Institute on Religion and Democracy
October 18, 2000
The new directors of the General Board of Church and Society endorsed a nominee to become their new general secretary at their October 2000 meeting in Washington, D.C. The nominee, Jim Winkler, openly opposes United Methodism’s stance against homosexual practice and same-sex unions. If confirmed, as expected, by the General Council on Ministries later this month, he is expected to continue the Board’s advocacy for liberal political positions on a wide range of issues.
In August the outgoing directors endorsed Winkler’s nomination in a special mail ballot. Initial reports did not mention any expected role for the new incoming directors, who were elected at the jurisdictional conferences this Summer. But after UMAction contacted Winkler for comment about a proposed news release that mentioned the lack of involvement by the new directors, Winkler said that in fact the new board would be asked to vote on his nomination.
At their October meeting, the new directors voted in a secret ballot. The exact tally was not announced, but the presiding bishop did say that Winkler had won. The General Council on Ministries is required by the church’s Discipline to confirm church agency chiefs. But the Council rarely if ever disagrees with the nominees selected by the respective agency boards.
Winkler has served on the staff of the Board of Church and Society for 15 years. His wife, Robin Ringler, is also a long-time staffer. She has announced that she will leave the staff in the near future, as rules prohibit church agency staffers from serving under the supervision of spouses.
In a comment for UMAction before the directors meeting, Winkler said: "If I am elected General Secretary of the General Board of Church & Society, it will be my responsibility to seek the implementation of the Social Principles and other policy statements of the General Conference on Christian social concerns. I intend to do that to the best of my ability. It remains my hope that I can work together with UMAction and all who follow Christ."
Winkler is listed on the pro-homosexuality Reconciling Congregations website as a supporter. He also has been active in the liberal Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA), for which he interned before joining the Church and Society staff. At the MFSA’s 70th anniversary celebration in 1997, Winkler excoriated the United Methodist Church’s hierarchy as “homophobic,” “turf conscious,” and guided by “small-minded values.”
The MFSA meeting in 1997 was held at a Capitol Hill church built on the site where former FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was born. In his speech, Winkler referred to a nearby plaque mentioning Hoover. He alleged that Hoover’s McCarthyite spirit was still very much alive within the United Methodist Church in the form of renewal groups such as Good News, the Confessing Movement and UMAction, whose presence was felt that very day in the same room, in an obvious reference to onlooking UMAction staff. Winkler said a Methodist bishop had once labeled MFSA “communist.” The present-day renewal groups “are descendants of that attitude,” Winkler lamented.
In that same speech, Winkler urged the MFSA to strengthen its demands for “social justice” within the United Methodist Church. Interestingly, he echoed suggested reforms from the very renewal groups he was criticizing, calling for an end to life-time bishops, and declaring that “institutional maintenance is the goal of the church bureaucracy.” He also warned that “church growth is a mantra of the [political] right.”
In his introductory speech to the assembled directors of the Board of Church and Society following their endorsement of him, Winkler was considerably more subdued than in his remarks to MFSA three years ago. He insisted that the Board remain a “strong prophetic voice with vision and power” within the church. The Board must be “dedicated to justice for all of God’s children,” he said, addressing the “root causes that create hunger and poverty.”
Noting the frequent criticism the Board incurs for its political activism, Winkler said people often ask, “Who paid you to speak for us?” He admitted that the Board’s task is frequently a lonely one. “Sometimes the unpopular word must be spoken,” he remarked. He specifically cited the Board’s opposition to the death penalty as one example of an unpopular stance among many church members.
Winkler promised the directors that they would be alerted when the Board is about to “provoke controversy.” He also promised to travel internationally; to expand the circulation of the Board’s monthly magazine, Christian Social Action, from 3,000 to 50,000; to “re-connect” with church leaders; to offer week-long internships at the Board for pastors; and organize “quality” annual events for annual conference leaders who want to “advocate for justice.” The first of these training events will be held next March.
Winkler made no reference to sexuality issues in his speech. The Board’s long-time opposition to the church’s teachings on homosexuality helped persuade 30 percent of the delegates at this year’s General Conference to vote for the Board’s outright elimination. But retired Bishop Joseph Yeakel, who briefly presided over the directors meeting, did make reference to homosexuality.
Citing the recent murder of a homosexual student at Gallaudet University, where the directors were meeting, Yeakel said that society’s negative attitude towards homosexuality can lead to violence. (Although he admitted there was no evidence that the Gallaudet student was killed because of his homosexuality.) “The General Conference had a hard time expressing grace on this issue,” Yeakel noted, trying to make a connection between the student’s murder and the church’s opposition to homosexual practice.
“The church is giving permission to what we don’t understand,” he alleged, warning of the toxic effect of “anti-gay slurs.” He noted that the “earliest struggle of the church was around boundaries. That will be your struggle.” Yeakel concluded: “When God took on human flesh it [God’s grace] was available to all.”
In references to other issues that the Board champions, staffer Jaydee Hanson alleged that Global Warming may have killed 100,000 people over the last three years. He called it “carbon aggression by the rich countries.” Another Board staffer, Jane Hull Harvey warned of the many deaths that result from “unsafe, back-alley abortions.” The Board belongs to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, which defends unrestricted abortion on demand. And Bishop Beverly Shamana of Sacramento, a new Board director, claimed that the lack of debt relief for Third World countries by Western governments and banks was killing 19,000 children every year.
The Board’s budget for 2001 will be nearly $5 million. Almost $2 million will come from local church apportionments. The remaining funds will come from rent received from the Board’s ownership of the newly renovated Methodist Building on Capitol Hill, and from drawing upon the Board’s investment portfolio. The Board has about $20 million in investments and assets.