 2013 in cooperation with Bexley Hall Seabury Western Theological Federation. Nine students, mostly from upstate New York dioceses, were enrolled in the program last year, said the Rev. Winifred Collin, the program’s director.

The seminary’s enrollment has gradually declined to about 130 students. Most of these are commuter students, and some are part time. The seminary, which has five full-time faculty members, has begun using online instruction in recent years, especially to better serve the needs of its non-residential students, Collin said.

“The campus was built for a very different model of theological education,” Collin said, and reflects the needs of a time when most students were young, single men. With fewer resident students, the refectory, large library, and 24 acres of landscaped grounds were underused and “so much money was spent on deferred maintenance, not on our mission, which is training students.”

A potential buyer of the seminary has given an assurance that “the beauty of the current facility will remain intact for people to enjoy after we leave,” said the Rev. Marvin McMickle, the seminary’s president. The seminary will have until July 2018 to move to a new site, which will be in the greater Rochester area.

Collin described herself as “very excited” about the changes. “I think that the school is modeling the kind of change and flexibility that we talk about in the classroom. The world is changing. The church is changing. We want to do more than survive. Our mission is to prepare people that are learned, pastoral and prophetic, and that involved good stewardship and making courageous decisions to pursue your ultimate goal.”

She said there will be sadness about parting with a site “that is so beautiful and so steeped in history,” but there is widespread excitement about designing new spaces that will fit current needs. Some of the faculty, she said, would like to see the seminary move closer to the inner city, “because the heart of our mission is to be with those who are struggling, on the margins.”

The seminary remains financially healthy, with a $21.6 million endowment. Bishop Singh said he was especially pleased that the school’s faculty will not be affected by the relocation. “For most people,” he said, “the essence of the school is the faculty and the ability for them to deliver in a relatable way. Nothing in the mission of the school has changed.”

Leaving Diocesan House

While helping to guide the seminary through its changes, Bishop Singh has been leading a two-year process of discernment about how to best use Diocesan House. The 12,000-square-foot Tudor mansion in Rochester’s Historic East Avenue District has cost $100,000 in operating expenses, according to email sent by Singh to leaders throughout the diocese June 2.

Diocesan House was purchased in 1954 from the estate of Elizabeth Sibley Stebbins, a local philanthropist and national leader of the Episcopal Women’s Auxiliary. Seven diocesan staff members use only a quarter of the building after a series of staff reductions.

Rochester’s diocesan trustees approved a plan to sell the building, which is expected to go on the market in August. Short-term plans for relocating diocesan operations after a sale include renting commercial space or space from a church or mission partner, or leasing space from the property’s eventual owner.

In his letter, Singh said the decision was consistent with an orientation toward forming networks instead of permanent structures, which has been part of the diocese’s “spiritual DNA” since its founding in 1931. The diocese never opted, he noted, to build or designate a cathedral, instead embracing “the practice of a Bishop, unencumbered by bricks and mortar, moving around the Diocese and the greater Church/world.”

“At the heart of this discernment is a drive to be dynamic, working in networks and not being tied down by property and location but instead by vocation and embodied interpretation,” Singh’s letter said.

New communications technology, he added, has made interconnection easier and permanent buildings less significant.

Bishop Singh said he had found it energizing to hear diocesan trustees say, We are not the building, we are followers of Jesus. We need to make the decision to and not just kick the can down the road.

Singh, who was born in India and began his ministry in the ecumenical Church of South India, said his early experience in learning to be “adaptive in how you live out your faith and nimble in following Jesus” has helped him lead his flock through this challenging time.

“While it’s a hard decision, it’s a good decision. While there is grief, there is also the possibility of wider discernment about moving into the neighborhood and sharing Jesus in a more deliberate way.”

Singh noted, with gratitude, that 50 percent of the dioceses’ parishes had grown or stayed flat in 2015, “moving against the trend of chronic decline in the Northeast.” He attributed this sign to “local communities of believers doing discernment about Who is God calling us to be at this time?

Robbins expressed hope about the opportunities the decision to sell Diocesan House would open. He said some of his parishioners have expressed sadness about the sale of a greatly loved and beautiful place. Others, though, recognize that the sale will create new opportunities, perhaps more funding for mission congregations, or the possibility of relocating the diocesan office away from Rochester, which is on the diocese’s northern edge, to a more central location, like Geneseo.

“We’re moving into a new world, a new phase of how we do ministry,” Robbins said. “The old model served us well for a long time but it doesn’t do so any longer. It’s a matter of responding to the Spirit leading us, finding the best use of our resources. God’s still with us. There’s no doubt that good will come out of this.”

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