The National Council of Churches: Is There Life after 50?

Article excerpt

THIS MONTH the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. and representatives of its 35 member communions will journey to Cleveland, the city of the NCC's founding in 1950, to celebrate (a few months early) its golden anniversary. But despite the upbeat tone of the 50th anniversary brochure and Web site, some church leaders are wondering whether the council is likely to survive for very long after the ambitious celebration and, if so, in what form.

The New York-based NCC will end the year with a deficit approaching $4 million--$3.987 million, according to one council report, in a budget of $68 million. Deficits are not new for the NCC, but this time it faces an especially severe crisis. Having repeatedly borrowed from reserve funds, its unrestricted reserves are now exhausted.

To retire the deficit, the council is asking denominations to make special one-time gifts totaling $2 million. It is also requesting a gift of $1.45 million from its largest unit, Church World Service and Witness, the relief organization which has its own funding streams and whose credit rating would enable it to secure a bank loan. With a budget of $54 million and staff of 267, CWSW dwarfs the rest of the council operations, which together have a budget of $14.3 million and 122 employees. At an October meeting, CWSW executive Rodney Page said that the request for $1.45 million is "on the negotiating table." How the remaining $537,000 of the deficit will be made up is not known.

Will the denominations come forward with the extra cash? The early signs are not promising. The United Methodist Church not only declined in October to consider giving an emergency gift to the council, but voted to suspend all financial support of the NCC, citing uneasiness with the NCC's debt load and financial operations. Though part of the United Methodists' $670,000 annual assessment for the year has already been paid, the remaining $342,919 will be withheld, at least for now.

The United Methodists appear to be turning the financial screws to force the council to face questions about its short-term survival, long-term viability and past management practices, and to force it to adopt a balanced budget. But United Methodists are not the only ones asking why the NCC should be bailed out if there is no evidence that the same sort of crisis--and another demand for funds--won't arise next year.

Bishop William Grove, ecumenical officer of the UMC's council of bishops, who had proposed making an emergency $700,000 donation to the NCC, said he hoped the suspension would be brief. But the church's ecumenical commission said funding will not be restored until it sees a credible plan for financial recovery. Among other things, the United Methodists want to see a recovery plan that includes:

* A budget and spending plan for the year 2000 with a surplus to rebuild operating reserves;

* A process for making needed staff cuts;

* A report on prior and proposed transition costs;

* A resolution of issues involving failures to comply with NCC financial policies and procedures;

* An assurance that church representatives will be able to receive and review the 1998 external audit; and

* A full report on the council's liabilities. The NCC's general secretary, Joan Brown Campbell, said, "We understand this suspension to be a prod to swift action."

NCC leaders are also under fire for planning, at a time of financial shortfall, a four-day event (budget: $764,500) to mark the anniversary, and for asking church bodies to kick in with extra gifts to help pay for it. Council staff say most of the cost is being underwritten by foundations, Cleveland business interests, NCC units that sponsor workshops, and participants' registration fees. Council spokesperson Randall Naylor said $500,000 in cash and pledges have come in, and 700 registrations (including both full- and part-time) are assured. …