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NCC: Broke but still brokering

National | Theological bankruptcy came early for the National Council of Churches, but with a 1999 deficit of $6.4 million, financial bankruptcy can't be very far behind

Issue: "UNbelievable," June 17, 2000

If the National Council of Churches were a business, it would be bankrupt.

At last month's NCC governing board meeting in Washington, treasurer Phil Young, a Presbyterian minister, announced the 1999 deficit was about $6.4 million-more than a third higher than reported last November at the NCC's 50th-anniversary bash in Cleveland. Over the past decade, NCC managers have taken more than $20 million out of their reserves, all but depleting them. They even raided restricted funds, which must be repaid-if and when they all can be identified, and if the money can be raised.

Records were a shambles, some expenses could not be documented, funds were commingled, and staff resisted budget "compliance," the auditors reported in November. Joan Brown Campbell, who retired in December as general secretary, shouldered some of the blame. At the November general assembly, she argued that advocacy programs are more important than management details.

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"You are right that I value courage and imagination more than caution and efficiency," she said. "I said yes to things that others say no to, and I got us in deep water." A Boston financial and management consulting firm the NCC hired two years ago only made matters $2 million worse, NCC insiders say.

To cope with the red sea, the NCC board since November has reduced staff, frozen salaries, cut back programs, instituted stricter controls on spending, and consolidated office space at its 19-story "Interchurch Center" headquarters at 475 Riverside Drive in New York.

The 50-member board also appealed to its 35 member denominations ( 50 million constituents) for bailout grants. (Just seven of the member denominations have accounted for 90 percent of NCC member income for years.) As of late May, cash responses and conditional pledges amounted to nearly $2 million. Another $1.45 million came from Church World Service and Witness (CWSW); the relief wing of the NCC, but also its cash cow, is used increasingly of late to fund sundry "justice" and controversial advocacy programs. Cash and pledges together were still more than $2.5 million short of the bailout goal early this month.

The board also hired Robert Edgar, 56, a genial former six-term congressman from Pennsylvania and a United Methodist minister, to replace Ms. Campbell and stop the ship from sinking. He came from the presidency of Claremont School of Theology in California, which he had saved from going under.

The most pressing immediate challenge he and a new general manager, Barbara Black, face: meeting a $600,000-plus payroll every two weeks. Meanwhile, they have been conducting a "forensic audit" of their own to prepare for the arrival of Ernst & Young auditors this month. Mr. Edgar told WORLD they've found "no evidence" of fraud or embezzlement, but he wouldn't have agreed with some of the spending decisions by the previous administration.

Total NCC income in 1999 was about $77 million, $62 million of it generated by the CWSW cash cow, including nearly $18 million in U.S. government programs. The governing board last month in Washington approved a budget for the next six months of $39 million, based on projected revenues of $41 million. It also addressed a long and bitter source of conflict within the NCC: It gave CWSW, which has its own board, complete control over its finances and policy decisions. Presumably, general secretaries no longer will be able to tap into it at will to fund spur-of-the-moment causes and trips.

Additionally, the board adopted a resolution to develop "a new ecumenical body" that by 2003, it hopes, will include Catholics, evangelicals, and Pentecostals. That could mean the death of the NCC as an organization, Mr. Edgar acknowledged to a small handful of reporters.

Mr. Edgar said he has no idea what shape the new body would have. He alerted Catholic officials and leaders of the National Association of Evangelicals about the proposal prior to the board's action, and he said he would meet with Southern Baptist leaders soon.

Many evangelicals have stayed away from the NCC partly because of its bent toward theological liberalism. So, wouldn't the envisioned new forum have to be somewhat muted as the price of togetherness?

Mr. Edgar said he would not want to see the "bigger table" based on an agreement to agree on just certain limited topics. "We do need a prophetic voice on some issues."

That could be the deal-breaker for the evangelical denominations, if they choose to consider the proposal at all.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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