Michael Bell

[The Episcopal News] Episcopal Communities & Services (ECS) has hired the Rev. Michael Bell as director of housing and business development, a newly created position key to Bishop John Harvey Taylor’s vision to build affordable residential units on 25 percent of the diocese’s 133 church campuses.

“We are deeply grateful for the opportunity to provide choice and security to those with limited or no housing options,” said James Rothrock, president and CEO of ECS, a century-old diocesan institution that began as the former Episcopal Home retirement residence in Alhambra.

Bell – a former director at Pfizer and former senior spiritual care director PIH Health whose new work begins Aug. 1 – “has the heart, passion and talent necessary to succeed in this endeavor,” Rothrock said. “I am very pleased that he will lead this initiative on behalf of ECS and the diocese.”

Taylor concurs: “Michael brings just the right gifts to this ministry of uncovering possibility, building housing for our neighbors, and sustaining and building up our ministry centers, missions, and parishes. He’s a strategic thinker who’s brilliant with numbers – and these projects are always financially complex. But what stands out the most is Michael’s charism as a pastor. He connects deeply and empathetically with all who are in need. In this new ministry, he’ll be pastoring to those in our neighborhoods who need housing and those in our congregations with still unrealized potential for providing it. In doing so, he will help the Holy Spirit create new communities, over and over again.

“We’re deeply grateful to our colleagues at ECS,” Taylor said. “While they’ve shown incredible support for our housing projects, creating this position is truly an act of prophetic love.”

In his new post – fully funded by ECS – Bell will identify and support developments such as the $21 million St. Michael’s Apartments in Riverside, set for dedication July 24 to bless 50 units into which formerly unhoused and other very low-income residents moved earlier this year.

Similarly, 65 units of senior housing are nearing completion at Blessed Sacrament Episcopal Church in Placentia, and an August groundbreaking is planned for 66 more senior apartments at St. Joseph’s, Buena Park. The diocese is guiding some 10 additional initiatives planned for Episcopal churches in Anaheim, Claremont, Downey, Garden Grove, and Gardena, among others.

“Imagine at least a fourth of our churches providing financially sustainable sites of shelter and wellness for lower-income families, seniors, refugees, and neighbors who are most at risk of experiencing homelessness,” said Bell, whose new post makes him available to all congregations considering new builds in partnership with experienced developers. His new email is mbell@ecsforseniors.org.

“Envision these parish communities as thriving with life and hope,” he said, “occupying properties designed intentionally for inter-generational and inclusive mutual support as way of living out ‘love of neighbor.’”

Bell, 53, who holds graduate degrees in education and theology from Harvard University, adds: “Numerous studies inform us that the neighborhoods people live in, and particularly access to stable, safe, and affordable housing is one of the most influential social determinants of health and well-being.”

Bell’s new work at ECS is a homecoming, bringing him back on the team of Sharon Pewtress, ECS vice president of strategic growth and business development, for whom he worked for three years while chaplain at The Canterbury senior community, Rancho Palos Verdes.

Sharon Pewtress, vice president of strategic growth and business development at Episcopal Communities and Services (ECS) and Michael Bell, newly named director of housing and business development, are pictured at St. John’s Cathedral.

ECS Board Chair Cathy May said that during Bell’s years as The Canterbury’s first full-time chaplain, ECS became “very familiar with his compassionate leadership. Michael brings the depth and experience to merge the needs of parishes with the increasing need for affordable housing. As ECS celebrates its 100th year of service through housing and services for seniors of all income levels, we are honored to join Bishop Taylor’s initiative, and we are delighted that the Rev. Michael Bell will lead the charge.”

In 2016 Bell was named senior chaplain at Good Samaritan Hospital, Los Angeles, a longtime diocesan institution acquired in 2019 by PIH Health. Bell went on to coordinate spiritual care across the PIH Health network including hospitals in Whittier and Downey, serving until May 30.

Ordained a priest in 2011, Bell previously held lay ministry positions at Santa Monica’s St. Augustine by-the-Sea, L.A.’s St. John’s Cathedral, and New York’s St. Bartholomew’s parish, also assisting with project coordination for LGBTQ+ presence at the 2008 Lambeth Conference and 2009 General Convention. After ordination, Bell served the Episcopal Diocese of Kansas as a campus chaplaincy missioner on the bishop’s staff.

Previously, while employed at Pfizer, Bell was based at the pharmaceutical giant’s Manhattan headquarters from 2001 to 2006 before relocating to Santa Monica to take a senior management position through 2007. He first served as associate director of medical and academic partnerships and later held the title of director, Worldwide Organizational Effectiveness.

Bell said his new role “calls upon my prior consultancy and process facilitation skills as well as my experience as an Episcopal priest and my vocation as a chaplain. I am humbled to have been asked to help lead this long-term ministry mission and excited to be working again with Sharon and the ECS team in such purposeful collaboration with my diocesan colleagues, lay and ordained.”

Bell’s new work will bring him in contact with developers, service providers, interfaith advocates, and government leaders addressing the current crisis-level lack of affordable housing across the five and one-quarter counties within the diocese, where statistics indicate that at least 85,000 people are now unhoused.

Current responses include the Inside Safe measure of Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass, who has affirmed Bishop Taylor’s diocesan housing development commitment and pledged collaboration with city staff members.

Retired U.S. Air Force Col. William Rutley is among leaders who have endorsed Bell, calling him “as talented, wise and dedicated of a person as I have ever known. If you are looking to build an ‘A Team’ then Michael is your choice. … He is a natural facilitator and diplomat and is able to skillfully enable people to bridge their differences to achieve great accomplishments together. … In the Air Force, there is a statement of respect and trust that is given rarely: ‘I would be proud to have Michael Bell as my wingman any time.’”