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September 24, 2012


The National Council of Churches: Modern Fossil

The National Council of Churches is dying. It’s at least forty years too late, but its descent from Protestant/Orthodox ecumenical agency to the religious wing of the Democratic Party to institutional collapse has been inevitable. Jeff Walton of the Institute on Religion and Democracy reports on the latest information, and the latest efforts to prop up the Potemkin Village:

One year after officials with the National Council of Churches (NCC) described “a perfect storm” hitting the ecumenical body, the NCC board has drastically cut staff, budget and the scope of the council’s work. Salvaging the once-prestigious NCC was described as an effort to return the council to “the leading edge of ecumenism,” while the few remaining staff are being styled as “theologically trained community organizers.”

I have to admit that I laughed out loud when I read that last line. Maybe their staff is thinking of running for president some day. One also has to wonder why any of the council’s constituent denominations would think something worth paying for.

The NCC, which counts the United Methodist, Episcopal and Presbyterian (U.S.A.) churches among its members, once employed hundreds of staffers at its Manhattan headquarters. Today, the council has shrunk to a dozen fulltime and a handful of part time and contract employees with a budget of just under $3 million.

Representatives of 19 of the council’s 37 member communions (denominations) voted without opposition to adopt the recommendations of a restructuring task force during the September 17-18 meeting in New York. The restructuring has been forced by steep drops in foundation funding paired with eroding contributions from member churches and swift draining of financial reserves, climaxing with a budget shortfall in excess of $1 million this year alone.

Like the previous gathering in May, much of the meeting was closed in executive session. The lack of transparency in discussing implementation of the plan contrasts to the mostly open meetings held under past NCC General Secretary Michael Kinnamon.

The open sessions of the September meeting spent little time on programmatic work or advocacy, with the council now seemingly focused upon self-preservation.

Maybe they could coat the whole institution in amber. That would certainly preserve it. Jeff mentions foundation grants, which became a chief source of funding under previous General Secretary Bob Edgar and continued under Kinnamon for a while. Essentially what they amounted to was the NCC going around begging to various left-wing foundations, which would then fund the council as yet another voice for the cause. In the 2007 IRD publication Strange Yokefellows, Alan Wisdom and John Lomperis offered a look at that foundation funding, which was a lot more than the denominations paid to keep the organization going. Among the grantors from 2004-05 were:

•$344,514 from the National Religious Partnership for the Environment
•$300,000 from the Knight Foundation
•$225,000 from the Tides Foundation
•$150,000 from the Ford Foundation
•$141,450 from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation
•$100,000 from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund
•$85,000 from the AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons)
•$80,000 from the Wyss Foundation
•$60,000 from the Sierra Club
•$50,000 from the Connect US Network

Much of this money went to various forms of political advocacy. That money is now drying up, just like the NCC.

According to NCC Transitional General Secretary Peg Birk, the council has redistributed the work of nine employees over the past year, with seven staff departing since May. Many of the departing staff were longtime fixtures at the NCC, having over 100 years of combined work with the council. The most recent departures were the third major round of layoffs at the NCC since 2007.

Displaying staff flow charts from 2011 and today, Birk said they made for a “powerful visual” of staff reductions over the past year.

“The reductions in staff and shrinking revenues have also impacted the capacity to provide the level of staff support some Commissions, Committees and Working Groups have come to rely upon,” Birk wrote in her report to the council. The NCC reorganization, she described, was like moving to develop a new “energy efficient home” from an historic cathedral. Staff, Birk wrote, were bogged down with “elaborate governance processes” and bureaucracy like a complex accounting system “indicative of the way the NCC has done business in the past” with 120 programs and 90 funding sources for a budget of under $3 million.

Gee, it sounds just like the kind of federal government the NCC has advocated for years. Not working out too well for you, huh?

The lack of church support for the council in recent years has been a sore subject at the NCC: in the last fiscal year, only 21 of the NCC’s 37 member communions gave any gift to the council, with several contributions only token amounts. Five churches have given nothing in the past decade. Gifts to the (unrestricted) Ecumenical Commitment Fund are expected to continue dropping from $1,035,033 last year to a budgeted $900,000 this year.

“It matters to [foundation] funders if members are contributing at 100 percent,” Birk explained, noting that some perspective donors balked at financing programs when member churches were not already doing so. The NCC was over $100,000 short in expected foundation funding in 2011-12, dropping from a budgeted $700,000 to $596,500. The council has received $180,000 towards a more modestly budgeted $400,000 expected level of foundation support this year.

That’s in contrast to the $2.9 million that the NCC got from foundations in 2004-05.

In other words, it became apparent to the donors some where along the way that the NCC didn’t actually speak for 45 million church members. In fact, the NCC staff and leadership spoke for no one but themselves. As a consequence, their own constituents have refused to pay for political advocacy with which they did not agree, or at least had not signed on for when the joined the council. The NCC was supposed to be about ecumenism, after all, not about a collection of theologically-trained dilettantes playing Model Congress and trying to recreate their college years in the 1960s. The result was the downward spiral in evidence today.

The NCC has toyed in the past with the possibility of a minimum contribution from member churches, but the council has been reluctant to apply such a policy to its constituency of churches, many of which are financially strapped themselves.

Their reluctance can also be explained, I’m sure, by their unwillingness to suffer the humiliation of having so many of the NCC’s denominations tell them to pound salt.

Also mentioned was the possibility of the NCC’s New York office relocating to smaller quarters, or even merging with the Washington office housed within the Capitol Hill United Methodist Building.

Hey, maybe they could move to some place cheaper like, I don’t know, somewhere in fly-over country. I know it would be a tremendous burden on the NCC staff to have to live with the Great Unwashed in some backwater like Fargo or Wichita or Mobile.

Hey, wait. I’ve got just the ticket for them. They want to be “theologically trained community organizers”? How about here:

I’m sure Chicago Public Housing could give them some great rates.

ADDENDUM: In addition to the information provided by Jeff Walton, the NCC has put on its web site a document entitled “Final Report of the Task Force on Re-envisioning and Restructuring the NCC to the Executive Committee & the Governing Board.” It is revealing.

The vision that drives this proposal is a shared commitment to a transformed and transforming NCC through which the churches and other partners seek visible unity in Christ and work for justice and peace.

So the council will continue to be heavily involved in political issues that alienate it from its denominational partners.

We en-vision a future in which the NCC focuses on three integrated areas of work:
· Theological study and dialogue
· Inter-religious relations and dialogue
· Joint action and advocacy for justice and peace
Cross-cutting work on education, formation, and leadership development will enhance each of these core areas, and bolster the special role of the NCC within the ecumenical landscape for communicating the faith through education and scripture.

The first of these, long neglected in the attempt to influence Washington, will undoubtedly continue to be a distant third in terms of priorities. The second, oddly enough, isn’t “inter-denominational relations,” which would pertain to the NCC’s actual membership. This one, I suspect, mostly means various forms of political partnerships with Muslims. The third, of course, is the NCC’s real raison d’etre, as far as the leadership is concerned.

We en-vision a future in which the NCC is a convener of the churches so that together we might work toward visible unity in Christ and galvanize prophetic public witness through joint action and advocacy of the churches.

In other words, business as usual. “Visible unity” hasn’t been a significant goal for NCC in decades, and bi-lateral full communion agreements between denominations have become far more important than conciliar activities for achieving it. So we are left, as always, with politics. The authors furthered elaborated this in ways that would be embarrassing if they weren’t so silly:

Our work will be organized at overlapping tables that integrate our three-pronged focus and draw upon synergies with partners, especially local and regional ecumenism. NCC staff will be a small group of theologically trained community organizers who facilitate the work and serve as hubs and connectors, linking people, ideas, and resources. A rapid response table comprised of advocacy, policy, and communications staff from the churches will give the member churches a stronger voice in today’s public square.

Geez, who writes drivel like this? A “rapid response table”? Why does a church council—composed of people who, at least in theory, think deeper and more seriously about the world around them than your average political consultant—need with a “rapid response” anything?

We en-vision a future in which the NCC provides space through a periodic assembly for the churches to deepen relationships; to discern strategic, time-limited priorities; and to define specific goals, outcomes, and timelines for collaborative action and advocacy for justice and peace.

Politics, again. As for the first two, supposedly the NCC was about those things all along.

We en-vision a future in which the NCC is financially sustainable. A formula will be developed so that every communion is able and will be expected to financially support the NCC to be considered a member.

If they actually follow through with that last item, expect the membership of the council to shrink drastically in the next several years.

We en-vision a future in which the NCC is enriched and emboldened through stronger partnerships. Strategic partnerships and collaborations with others will be a given in all that we do. New categories of affiliation for partner organizations, congregations, interfaith partners, and local and regional ecumenical bodies and leaders will be created. Crucial conversations with other leading ecumenical bodies in the US will continue. Beyond existing member communions – legacy members as it were – membership will be open to all churches that are national in their presence, and who profess Jesus Christ as the Son of God and Savior as revealed in the Bible.

Translation: we need to enlarge the donor base, STAT!

The document then goes into its “implementation strategy,” and I think all you really need to know here is the headings: Organizational Structure, Governance, Membership and Partners, Financial Sustainability, Location. In other words, the key to saving the NCC as an institution is to re-arrange the deck chairs. Good luck with that.


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1 comment

Oh no!!  Who’s going to shine Robert Mugabe’s shoes now?!

[1] Posted by Jeffersonian on 9-24-2012 at 09:08 PM · [top]

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