UMAction Briefing HomepageMark Tooley
Institute on Religion and Democracy



Amid skepticism from even some of its liberal supporters about its future, the nation's oldest and largest ecumenical church council is still struggling to survive financially and to prove its continued relevance.

At its February executive board meeting in New York, the National Council of Churches strove to develop a budgetary recovery plan in the wake of last year's nearly $4 million deficit. Outgoing general secretary Joan Brown Campbell retired in December, leaving the NCC in financial turmoil. New general secretary Bob Edgar, a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania, proposed sharp cut-backs in the NCC's non-relief spending.

"I don't know how to revitalize an organization completely," Edgar admitted to the NCC's board, which represents 35 Protestant and Orthodox denominations. "I don't know how to start from scratch." A United Methodist seminary president subsequent to his political career, Edgar was hired by the NCC for his fundraising prowess.

To compensate for last year's budget deficit, Edgar is seeking $2 million in additional giving from member denominations, including an expected $700,000 from the United Methodist Church, and lesser donations from Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans. And he is extracting additional funds from Church World Service (CWS), the NCC's relief agency, which is increasingly resentful of its role as cash cow for the declining NCC..

Although Edgar seems to bring more administrative skill to the NCC, he signaled he will follow his predecessor's left-leaning political agenda. The NCC board identified conventional liberal causes for its political focus this year, while approving the addition of an openly homosexual church leader to one of its Standing Committees for perhaps the first time.

Conservative Orthodox churches have prevented the NCC from inducting as a member denomination the predominantly homosexual Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (UFMCC). But at this meeting, the NCC Nominating Committee announced it had selected an UFMCC official to serve on the NCC's Standing Committee for Inclusiveness and Justice. Church leaders from non-member denominations are permitted to serve on Standing Committees. The nomination did not require ratification by the Executive Board. No board member who was present protested the inclusion, although nearly all NCC church bodies refuse to ordain practicing homosexuals into the ordained ministry.

Instead, most attention was given to the budget. The NCC's non-relief budget for 2000 will be at least 41 percent less than last year and 26 percent less than 1998. Although the total budget for this year is for over $71 million, only $8.4 million of it will be for non-relief activities. Over $21 million will come from the U.S. Government, mostly for refugee resettlement through CWS. But over $3 million in federal dollars are also reserved for the NCC's participation in job training through Americorps. Less than $9 million will come from member denominations, with the balance coming from corporate and community appeals. The most popular example of the latter is the "Crop Walk," in which thousands of American church members walk annually to raise dollars ostensibly targeted to alleviate world hunger through CWS.

The better funded and more popular CWS has long chafed at its subordinate position within the NCC. Unusually, CWS board chairman Patrick Mauney, an Episcopal priest, openly lamented that CWS is being compelled to pay $1.4 million towards recovery from last year's NCC deficit. (Funds remaining from the Burned Churches Fund for the reconstruction of destroyed black churches, totaling $138,000, will also be applied towards that deficit.)

Mauney noted that CWS relief programs, including $200,000 from the Blanket Fund, will suffer from having to make this payment. He expressed hope that the coming year, with new leadership at both NCC and CWS, will bring a less "contentious" relationship between CWS and the NCC leadership. This year, CWS is compelled to give $3.5 million from its own revenue towards the NCC's general budget, plus another $350,000 to subsidize the NCC's Washington, DC lobby office.

What the NCC will be saying politically through its lobby office was the subject of some conversation. The board affirmed its priorities this year will include advocating a "Jubilee" forgiveness of all Third World government debts to Western banks and governments, advocating a higher minimum wage, advocating increased Food Stamp spending, advocating increased gun control, and focusing on AIDS in Africa. Specifically, the NCC is endorsing demonstrations in Washington, DC, this Spring regarding debt forgiveness and gun control.

The NCC board also endorsed an economic boycott against the state of South Carolina because its state house continues to fly the Confederate battle flag. And the board approved a boycott against the Adams Mark Hotel chain because of alleged discrimination against black customers.

Edgar told the board that the NCC's best lobby efforts take place not in Washington, DC, but within the NCC's member communions. He urged the NCC to frame its political agenda as "how do we care for the planet in terms of children."

He talked briefly of the NCC's involvement in the campaign to return little Elian Gonzalez, a six year old refugee boy, to Cuba. Edgar boasted that the NCC's press conference for Elian's visiting grandmothers was the largest media event ever held at JFK Airport in New York.

Expressing hope that the Elian case will lead to an end for U.S. trade sanctions against Cuba, Edgar quoted the Scripture verse: "A little child shall lead them." When the U.S. ends its embargo, maybe no more children will have to board little boats to leave Cuba, Edgar opined. He seemed to ignore the fact that Cuban refugees have to escape Cuba on dangerous boats by night not because of the U.S. trade embargo but because Fidel Castro's dictatorship refuses to allows its people to travel freely.

Edgar's naivete about Cuba was emblematic of the overall surreal atmosphere that surrounded the NCC meeting. The outdated causes of 1960's activism continued to predominate, even as the NCC sought to prove its relevance for the 21st century. Federal funding, and the accumulated moral and financial capital of decades past, will sustain the NCC for some years to come. But for most of the supposed 55 million church members who belong to NCC member denominations, the NCC's relevance ended years ago.

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