Trinity Church, the historic Episcopal congregation in Copley Square known for its charitable work, has purchased a $3.6 million condo on Beacon Hill as a home for its rector, the Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III.
The 3,100-square-foot Chestnut Street property boasts a two-car garage, a pantry equipped with a wine cellar, a courtyard draped with wisteria and ivy, and a guesthouse, all about a block from Boston Common.
The purchase, which sparked discussion among some church leaders, comes at a time when many mainline Protestant congregations are straining to meet their budgets amid years of membership decline, and when faith communities across the religious spectrum are increasingly concerned about the widening gap between rich and poor. Pope Francis has received global acclaim for spurning the Apostolic Palace for a simple suite in a Vatican guesthouse.
Peter Lawrence, Trinity’s senior warden, cast the transaction as a savvy investment that would have no meaningful effect on the church’s operating budget because a large chunk of the purchase price would come from the church’s $30 million endowment.
He noted that the new rectory would essentially replace the church’s former, and far larger, clergy residence at Clarendon and Newbury streets, where Trinity rectors have lived since the 19th century, but which was converted into church office space in 2006.
Trinity’s leaders have twice mentioned the purchase in letters to the congregation, Lawrence said, and not a single parishioner has raised a concern to him. The letters did not mention the cost, but the price has been discussed openly in casual conversations. Church leaders offer a full accounting of all church spending at the annual financial meeting, which is coming up in March.
“I’m sure people will look at it and ask questions, but fundamentally, we looked at this as a business decision, and we think it’s a very sound business decision,” Lawrence said. “And that’s the headline.”
Lloyd said he does not regard his new residence as an extravagance, or out of step with the times, but rather as a tool to help him do his job.
“I’m moving into a nice place, but not an opulent place,” he said. “I’m called to be in the city and to serve the city, and I’m very committed to leading this community in the serving of the poor of our city. We’re deeply involved in that ministry, and I’m very much a part of it. What we were trying to do is find a serviceable place for the rector to live in the city, and make that work.”
Trinity has seen significant gains in pledges in each of the past three ears, according to Trinity’s treasurer, Geoffrey Smith. That coincides with the return of the charismatic, cerebral Lloyd to the historic church in 2011, following a six-year stint as dean of the Washington National Cathedral, Several members said attendance is up as well.
Lloyd, who had been living in a church-subsidized rental in the Back Bay since his return to Boston, wanted to live within walking distance of the church, where he often works 12- to 14-hour days and frequently attends night meetings.
And church leaders said they thought the rector needed a residence large enough to accommodate meetings, dinners, out-of-town guests, and other church-related hospitality the rectory has traditionally offered — much as a college president’s house would.
Smith said Trinity’s investment committee also thought diversifying the church’s portfolio made sense, and that Beacon Hill real estate seemed like a good bet because it had performed well during the last few decades.
To pay for the rectory, Smith said, church leaders used $1.5 million from the endowment and borrowed $1.5 million. A couple of anonymous donations covered the rest, he said.
Smith said there was some discussion among members of the vestry, the elected council that runs the church, about whether it was appropriate for the church to spend millions on a clergy residence rather than on other priorities — just as there is, from time to time, a discussion about why the church holds onto such a large endowment, he said.
“I hear the argument,” Smith said. But its counter — that the condo was a good investment, and that its purchase wouldn’t affect the church’s work — “carried the day.”
Kevin Ahearn, president of the Boston residential brokerage firm Otis & Ahearn, which was not involved in the transaction, said the church got a good deal on the property. Chestnut Street is “absolutely a coveted address and location,” he said; two-car garages on Beacon Hill are rare, the garden offers “a beautiful outdoor space,” and the refurbished interior has “a Tuscan feel to it.”
“It’s lovely,” he said. “It could have generated a higher price.”
Lloyd and his wife, who have two grown children, moved into their new residence shortly before Lloyd officially became the permanent rector Jan. 26.
Trinity’s $5.6 million operating budget includes hundreds of thousands of dollars in spending to help the needy. Church members volunteer at city homeless shelters, and the church partnered with the Pine Street Inn to open the Yearwood House, a residential facility for people who have been homeless.
The church also contributes to the Trinity Boston Foundation, a charitable organization that is a subsidiary of the church. The foundation will spend $2.4 million on programs for underserved youth this year — up $400,000 from last year. Its work includes a running and mentoring program for youth, an academic enrichment and leadership program for middle- and high-school students, a counseling center, and a partnership with the Dever-McCormack K-8 School.
Louise Burnham Packard, executive director of the foundation, said the rectory purchase made “perfect economic sense” to her, and because it required no cuts in programs or shifts in spending priorities, on balance she understood the vestry’s decision.
“It’s problematic, because it looks like we’re just buying into the materialistic culture,” she said. “I think that’s probably why the vestry wrestled with the decision.”
But, she said, the rector needed a place to live, and the decision seemed to her like a small matter in the context of Trinity’s overall mission and contributions to the community.
Barbara Bauman, a retired nurse who lives in the South End and heads a church group that works to end violence, said: “As the Response to Violence leader, I’m looking for resources, and I’ve gotten them.”
She saw the purchase as reasonable. The rectory, she added, needs to be spacious enough to accommodate church groups and dinners, “and I think space is needed” for that.
Trinity’s historic rectory is a five-story, 11,000- square-foot brownstone at 233 Clarendon Street. Lloyd lived there during his previous 11-year tenure at the church, but he said he urged church leaders to convert that building to office space because it was too large for one family. His office is now in one of its rooms.
Many of the historic downtown churches in Boston boast grand clergy residences, including several a short walk from Trinity’s: the Church of the Advent on Beacon Hill owns a rectory on Mt. Vernon Street; King’s Chapel has a parsonage on Beacon Street; and First Church Boston owns a residence for its senior minister just up Chestnut Street from Trinity’s residence.
The Rev. Laura Everett, executive director of the Massachusetts Council of Churches, the state’s main ecumenical group, said churches have historically owned residences so that clergy could be close to the church and their communities, even when their modest salaries might not have otherwise afforded them that proximity.
But a number of years ago, many Protestant churches began selling off their parsonages, she said.
“In America now, one of the ways to build equity and save for retirement is through your house, and when pastors don’t own a home, that puts them in a precarious position later in life,” she said.
Today, many churches instead offer their pastors a housing allowance, which comes with a federal income tax exemption. Brian Galle, a professor at Boston College Law School, said Congress explicitly exempted clergy from paying income taxes on the benefit of living in a church-owned residence in 1921, and extended the benefit to clergy housing allowances in 1954.
But it is not clear how long the exemptions will stand. They have come under scrutiny in recent years because of the mansions constructed by some megachurch pastors.
In November, a federal district court judge in Wisconsin ruled the tax exemption on clergy housing allowances unconstitutional, declaring that it gives religious groups a benefit not available to others. That case is headed for appeal.
Trinity also plans to apply for a property-tax exemption for the property; the city of Boston normally grants exemptions for parsonages.
Lisa Wangsness can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.