Spring 2000, Vol. 3, No. 1

Contents Page,
Vol. 3, No. 1


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: Wars of Religion

Charitable Choice and the New Religious Center

Religious Ironies in East Timor

Jesus, Political Philosopher

Faithless in Seattle? The WTO Protests

What's in a Name? The EgyptAir 990 Crash

Waiting for the Shoe to Drop

On the Beat: Condoms and Constitutions in Kenya

Letters to the Editor


The NCC’s Near-Death Experience
by Andrew Walsh

ncc_art.gif (180130 bytes)Those few journalists who traveled to the National Council of Churches’ 50th anniversary celebration last November in Cleveland came prepared to write the organization’s obituary. Some were virtually scanning the horizon for vultures.

"On paper, it’s one of America’s grandest religious alliances, representing 35 denominations with 50 million members and styling itself as ‘the primary national expression of the movement for Christian unity,’" Associated Press religion writer Richard Ostling reported on November 13. "If so, Christian unity is in trouble."

The Minneapolis Star Tribune carried Ostling’s story under the headline: "At 50: Council of Churches faces woes; Some insiders wonder if it will survive, in what form."

Never the most financially robust organization around, the Council, like the mainline Protestant denominations that make up the lion’s share of its members, has been cutting staff and budgets continuously for at least three decades.

But for most of this period, the NCC has shrugged off its financial weakness and instead emphasized its aggressively "prophetic" role, its responsibility to call the nation’s churches and government to work for peace and justice as the left wing of Protestantism understands those values.

Since the 1960s, that has meant a high-profile role in the civil rights movement, leadership on the establishment side of the anti-Vietnam War movement, close support for anti-apartheid campaigns in South Africa, and lobbying for better relations with Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Although noncontroversial programs to deal with global famine, disaster relief, and refugee resettlement have always commanded 80 percent of the organization’s budget, the NCC has relished its self-appointed role as the nation’s conscience—especially in foreign policy matters.

NCC delegations shuttled frequently to Central America in the 1980s, and made dramatic last-minute missions to Saddam Hussein in Baghdad and to Belgrade just before NATO’s bombs began to drop on Serbia. At the Cleveland meeting, the religious highpoint was a church service attended by a group of Koreans seeking justice and compensation for an alleged massacre of Korean civilians by U.S. troops during the early days of the Korean War.

This track record has made conservative Protestants—and many government officials—into bitter critics. "The fact is, the NCC has carried water for the Castro regime for years," Katherine Kersten, director of a conservative, Minneapolis nonprofit organization, complained in a symptomatic op-ed piece in the Star-Tribune on January 26. "In recent decades the NCC has devoted the lion’s share of its energy to left-wing political activism."

Kersten objected that the Council’s outgoing secretary general, Joan Brown Campbell, had recently "announced a ‘litmus test for the faith community.’ Belief that Jesus is savior? No, support for the Kyoto Protocol, a heavy-handed international regulatory scheme designed to curb global warming. Predictably, on the domestic front, the NCC supports government run health care, affirmative action and bilingual education. Just as predictably, it opposes religious school vouchers and American sanctions on Iraq and refused to condemn Communist North Korea’s appalling human rights record."

The NCC, however, has preserved a loyal base of support, especially among the leaders of moderate and liberal Protestant denominations who like its commitment to stand on their principles. For example, the Rev. Davida Foy Crabtree, senior executive of the Connecticut Conference of the United Church of Christ, told the January 27 Hartford Courant that the Council’s members are satisfied with the organization’s leadership on most issues. "I believe there is a significant majority of people in all denominations who are hungering for the National Council of Churches to take leadership," she said. "And it is not leadership if the leaders all have to take a straw poll before they act."

However, while the NCC slugged it out in the public arena, its finances and administration slid toward chaos. In the late 1990s it drained financial reserves to meet budget deficits. Last fall, it announced to its member denominations that it faced a $4 million deficit in a budget totaling $70 million and asked members to contribute extra funds to meet the deficit.

The gravity of the situation was revealed in October. The United Methodist Church’s Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concern announced that, far from ponying up an additional contribution, it would withhold half of its regular payment for the NCC’s central administration. The Rev. Bruce Robbins of the Methodist ecumenical agency said the church—the NCC’s largest denomination and most significant financial supporter—would not release further funding until the council "arrived at a balanced budget and a viable financial plan for the future. That requires dramatic change and it’s not easy," said Robbins, who called for major cuts in staffing and programs."

Ostling’s AP piece of November 13 revealed that the NCC had been under pressure from the Methodists to cut back since early 1998. Jean Caffey Lyles of the Christian Century reported that more than half of the 1999 deficit turned out to be traceable to fees paid to the Pappas Consulting Group of Greenwich, Connecticut, to produce a plan to cut costs and consolidate the Council’s administrative structure. It was symptomatic of the Council’s administrative style that the consultancy, originally budgeted for $750,000 was eventually billed at $2.5 million. An additional $500,000 also had to be paid to a retirement fund to make up a missed payment earlier in the decade.

The Methodists’ decision to withhold payment was apparently motivated by the Council’s lengthy struggle to come to terms with its problems. Faced with a reorganization plan that called it to cut headquarters staff by one third, give functional independence to relief and resettlement services, collapse three program divisions into one, and devote 10 percent of its income to rebuilding cash reserves, the Council leadership seemed paralyzed.

An NCC press release on the financial crisis dated November 13 admitted that the "restructuring plan is so complex and fluid that no 2000 budget has yet been developed." Episcopal Bishop Craig Anderson, the NCC president, told reporters that the crisis made compiling a budget like "riding a bicycle while you’re also trying to build it."

But during the Cleveland meeting the Council’s members bit the bullet and adopted a drastic cutback of the Council administrative structure. And on December 14, the United Methodist Church turned the tap back on.

The NCC’s struggles were not simply the result of politics. Since the mid-1960s, the liberal and moderate Protestant denominations that constitute its main constituency have suffered significant losses in both membership and in the sense that they speak for America’s mainstream. "When mainline Protestantism gets a cold, the NCC gets pneumonia," Campbell told reporters in Cleveland.

She told Gustav Niebuhr of the New York Times that, like many of its member denominations, the NCC had to adjust to the unpleasant reality that "many Americans increasingly prefer to see their donations go to causes at a local level or to a specific need, such as help for victims of a natural disaster."

The NCC has also lost its place as the cutting edge forum for ecumenical activity—at least within American Christianity. Although much ecumenical progress has had its roots in activities and attitudes cultivated by the NCC, for the past decade or more most of the most dramatic advances have taken place as the result of bilateral theological dialogue between religious groups.

"We should evolve into some new organization, starting from the beginning," Bruce Robbins of the United Methodist Church told the AP’s Ostling. "Unless the council begins to reconceptualize itself in some new ways, it’s not going to survive many years in the future."

Richard Hamm, president of the Church of Christ (Disciples of Christ) and an active leader of the current rescue effort, described the NCC as "a product of where churches were 50 years ago." He said the organization is still necessary, but needs to reverse its goal. "Instead of seeking the assistance of denominations to fulfill its mission, it needs to help communions with their mission."

Campbell, who retired in December after nine years as the NCC’s top executive, told Ostling that the Council "needs a new structure" that will encompass the two major sectors of Christianity that have refused to enter the Council: evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics. While the social agenda of the nation’s Catholic bishops has overlapped that of the NCC, it’s difficult to see how an organizational successor could include a significant portion of the nation’s evangelicals without trimming its liberal sails.

Recent events suggest, however, that the NCC retains its taste and perhaps its genius for controversy. Last November it turned to the Rev. Robert W. Edgar, president of the Claremont School of Theology in California and a former U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania, to replace Campbell.

When an immense controversy exploded in January over whether Elian Gonzalez, the 6 year-old Cuban boy who survived a boat sinking off the coast of Florida, should be returned to his father in Cuba or placed in the custody of anti-Castro relatives in Miami, Edgar and the NCC swung into action.

At the invitation of the Cuban council of churches, Edgar flew to Havana and returned to the United States to make the case for returning the boy to Cuba. The NCC then chartered a jet to fly Gonzalez’s grandmothers to the United States, where their progress through New York, Washington, and Miami became a full-fledged media circus.

Sputtering conservatives wondered where the cash had come from to fly around in charter planes—a question as yet unanswered in the press. But the episode certainly demonstrated that the NCC still has good reflexes. It may also have found an effective leader in Edgar, who is credited with having revived the Claremont School of Theology—the West Coast’s major center of Methodist theological education—when it was virtually bankrupt in the mid-1990s.

And, indeed, Edgar shows no signs of leading his organization into a service role. "I think the number 1 thing churches have to do is stand for something," Edgar told the Los Angeles Times’s Teresa Watanabe on November 20. "We have to be willing to be risky and courageous. I want fewer votes and more action."

Those who favor the NCC’s reorganization and reorientation often cite the opportunity the Council has to regain national clout at the grassroots level by helping its member organizations take advantage of the "charitable choice" provision of the 1996 federal welfare reform act, which makes it possible for "faith-based" organizations to receive federal funding for social service activities while functioning as explicitly religious bodies.

Unlike evangelical Protestants, mainline and liberal Protestants have a tradition of social service provision and a substantial inclination to reach out to others through service. So there’s a strong base on which to build. The bitter pill for the NCC is that it opposed the welfare reform with maximal fervor. So its route to renewed vigor, and its most obvious shot at helping member denominations fulfill their missions, would require a very public climb-down on a morally freighted issue in order to better serve its members and the nation’s poor and disadvantaged.

Will the Council do it? Can it reinvent itself? Does it really want to? This is a tantalizing story about what remains a very significant American public institution. The NCC’s near-death experience received little press attention, presumably because mainline Protestants are considered yesterday’s news. But they still represent 20 percent of the American public. And they still operate close to the centers of power.