comments powered by Disqus
September 21, 2012
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."
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.
“There is a real urgency we have felt in the last few months,” NCC president Kathryn Lohre described.
Death by 1,000 Cuts?
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.
“There is an urgent need to move faster than a glacial pace,” Birk assessed in commending the task force’s suggested plan to the governing board.
Governing Board Changes
Council staff may not be the only ones to see cuts. In November, the governing board will vote on an implementation plan that is likely to shrink the size of the governing board itself down to just heads of communion. Task force members argued this would restore the board to a governing, rather than management, role. Also on the table is the possibility of creating dues structures for new categories of affiliation.
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.
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.
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.
The taskforce report lists three areas for the council to focus its work upon: theological study and dialogue, inter-religious relations and dialogue, and advocacy for “justice and peace.” Of the three, the council’s staff reorganization heavily favors advocacy. While most finance, development and administration employees are now gone, the advocacy-focused Washington office lost only one staffer. Most who remain have an “Eco-Justice” focus, hinting that remaining grants from secular foundations are mostly tied to environmental advocacy.
At times, explanations of the restructuring scheme’s effects strained credulity. Anticipating questions about a diminished role for education, formation and leadership development in the restructure, the taskforce argued that the three were in fact “strengthened, and made more central” by being spread across the new structure. Left unsaid was that the three areas would no longer be priority items or command dedicated staff time, as they had in the past with their own NCC commission.
The NCC governing board is expected to vote on an implementation plan based on the taskforce report at their November meeting in Washington, D.C.
The Institute on Religion & Democracy
1023 15th Street NW, Suite 601, Washington, DC 20005-2601
P: (202) 682-4131 F: (202) 682-4136