NCC's golden parachute

National | Awash in red ink, the National Council of Churches provided a cushy "severance" package to the executive who had a hand in the organization's financial decline

Issue: "Abolition of C.S. Lewis?," June 16, 2001

The clean-up man for the financially troubled National Council of Churches has found a surprising source of red ink: his predecessor. NCC general secretary Bob Edgar reports unanticipated additional severance costs for 17 staffers axed in a downsizing move last year amounted to $90,000, and "the unbudgeted expenses of the previous general secretary's generous severance package added $95,000." That executive was Joan Brown Campbell, who retired at age 67 in 1999 and who was responsible for much of the disarray. NCC sources told WORLD "severance" isn't quite the right word. The full amount was $200,000, including $15,000 for moving, they said. The sources added, the Campbell package was "an off-budget deal" she and former NCC president Craig Anderson "initiated" despite the NCC's critical condition. The organization's condition was a hot topic of last month's meeting in Washington, D.C., of the NCC executive board. Members heard both bad and good news. The bad news was that the 36-denomination NCC was still running deficits, and further staff and program cutbacks were needed. The good news was that the bad news was not as bad as it could have been. The NCC was mired in mismanagement, questionable headquarters practices, and debt when it hired Mr. Edgar, a former Democratic congressman from Pennsylvania and United Methodist minister, in January 2000. His job: to straighten out the mess, balance the budget while trying to stave off total collapse, and lead the NCC into a more broadly redefined future. NCC leaders hope to interest the Catholic bishops, the Salvation Army, and some member denominations of the National Association of Evangelicals in pursuing ecumenical talks and projects. At the Washington meeting (the executive board is composed of several dozen denominational and other representatives), Mr. Edgar reported reduction of a $5.9 million budget deficit in 1999 to a deficit of about $730,000 for the year ending June 30. Revenues were pegged at $6,615,792, expenses at $7,346,373. The largest expense on his spreadsheet was "personnel" at $5,324,145. Four more staffers will be cut, two new positions will be left vacant, and further belt-tightening will be applied, he indicated. Mr. Edgar blamed income shortfalls on three factors: (1) The failure of member denominations to support the NCC adequately. One-fourth don't give anything at all, and about one-third give token amounts; two denominations provided the bulk of this year's giving of about $1.5 million: the United Methodist Church, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). (2) Withdrawal of U.S. government funding. A government-funded NCC program that closed in March 2000 handled recruiting for AmeriCorps, the domestic Peace Corps. The NCC was counting on the outgoing Clinton administration to cough up $200,000 to help with the shutdown, but the proposal got lost in the election shuffle, leaving the NCC with $155,000 in "unanticipated personnel costs." (3) Reluctance of foundations to entrust grants to the NCC, given the council's fiscal track record. Phil Young, who chairs the NCC's finance and administration committee, said an audit report would be ready in about 10 days, and "we are in compliance with all standards." He revealed the spreadsheet did not list some significant "off-budget amounts." They included $356,000 owed short term to Church World Service, the NCC's humanitarian arm that recently won its financial independence from the NCC, and another $1 million to be paid CWS over the next 10 years. In other news ...

  • Walking and following: Like some other liberal-controlled denominations, the United Church of Christ continues to shrink. Of the 327 congregations that have pulled out over the past decade, 41 left last year alone. Total membership, now reported at 1.37 million (average Sunday morning attendance is much lower), declined 14 percent in the same period. The rush to the exits has been on the increase since 1997, UCC officials say. The main reason they cite: the UCC's tolerance of the gay agenda, including active homosexuals in the pulpit. Also, they add, conservative pastors who graduated from non-UCC seminaries have growing influence. Congregations are autonomous; they can leave the denomination and keep their property without court fights. The pension board of the 831,000-member Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), based in Indianapolis, announced it will authorize medical coverage for domestic partners of unmarried employees, effective next January. About 3,100 people are enrolled in the church's health plan. It is the second denomination (after the United Church of Christ) to offer such coverage.
  • Back to basics: It began with a single church in western Pennsylvania drawing a line in the theological sand and challenging other congregations in the liberal-led Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to do likewise. Spontaneously, one by one in scattered locations, churches began responding, and soon a leaderless grass-roots "confessing church movement" was snowballing through the 2.5-million-member PCUSA. In the less than three months since then, more than 250 churches-including some of the denomination's largest ones-have taken their own stand. And the growth shows no signs of slowing down. Essentially, although wording may vary, the sessions (governing boards) of confessing churches reaffirm three core premises: (1) Jesus Christ alone is Lord of all and the way of salvation; (2) the Bible is God's revealed word, the church's only infallible rule of faith and life; and (3) God's people are called to holiness in all aspects of life, including sexual purity within the confines of marriage between a man and a woman. Many include in their resolutions a call to the regional presbyteries, national PCUSA agencies, and the General Assembly (the PCUSA's highest governing body, which meets annually) to join in the reaffirmations. Some threaten to withhold part of their giving if the denomination doesn't shape up. For Pastor Paul Roberts and congregational leaders at thriving 270-member Summit Presbyterian Church in Butler, Pa., the defeat of "Amendment O" is what spurred them to take the stand that spawned the movement. To them, the defeat represented the PCUSA's caving in to culture at the expense of biblical authority. The proposed constitutional amendment, approved by a thin majority at last year's General Assembly, would have barred PCUSA pastors from participating in same-sex unions. It failed in March to attract the votes of two-thirds of presbyteries needed for ratification. "We decided to stand up for what we believe," said Pastor Roberts, a Princeton Seminary graduate and former pastor of a predominantly African-American congregation in nearby Pittsburgh. It was time to address "some major theological problems at the national level." The reaffirmations were not aimed at splitting the denomination, he added. "The day we leave is the day they kick us out."
  • Benchmarks: Canada's Supreme Court ruled in an 8-1 decision May 17 that an evangelical university that requires students to refrain from "biblically condemned" practices, including gay sex, can train and accredit teachers for public schools. The case involved 2,800-student Trinity Western University, a school in British Columbia affiliated with the Evangelical Free Church of Canada. B.C.'s College of Teachers had refused to grant licensing powers to the school on grounds its graduates likely would promote discrimination against homosexuals. It failed to cite any evidence of bias among past graduates. The justices suggested the accrediting agency itself was practicing religious discrimination. Evangelical leaders hailed the ruling as the most important decision on religious freedom in Canada in years.
  • A bishop bounced: Lutheran bishop Paul Egertson, 66, is out of a job. Sort of. He was forced to resign last month as bishop of a 140-church southern California synod of the 5.1-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). Reason: He violated church policy by going to St. Paul, Minn., in April to help ordain Anita Hill at St. Paul-Reformation Lutheran Church. ELCA leaders said Ms. Hill, who has served as a lay pastor at the church for several years, is a lesbian living in a relationship with another woman. They had rejected the church's request to ordain her for that reason. ELCA policy permits homosexuals to serve in the ministry, but only if they remain celibate. The St. Paul church can face discipline ranging from censure to expulsion. ELCA Presiding Bishop H. George Anderson had begged the California bishop not to take part. But Bishop Egertson said he was conscience-bound to engage in disobedience to protest the denomination's policy. (Outspoken for years on gay-rights issues, he has a son who has studied for the ministry and lives in an open homosexual relationship.) Three days following the St. Paul event, Bishop Anderson demanded that Bishop Egertson resign. His resignation becomes effective July 31-one month before his term as bishop expires. By resigning, he will avoid further disciplinary action, he says. He already has another job; he announced he will teach full-time at Cal Lutheran University. He has taught Christian ethics there and directed the school's Center for Theological Development.
  • Indicted: A 32-count indictment alleging theft, fraud, racketeering, and other charges was unsealed last month in Phoenix against five former Baptist Foundation of Arizona (BFA) officials. The five, including BFA's former CEO, William Pierre Crotts, pleaded not guilty. However, three other former officers, including former treasurer Donald Deardoff, pleaded guilty to lesser charges in exchange for turning state's evidence. All could face prison, fines, and staggering restitution. BFA, founded in 1948, was a fundraising and investment agency affiliated with the Arizona regional unit of the Southern Baptist Convention. Prosecutors accuse the former officials of misleading thousands of investors to sink money into bogus and questionable BFA investments between 1994 and 1999 after the speculative real-estate market soured. The officials, who paid themselves handsomely, worked together to hide losses while promising investors a high rate of return, with part of their investments benefiting Southern Baptist work, the indictment claims. They allegedly operated a Ponzi scheme, using funds from new investors to pay dividends on old accounts. Investors-thousands of them-lost millions of dollars, some their life savings. Churches held $22 million of the investments, a 1999 report showed. Whistleblowers and an investigative series of articles in April 1998 by the Phoenix New Times, an alternative newspaper, led to a probe by county and state agencies. The state in August 1999 ordered BFA and two subsidiaries to stop selling investment products. BFA directors fired Mr. Crotts and other officials. It was too little too late. BFA filed for bankruptcy that November; it was the largest nonprofit bankruptcy in U.S. history. BFA at the time reported assets of $240 million and $640 million in debts. It has been liquidating assets that so far amount to about five cents on each investor's dollar. Some experts believe the investors will recover between 30 percent and 40 percent of their money. In addition to the criminal case, a raft of civil lawsuits have been filed or are pending. One is a class-action suit against BFA involving 13,000 investors; another is a $600 million suit filed by the state on behalf of the investors against the Andersen accounting firm for continuing to issue clean audits despite all the red flags. A website, www.bfafraud.com, posts updated information and advice for investors.

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Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman


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