The word ecumenism implies cooperation. But the National Council of Churches (NCC), which has served as the preeminent symbol of the ecumenical movement, has by most accounts itself been a victim of internal power struggles and disorganization.

Delegates to the organization’s governing board met May 16–19 in Lexington, Kentucky, to address the NCC’s structural and financial problems. Specifically, delegates were to consider a comprehensive reorganization plan developed over the last six months by a special “Committee of Fifteen.”

But on the second day of the meeting the focus began to shift to the NCC’s chief staff officer, General Secretary Arie Brouwer, who jolted delegates with a show-stopping, 22-page speech in which he accused his council critics of having an “appetite for vengeance” and “lust for retribution.”

Brouwer, a Reformed Church in America minister, accused critics of engaging in “ideological warfare” and “character assassination.” He suggested he had been used as a scapegoat for the governing board, which he contended was the real object of critics’ scorn.

Brouwer did not name names, but pointed to denominational representatives of Church World Service (CWS), the NCC’s relief-and-development agency, as leaders of the attack—an attack he claimed was aimed at blunting governing board efforts to make CWS and other NCC agencies accountable to the board.

The speech left many governing board delegates bewildered; others said they were angered or saddened. Even some of Brouwer’s supporters questioned the timing of the speech. Later in the week, the council’s executive committee recommended the NCC seek out “new leadership.”

The outcome of this recommendation could not have been more indecisive. Fifty-seven governing board delegates favored the recommendation, 57 opposed it, while 12 abstained. Said NCC president Patricia McClurg, “This chair will not break that tie.”

Meanwhile, the reorganization plan was approved overwhelmingly. Essentially it calls for a simpler structure, reducing the number of NCC administrative units from 11 to 4, which will likely result in significant reductions in staff and budget.

One purpose of the plan is to bridge the gulf between the governing board (to be renamed the general board) and program committees. One result of the plan, officials feel, will be to bring control of the NCC’s programs closer to their sources of funds—churches and other donors who target funds for specific purposes.

As last month’s meeting ended, United Methodist Bishop Melvin Talbert, head of the Committee of Fifteen, said the plan’s success depends on “collaborative” relationships. With a house split down the middle on the question of Brouwer’s leadership, that appears to be a formidable challenge.

By Gustav Spohn, in Lexington.

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