National Council of Churches Death Watch

The announcement yesterday of wholesale staff cuts at the National Council of Churches writes another sad chapter, perhaps the next to last, in the recent history of this once-proud organization. Even with a strategic plan in place the next meeting of the General Assembly might better be billed the death watch because the layoffs send a signal the Council is on its last legs regardless of plans on paper. Why anyone thinks support will be forthcoming in the future escapes me.

The reasons for the financial crisis are many. Whether a “nuclear” action of this magnitude was necessary is debatable, but it’s done. I regret the dislocation and career disruption staff will go through. Having survived one of these episodes myself I know the trauma firsthand but I also know they will survive and prosper perhaps finding even more meaningful landing places.

At first, I thought it might be interesting to recount how the Council got to this stage of near death. But not today. Instead, what haunts me is the inability of the leaders of the mainline communions that make up the Council to find a compelling purpose, energizing vision and motivating rationale for the ecumenical movement. It’s not as if there’s a lack of matters where faith intersects with crushing human dilemmas and could inform responsible action. A child dies every thirty seconds of malaria, a disease that has been eliminated in the wealthiest nations but plagues the poor of sub-Saharan Africa. The war in Iraq saps the life blood of U.S. youth and Iraqis and squanders treasure. As recently as yesterday, the nations of the world didn’t rise to the occasion and pledge the amounts desired by the Global Fund to combat the diseases of poverty. And the list goes on and on.

These aren’t merely public policy issues, they’re places where faith and policies intersect and they define who we are as a global community and how we in the Christian faith community view our moral responsibility to live our faith. And the fact that the Council is pulling back from staffing them is revealing. The lack of vision is clear. We leave it to rock stars and megachurch pastors to call us to be our best and challenge us to exert influence on behalf of the dispossessed, powerless and poor.

In a media saturated world the Council has lost its voice, and more telling, no one is listening to it anymore.

Of course the leaders of the Council are morally alert, sophisticated and committed. Their intentions are the best. And they struggle with harsh financial challenges in the Council and in their own communions. But as foundations, corporations and other groups are seeking partnerships in unprecedented ways to design actions on a global scale, the Council has fiddled with the strings of reorganization, focused on its internal concerns and the world moved on.

On a personal level this pains me because I, as many other staff colleagues, have literally put my life on the line to tell the stories of the Council’s mission to end hunger, fight poverty, bring peace and assure justice. But on a bigger stage, the absence of a meaningful progressive witness for peace, justice and equity leaves a hole in the public dialogue that distorts the full character of the Christian voice. We leave it to others to shape perceptions of the world and how we can change it for the better.

But looking in the rear view mirror doesn’t get you to the future. So, I’m casting my gaze in a different direction. What was, is past. What can be, lies ahead. New partnerships, new ways of acting, new formats for global change await. If the voices of the future are Bono and the two Bills, well, so be it. The road ahead looks exciting and there is energy around every corner. Those who take up the challenge and run the risks will, I think, find abundant life. And those who don’t…well that’s up to them and to God.

2 Responses to “National Council of Churches Death Watch”

  1. Gary Aknos September 28, 2007 at 12:19 pm #

    Here is the problem: Bob Edgar was more interested in being political than promoting a progressive, social witness to the point that the two were not compatible – and now the NCC is suffering. For instance, since the genocide was occurring in Sudan, Edgar was more interested in the media attention he might receive by protesting outside of the Sudanese Embassy than effecting real progress. Instead of leveraging faith groups to lobby the U.N. to take a stronger, active leadership role in Sudan, Edgar chose instead to use Sudan as a political football with President Bush. The U.S. has led the world on what little action has been done on Sudan, yet Edgar used Sudan to play a political game. All awhile, the other member communions said nothing to Bob about where his focus and energies would be best spent and how he might unify the communions under a common cause: Sudan. Now Edgar has left and the NCC is indeed dying because there is nothing to galvanize our ecumenical partnerships, nothing to build on and little resources to develop new programs. The average pew sitter in the mainline doesn’t even know what the NCC is or what they do – nor should they. The NCC has really done that much under Edgar’s leadership except play political games.

  2. admin September 29, 2007 at 10:01 am #

    I think the Council has been on the decline since the mid-80s. (1) Financial support has been dwindling for two decades. The cognate funding mechanism died a decade ago. (2) Leaders have not adjusted to the environment in which we live, namely, a communications environment that requires immediate attention and continuous storytelling. If you don’t do this people forget you exist. (3) General Secretaries before Bob Edgar tried to deal with the decline by command and control. (4) The Council has lacked visionary leadership, in my opinion, for decades. Time and again the organization attempted to re-structure its way out of its downward spiral but this only resulted in focusing internally and not on external mission. It is out of touch with the grassroots and has been perceived as being arrogant. Whether this is true or not, perception rules. (5) A prolonged attack by the right undermined public confidence, especially when the Council failed so miserably in its communications task. (6) The conciliar model of governance and participation isn’t suited for the fast-moving decision-making required in a rapidly changing world. Many mass membership organizations are experiencing decline due to structural constraints. (6) Perhaps this is simply part of the life cycle of an organization and it has to die before something new can be born.
    Bob Edgar inherited an organization in deep trouble. He gave it options, some of which you disagree with. But he extended its life and introduced a new funding model that current leadership apparently doesn’t accept but the problems existed long before he arrived.

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