Church Council Approaches Financial Abyss

A much-trumpeted financial turn-around for the financially flailing National Council of Churches (NCC) turns out to have been ephemeral.

The half century old ecumenical group, once the premier voice for mainline Protestantism, would appear once again to be on the verge of collapse, according to data released at its November 2002 General Assembly in Tampa.

Always a leading component of the Religious Left, the NCC’s implosion would possibly mark the symbolic end of liberal Protestantism’s ascendancy in 20th century America.

Despite massive staff cuts that have reduced the NCC down to just 35 employees, the NCC ended fiscal year 2002 with a deficit of $762,177. Fiscal year 2001 saw a deficit of $2,152,792. The NCC’s total annual budget is about $5 million.

NCC General Secretary Robert Edgar took office in 2000 pledging to restore the NCC to financial solvency. But he seems largely to have failed so far.

The NCC is now down to unrestricted assets of $514,024, which means the NCC probably could not survive another year at current rates of spending. Fiscal year 2003 shows the NCC is already $730,000 behind in expected income.

This news may be surprising to some, after the NCC loudly announced in August that it was "back in the black," thanks in part to a $500,000 grant from the Lilly Foundation. According to Edgar at that time, the NCC was in its healthiest financial state in the past 12 years.

The NCC includes 36 mostly Protestant denominations in the U.S. Many of its member churches contribute little to nothing to its budget. The bulk of its financial support comes from the United Methodist Church and Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Edgar has showcased broader ecumenical cooperation with Roman Catholics and Evangelicals as a sign of the NCC’s turn around. The initiative, called "Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A.," includes several Catholic bishops, the head of the Salvation Army, and a few Pentecostals.

But the initiative, whose third meeting will convene in January 2003, seems not to have created any new major funding sources for the NCC.

Critics of the NCC have long declared that the NCC’s preference for left-leaning political causes over traditional Christian ecumenism has contributed to its long decline in influence, funding and staff.

That critique is supported by the statement approved by the NCC General Assembly called After September 11, 2001: Public Policy Considerations for the United States of America. It is largely a critique of President Bush’s policies over the last year.

The statement alleged a "rise of militarism" under President Bush. It castigated Bush for rhetorically dividing nations between camps of "good and evil."

"Demonizing adversaries or enemies denies their basic humanity and contradicts Christians’ beliefs in the dignity and worth of each person as a child of God," the NCC complained.

The war on terrorism has "sacrificed" principles of "justice, fairness and accountability," the NCC alleged. "We are deeply disturbed by U.S. efforts to???seek security through military might and threat of war."

Seeking security through "acts of revenge and warfare," the U.S. has "encouraged an escalation of violence in many parts of the world," the NCC fretted. The church council even employed the opportunity to take a swipe at National Missile Defense, complaining of the "U.S. military reach to outer space."

The NCC also slammed increased U.S. military spending overall, which jeopardizes "economic, social and cultural rights at home and abroad." It then went on to chastise the U.S. for decreasing support for the United Nations, refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol and Landmine treaty, withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, "selectively" implementing UN Security Council resolutions, and "disregarding" the Geneva conventions when incarcerating "those captured in Afghanistan" at Guantanamo.

"Increasingly. . . many in the world perceive us as gaining advantages for ourselves at their expense," the NCC opined about the U.S. under President Bush. But perhaps it could have employed identical language to describe its own situation. Even most liberal Protestants seem unmoved by the NCC’s impending collapse and unwilling to forestall it with new infusions of funds.

Many in the bureaucracies of the mainline denominations, which long sustained the NCC even when local church support for it faded long ago, have now realized that the NCC no longer serves even their purposes.

Of course, not everybody has gotten this message. When the NCC delegates were discussing their post-September 11 statement, United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert insisted that it mention the NCC speaks for 50 million Americans. This figure once represented the combined total memberships of the NCC’s member communions.

But when speaking politically, the NCC rarely spoke for more than a fraction of its claimed constituency, the vast majority of whom will not notice when and if the NCC finally shuts down.