A task force of the U.S. National Council of Churches is "re-envisioning" the 62-year-old organization as a streamlined "connector" among its member churches and local and regional ecumenical partners.
Facing the realities of uncertain revenue streams and an ever-shrinking staff base, the task force has conceived a plan it hopes will usher in a "bold future" by placing far more reliance on the council's 37 individual member communions.
"The hope is that we will work more collaboratively together," said United Methodist Bishop Sharon Zimmerman Rader, a task force member who retired Sept. 1 as the denomination's ecumenical officer. "The ministry belongs to the churches; it doesn't belong to the staff."
The final report and proposal of the Task Force on Re-envisioning and Restructuring the NCC was adopted Sept. 18 by the governing board. A detailed implementation plan is not expected before the NCC's general assembly in November.
In general terms, the integrated work of the council will focus on theological study and dialogue, inter-religious relations and dialogue and joint action and advocacy for justice and peace.
"NCC staff will be a small group of theologically trained community organizers who facilitate the work and serve as hubs and connectors, linking people, ideas and resources," the report said.
Assisting that staff will be a "rapid response table comprised of advocacy, policy and communications staff from the churches" to provide member churches with "a stronger voice in today's public square." Partnerships with seminaries could help enhance theological work and offer ecumenical formation for next-generation church leaders, the report added.
New methods to maintain financial sustainability will be explored, and changes in governance will include an advisory "intergenerational think tank."
A strong emphasis will be placed on strategic partnerships and collaborations among current members, future church members and new categories of affiliation for various partners, including interfaith groups, individual congregations and local and regional ecumenical bodies.
Financial strategies for NCC plan
- Develop formula for members' financial support
- Create dues structure for affiliated members
- Use certain percentage of designated giving to support ministry of the whole
- Seek grants related to strategic priorities
Starting the process
The vitality of the council has been a long-time concern, and renewed discussions about its future began in earnest when the governing board met a year ago. Last November, the Rev. Michael Kinnamon announced his intention to step down as the council's top executive because of health concerns and Clare Chapman, a United Methodist and NCC staff member, was elected as an interim leader in January.
A 17-member task force - led by Kathryn Lohre, NCC president, and Jordan Blevins - was created in February and conducted weekly conference calls during the past six months. Peg Birk, a management consultant and lay member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, was hired in May as a transitional leader to work with the governing board and staff through December 2013.
Before the vote, Lohre praised the commitment of the governing board to the process and called upon its members to "affirm a shared vision so that we can move beyond the work of transition into the work of transformation."
Birk said that Kiwi Partners, an accounting firm, has developed a "very specific plan" to help the council with the process. She lauded the work of the NCC staff "during very difficult times" and especially noted Chapman's contributions.
"I don't think of the NCC as a boat that's rocking, but I do feel we have stabilized," she told the governing board.
Chapman, who joined the council in January 2007, previously had served with the United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns for 23 years.
After the vote, she told United Methodist News Service that the past year, including her time as interim leader was very challenging on a personal level as well. "Streamlining and staff reductions are so painful," she said.
Staff flow charts presented at the governing board meeting offered a startling contrast. The staff chart from July 1, 2011, showed 26 full-time NCC staff positions, one part-time staff, nine contract staff and two "seconded staff," paid by others.
The Sept. 1, 2012, staff chart has 12 full-time staff, one part-time staff, two full-time contract staff, two part-time contract staff and one staff position paid by others.
The council also had a $1.1 million deficit when the 2011-2012 fiscal year ended June 30 because of staff separation costs and lower-than-expected revenue, Chapman said. That deficit was covered by the NCC's dwindling reserves.
The current fiscal year, which started July 1, calls for a balanced budget of $2.84 million.
Chapman herself is "very hopeful" about the council's future direction, and she believes The United Methodist Church should be as well.
"The future of the council is improving monthly," she said. "We've just had a clear audit. This year will be a balanced budget."
United Methodist Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, the denomination's new ecumenical officer, shares that positive assessment. Swenson said she believes the council's governing board has clarity on the vision, focus and strategy and the commitment to go forward together.
"I think it is a real time of hope," she said.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or [email protected].