Magazine article The Christian Century

From Gotham City to Capitol Hill

Magazine article The Christian Century

From Gotham City to Capitol Hill

Article excerpt

The National Council of Churches, long strapped for cash, is leaving its costly digs in Manhattan and consolidating with a slimmer staff in a Washington, D.C., office within walking distance of two branches of the federal government.

Therein lies a tale of church leaders who sought to wield moral influence from the high-rise "God Box" in New York but have shifted to the triangle-shaped United Methodist Building, said to house the only nongovernmental offices on Capitol Hill.

"The critical NCC policy work can be coordinated from any location," said Peg Birk, transitional general secretary of the council, "but to be the prophetic 'voice of the faithful' on the ground in the places of power, it is best served by establishing our operations in Washington."

The Interchurch Center at 475 Riverside Drive was envisioned in the 1950s as "the Protestant Vatican on the Hudson." Philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, an American Baptist, was influential in its planning and financing. President Dwight D. Eisenhower helped to break ground for the building in 1958, and it was dedicated two years later.

The National Council of Churches, made up of 37 member communions, occupied three floors of the Interchurch Center in the 1960s. Three denominations had their headquarters in the building, as did some church-related agencies. But amid antiwar protests, civil rights movements and sociocultural changes, the established churches in the late '60s saw the start of a long decline in church memberships.

When the God Box was rededicated in 2010, the NCC had gone through a series of downsized budgets. Michael Kinnamon, then NCC general secretary, said the building never became a Protestant Vatican. He and other Protestant ecumenists welcomed Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Jewish and Muslim neighbors

in the building. With the NCC's 2011-12 budget showing a $1.1 million deficit, which was covered by shrinking reserve funds, council officials framed new program priorities, cut staff and reduced spending. A key report last year rejected a management style that it termed rigid and outmoded in favor of one that was "agile, integrated and flexible."

On February 13, executives announced that the NCC will relocate most of its staff to Washington--a staff that had six fewer administrative employees and that reflected other personnel cuts made last year. Three satellite offices will remain in New York in other facilities for two associate general secretaries, Joseph Crockett and Antonios Kireopoulos, and a third person, Ann Tiemeyer, program director of women's ministries.

NCC president Kathryn Lohre, while expressing reverence for the council's history "in the beloved God Box," said that consolidation at its existing office in Washington "will enable us to witness more boldly to our visible unity in Christ, and work for justice and peace."

The move will yield $400,000 to $500,000 in annual savings, according to Birk. The NCC Washington office-which has been in the United Methodist Building for at least 28 years--occupies a ground-floor suite at 110 Maryland Avenue, an annex around the corner from the Methodist entrance at 100 Maryland Avenue.

Birk will join Cassandra Carmichael, who directs the NCC's Washington office and a task force on environmental ministries, and Shantha Ready Alonso, director of the NCC's poverty initiative. Birk said outside vendors will be hired to provide office, accounting, communications and other services.

"I've long urged the NCC to consolidate their offices in our building, and I'm pleased they have finally done so," said Jim Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society, in an e-mail interview. …

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