By Kirk Petersen
In 1985, representatives of a dozen Episcopal congregations with substantial endowments gathered one day at House of the Redeemer on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.
Despite their affluence, the congregations had financial concerns. Earlier in the decade, the economy had been through the worst recession since World War II, and some churches were spending down their endowments. The group formed an organization for the narrow purpose of supporting responsible endowment management, and called it the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes (CEEP).
The name evoked images of old money, and sounded somewhat outdated from the start. (When is the last time you’ve said the word “consortium” aloud, other than in reference to CEEP?) Membership was limited to well-endowed churches (a restriction that was quietly eased somewhat in 2013).
The organization expanded its interests over the years, and it began running the largest annual conference of any Episcopal organization. Finance was still a primary focus, but by 2020 the program also included workshops on communications, evangelism, and a variety of liturgical topics.
Then the world changed, and CEEP began rapidly evolving with it. Executive Director Joe Swimmer said the organization already had been planning to develop online programming, and the pandemic kicked that effort into high gear. The first webinar on church response to COVID aired on March 18 — just one week after two dioceses suspended all in-person worship and the National Basketball Association canceled the rest of its season.
CEEP had skin in the game. The annual conference had just been held in Louisville, Kentucky, on February 19-22 — and six attendees of a particular workshop later tested positive for COVID. All have recovered.
The organization now has sponsored more than 150 online workshops, attended by 35,000 people, Swimmer said. Many of the workshops focus on endowments and other financial topics, but there are also subjects ranging from racial equity to spirituality to current affairs to mental health.
Given all of this, Swimmer told TLC: “This seemed like the natural moment for us to begin to more fully express our work in parish ministry, and not be tied so much to the idea of endowment.” So at its recent conference in Atlanta, the organization unveiled a new name: the Episcopal Parish Network (EPN).
It’s the group’s second rebranding in a little more than three years. At the beginning of 2019 the name was changed from the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes to The CEEP Network. While that was also an effort to de-emphasize endowments, it may have had the effect of calling more attention to the word. (“Remind me what CEEP stands for?”)
The new name eliminates any reference to endowments, and swapping “consortium” for “network” can only be considered an upgrade. But perhaps most importantly, the name is now centered on the organization’s primary focus: the parish.
Swimmer said that while EPN is supportive of dioceses and the church as a whole, their primary interest is in the parish, and “we are focused on the work on the corner of wherever that parish may be.”
EPN is seeking to expand its membership, and while Swimmer expects that members “are generally going to be resourced,” they don’t have to have an endowment. “Fifty years from now, 100 years from now, these parishes will still be there,” he said. “They will be doing the work that they were set up to do, which is serve their community, build their community, preach the Gospel, offer the Sacraments.”
The organization is committed to supporting less-affluent parishes, which is why all of those webinars have been offered free of charge. It still costs money to attend the annual conference, but Swimmer said the keynote addresses from the Atlanta conference will be posted online soon. The webinars are funded by member dues, which start at $750 annually and range upward into the thousands. Dues historically have been tied to the size of a parish’s endowment, but Swimmer said a new dues structure is being developed.
EPN gathered 550 people in Atlanta from February 23-26 “for the first major conference in the church since COVID hit,” Swimmer said, emphasizing that there were safety precautions tied to masks, testing, and vaccine status.
“I really hope in Jacksonville next year there won’t be a mask in my hand,” he said.
TLC has partnered with Episcopal Parish Network on several initiatives, including hosting webinars.