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NCC Nears Financial Collapse?Barton GingerichSeptember 22, 2011
Association of Ecumenical Employees, NCC and Church World Service union, silently protest at the NCC board meeting. (Photo credit: IRD/Barton Gingerich)
The once influential National Council of Churches (NCC) may again be approaching possible financial collapse.
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Presiding Bishop told the NCC’s September board meeting: “We have 18 months sustainability.” All voting NCC board members were scrambling for “immediate sustainability,” mostly behind closed doors as they discussed the NCC’s audit and budget. Further highlighting the crisis was an interruption of the meeting by placard waving union employees distressed over benefit cuts to NCC staffers.
At its meeting at the famous “God Box” headquarters on New York’s Upper Westside, the NCC board struggled over how to survive its already tight finances in a difficult economy. Representing over 30 denominations, the declining ecumenical organization has wrung its hands over finances for over a decade. But this latest threat may bring it closer than ever before to the precipice.
NCC member denominations, many of them losing members, like the United Methodists and Presbyterian Church (USA), continue to reduce their contributions. For instance, the UMC reduced from giving $543,265 last year to offering $ 442,404 this year. Some members like the Greek Orthodox Church and historic black denominations continue to give nothing or token amounts. The Orthodox Church in America, for example, contributed a mere $1,000 to the ECF Fund. Now, private donors are reducing contributions too.
IRD had a hard time gaining access to the specifics of NCC’s latest financial straits. Whenever discussing the audit, the NCC board went into “executive session” barring most NCC staff and all outside observers. These closed-door meetings generally stretched longer than scheduled. No doubt much time was spent on details of the NCC’s needed “streamlining.” The organization’s status reflects that of several member communions; as one African Methodist Episcopal representative bluntly reported: “I don't know about the rest of you, but all I've been hearing from our denominations is 'Cuts, cuts, cuts.'” Trimming staff is proving to be one of the most painful experiences for the ecumenical movement.
Eventually, some important information rose to the surface as NCC President Rev. Peg Chemberlin and Women’s Ministry director Rev. Ann Tiemeyer both mentioned losing a million-dollar donor. Since last year’s budget was around $4 million, this cut is quite significant. Even the Aetna Corporation’s starter grant of $25,000 offered little encouragement.
At one point, the board broke up into small table groups to propose solutions to these besetting toils. One table, headed up by Bishop Mark Hanson and United Methodism’s Betty Gamble, even recommended the NCC take a “jubilee.” Under this plan, the NCC would withdraw from public activities and focus on fundraising. Many delegates pointed out that such a recess would negate any reasons for donors to contribute. General Secretary Michael Kinnamon confessed: “I will mention that sometimes in the middle of the night I lament.”
Accentuating the tension was an interruption by the NCC staffers’ union, the Association of Ecumenical Employees, which marched into the board meeting waving placards. Ironically, the pro-union NCC has been trying to reduce retirees' health benefits with its own union. It seems that contract negotiations have lasted nearly eight months, prompting distressed unionists to conduct their silent interruption, after which they quietly marched out.
Amid the troubled finances, both Kinnamon and Hanson advocated the NCC rediscover its theological identity. As NCC President-elect Kathryn Lohre suggested, “It would be wise to see if we're going through some kind of purification for the greater good.” But there were no talks about sin and salvation. Instead, most voices emphasized traditional NCC liberal political themes. Staffer Jordan Blevins, for instance, led a peace litany that read, “We pray our children pursue peace-vocations.” Also, a Children’s Defense Fund’s representative met agreement when she urged members to “make sure the rich and powerful contribute their fair share.” In similar turn, female board members touted feminist activism while minority voices emphasized affirmative action.
Kinnamon and Hanson want the NCC to focus on poverty issues (i.e. mostly touting government programs) for the moment. Hanson observed; “You can talk abstractly about ecumenism or you can join with those causes that are furthering the kingdom of God now” like Sojourners and the “Circle of Protection” protest against government welfare and entitlement spending limits. Kinnamon went on to say that the “Circle” is “not a matter on which we can be divided or silent.” At the conclusion of the frayed and frustrated gathering, a Quaker representative exclaimed: “Some new thing was trying to birth among us today…the new fire is not just for the young people. It’s among us and it just needs to be captured.”
As senior NCC officials try to rally around traditional liberal political causes, many traditional Christians may ask what is so unique about such stances. If only offering a narrow set of political and economic policies, the NCC is merely slapping religious terms on liberal initiatives. Would the NCC’s removal from America’s religious landscape have any major consequence?
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