UCC national setting settles in to new offices in downtown Cleveland
It’s been more than two years in the making. Twenty-seven months, in fact. On July 5, the national staff of the United Church of Christ began coming together again, in person, settling into a new, state-of-the-art workspace.
Associate General Minister Karen Georgia Thompson arrived early that Tuesday, in preparation for the week’s sessions of orientation and unpacking.
“This morning, I had a 5 a.m. alarm and headed for the office at 7 a.m.,” she said. “By the time the staff arrived at 10:00, I had blessed the space, prayed and blessed all the offices and prayed for the staff.”
She also blessed and prayed in the hallways, the meditation space, the six conference rooms and common areas and in the open seating and huddle space — all 30,000 square feet of the 11th floor. Thompson also left handwritten notes of thanks around the building for people who have assigned offices, with plans to reach out to the remote and deployed staff as well.
The national staff is transitioning back to office space in downtown Cleveland after becoming a remote workforce in March 2020 with the onset of COVID-19. A new Church House was chosen after UCC leadership decided to sell the 700 Prospect Avenue building.
Tuesday was the first of three days of orientation at the new national setting at “1300,” named for the address of the former AECOM Building where the UCC has leased space for the next 15 years. Over the course of those days, three groups of 25 to 30 staffers walked through the new offices, one each day, for a tour and a technology tutorial.
My day was Wednesday.
“Welcome to our new space,” said Human Resources Director Alisa Lewis as she shared information about what could be accessed with the new keycards she was distributing. “We are excited, and we hope you are too!”
General Minister and President John Dorhauer enthusiastically welcomed each group with the same greeting — thanking the staff in a reflection of how the UCC ended up in this new space and why he’s sure the national setting was destined to be here.
“When we sent you home two and a half years ago, you left without complaint, you adapted, you adjusted, you learned new behaviors,” he said. “You were constantly checking in on one another to make sure everyone was okay … and you never missed a beat, doing your work in extraordinary challenging conditions during a pandemic.
“You helped us by completing five different surveys … to discern how best to bring you back together when the time was right. You led an entire denomination though the worst collective trauma anyone of us has ever remembered enduring and you did it with such grace, such creativity and compassion. We are here right now, back together again, ready to enter a new day because you didn’t quit on us.”
Associate General Minister Traci Blackmon supervised the build-out, heading the design team that imagined and outfitted the space. Before leading a tour of the new offices, she called the Wednesday group’s attention to the prayer notation in the reception area. A focus wall — adorned with a cross between metal images of the world that previously hung in the the Global Ministries area — highlights a scripture from John 17:20-21. That passage includes a prayer that has long been the motto of the UCC, featured in versions of its logo and crest since the church’s founding.
“The prayer from Jesus says, ‘they that may all be one.’ We are not Jesus, so I changed it to we — it is also a prayer for ourselves,” Blackmon said, noting that it would be “the UCC way” for someone to ask why the prayer has been changed.
“I wanted it to be our prayer: ‘That we may all be one’ — on this floor — and that we might all be one with our partners outside of this floor, not just in the U.S., but globally.”
As she walked the staff around the space, Blackmon noted that it was still a work in progress, with delays in production of a few items due to supply-chain challenges, like the coat room doors and custom light fixtures. Much of the artwork has yet to be hung. The purpose, vision and mission statements have yet to be placed. And etchings of the crown and orb still need to go up on the doors leading from in the elevator.
But the space is more than functional and the executives couldn’t wait to familiarize the staff with their new digs.
The tour started in the executive conference room, named the Amistad. “The most common concern in this move,” Blackmon said, “is what about the Amistad?” She was referring to the chapel that opened in the former Church House in 2000.
Since the new floor isn’t large enough to recreate the worship space, elements of and the spirit of the Amistad have been incorporated into the new offices.
Etching of the ship will appear on the executive conference room doors, and key pieces from the Amistad Chapel — the inner wooden spoke of the communion table and one of the rings of prism lights that hovered above it — have been built into the new conference table and the room’s lighting system.
The Amistad Conference Room and five of the others are designated “Zoom rooms,” equipped with the latest technology. An iPad controls the large “magic info” screens, which instantly bring outside participants into the conversation. A whisper test proved that those who join by Zoom can easily hear sounds that even others in the room might miss. The monitors can also be programmed with video, graphics or other input from a computer hookup.
The UCC space is laid out from the outside walls in.
All of the offices that ring the perimeter of the space are open and airy, with large windows that overlook Lake Erie and downtown Cleveland. Their inner walls are also glass, with soon-to-be-installed privacy panels. The executive officers each have their own office, as do members of the legal and financial services teams.
The main staff lounge, with magnificent views of the lake looking north and east, has a vibrant west wall with a mural colorfully depicting the UCC’s beloved community, created by St. Louis artist Cbabi Bayoc. It brings justice issues to life, what it means to be UCC.
Closer to the center are office areas for support staff, mediation and museum space, a library, conversation and huddle areas, and a multi-screen, high technology conference room, named Mission Central.
Since the majority of staff members have chosen to be remote or hybrid employees, many offices are shared or designated as common ministry team work spaces.
The design team, aiming to create the best views for the most people, positioned a series of “daily use” benching stations up against a north wall of windows overlooking Lake Erie. These work areas, available for use by all staff on a first-come, first-served basis, all adjust to one’s comfort. The desktops rise to a standing level, and the chairs are ergonomically adjustable.
There are also “phone booths” for private calls, huddle rooms for small group conversations, group gathering spaces and conference rooms that can be reserved online or with a touch of a finger on a keypad outside the space.
Historic UCC neighborhood
John Dorhauer pointed out that his northwest corner office overlooks Cleveland’s Public Auditorium — the place in June 1957 where the United Church of Christ came to be.
He told a small group that stopped to greet him that he could see the very spot on East 6th Street where two columns of General Synod delegates met while parading towards each other in opposite directions. One column was led by James Wagner, president of the Evangelical and Reformed Church, the other by Fred Hoskins, president of the Congregational Christian Church.
The two presidents met in the middle of the street and shook hands, a symbolic act marking the formal union between the two denominations. A plaque still hangs in Public Auditorium commemorating that moment.
“I find it truly inspiring to look out my window every morning and gaze upon the spot where our founders met, shook hands, and in compliance with a Holy Spirit calling for unity in the church formed the very denomination I now lead,” Dorhauer said. It makes me so very proud, and stands among the many moments that have confirmed for me that we made the right choice in moving here.”
As Blackmon noted on Facebook as orientation began, “It’s been a long road … but the national setting will officially move into our new home — the Church House @ 1300! So grateful for John Dorhauer’s leadership and vision for this move and for trusting us with the process; for every member of the staff who held it all together in a world that feels like it’s falling apart — a staff that kept showing up to work and to witness and still managed to pack in between; a supportive Board who understood the need for change; a dynamic leadership team that prays together and hustles to make it happen — and a God who makes all things possible.”
“That we are here in this place today is undoubtedly one of this staff’s most successful, most complicated and beautifully executed collaborative efforts in the history of the United Church of Christ,” Dorhauer said. Everyone played a role. Everyone.”
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