NCCs Near-Death Experience
by Andrew Walsh
Those few journalists who traveled to the National Council of Churches 50th
anniversary celebration last November in Cleveland came prepared to write the
organizations obituary. Some were virtually scanning the horizon for vultures.
"On paper, its one of Americas 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 Ostlings story under the headline:
"At 50: Council of Churches faces woes; Some insiders wonder if it will survive, in
Never the most financially robust organization around, the Council, like the mainline
Protestant denominations that make up the lions 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 nations 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
Castros Cuba. Although noncontroversial programs to deal with global famine,
disaster relief, and refugee resettlement have always commanded 80 percent of the
organizations budget, the NCC has relished its self-appointed role as the
nations conscienceespecially 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 NATOs
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
This track record has made conservative Protestantsand many government
officialsinto 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 lions share of its
energy to left-wing political activism."
Kersten objected that the Councils 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 Koreas 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 Councils members are satisfied with the organizations 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
Churchs 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 NCCs central administration. The Rev. Bruce Robbins of the Methodist
ecumenical agency said the churchthe NCCs largest denomination and most
significant financial supporterwould 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 its not easy," said Robbins, who called for major
cuts in staffing and programs."
Ostlings 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 Councils administrative structure. It was symptomatic
of the Councils 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
Councils 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 youre also
trying to build it."
But during the Cleveland meeting the Councils 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 NCCs 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
Americas 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
activityat 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 APs Ostling. "Unless the
council begins to reconceptualize itself in some new ways, its 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 NCCs 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 nations Catholic
bishops has overlapped that of the NCC, its difficult to see how an organizational
successor could include a significant portion of the nations 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 Gonzalezs 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
planesa 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
Theologythe West Coasts major center of Methodist theological
educationwhen 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 Timess 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 NCCs 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 theres 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 nations 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
NCCs near-death experience received little press attention, presumably because
mainline Protestants are considered yesterdays news. But they still represent 20
percent of the American public. And they still operate close to the centers of power.