Joan Brown Campbell, the retiring general secretary of the National Council of Churches in the United States (NCC), remains optimistic about the future of the NCC despite what has been, by all accounts, an extremely difficult year for the nation's biggest ecumenical agency.
In an interview with ENI about her nine-year tenure as general secretary, Campbell, 68, acknowledged that the council's much-publicized financial problems remain a serious challenge.
But Campbell, an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and former director of the US office of the World Council of Churches, defended her tenure as a time in which the council had faced up to a long history of financial difficulties.
The council's problems include widely-criticized financial management systems and a deficit reaching almost US$4 million. Major restructuring is planned in order to close the deficit and solve the financial problems.
The NCC's financial troubles largely dominated headlines about the agency's fiftieth anniversary celebrations last month, particularly when the United Methodist Church temporarily suspended its financial support of the council in October.
"Unfortunately, that [the financial crisis] became the story of the fiftieth," Campbell said, adding that she expected the UMC suspension to be lifted, and noting that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) had recently pledged $300 000 to help the NCC cover its deficit.
"A businessman would say a $4 million deficit in a budget of $70 million is not high tragedy," Campbell told ENI, but added that "there was enough blame to go around" about the council's financial problems, and that she was not sparing herself from any criticism. "It's equally well-shared," she said.
Campbell noted that her tenure was "bracketed" by two suspensions—at the end by the United Methodists over the issue of finances and, in the beginning, from 1991-93, by the US Orthodox churches, which were unhappy with a number of NCC policies and public pronouncements. Campbell was widely credited for improving relations with the Orthodox churches, as well as with the predominantly black denominations among the NCC's members.
Still, many of those unhappy with the state of the NCC during Campbell's period of office have been within, rather than outside, the US ecumenical movement. United Methodist Bishop Roy Sano of Los Angeles, for example, recently told the Los Angeles Times that Robert Edgar, an ordained Methodist minister who will succeed Campbell as NCC General Secretary in January, was "going to an institution that is such a mess, some people think we should close it down."
Campbell said it was possible that her efforts to make the black and Orthodox churches "feel at home" may have contributed to a feeling among the bigger mainline Protestant denominations—the council's biggest financial backers—that their influence within the NCC was waning somewhat.
But Campbell said that the large US mainline Protestant churches might be nostalgic for an earlier time when they represented "the churches of the predominant [US] culture," which was overwhelmingly white and Protestant.
"The hegemony of the mainline churches is over," Campbell said, referring to an increasingly diverse religious, cultural and ethnic arena in the United States. "But they're still reluctant to give that up. And it's not the fault of the churches themselves. It's embedded in the culture."
While celebrating the diversity of the 35-member NCC, Campbell said some of the council's problems were endemic to Protestant-based organizations in general.
"Protestants are not big on authority, and that plays out here," she said, noting that the NCC had some 200 internal committees, resulting "in too many centers of power and control." It also meant, she said, that "the [NCC] general secretary has responsibility but not commensurate authority."
Asked what continued relevance the NCC had in a time when ecumenism was now largely taken for granted locally in the United States, Campbell said that was a question only NCC-member denominations could answer. "Do the churches want national councils? Are they necessary?" she said. "I would say they are, particularly on issues of national policy. The churches are strengthened when they speak together."
When asked if she felt she had been judged by a double standard because she was the council's first ordained female general secretary, Campbell said it was true that the most persistent criticism of her tenure—that she was not a good manager—was one commonly made against many women executives.
But, recalling her farewell speech at the NCC general assembly, Campbell said the NCC had proved it could treat an ordained woman "with real equality." The NCC had viewed her as strong enough to "take any and all criticism"; she had not been patronized; and was "never done any favors" because of her sex.
Campbell said the highlights of her tenure included:
- The decision by the Orthodox churches to reaffirm their commitment to the NCC and the US ecumenical movement;
- Improving relations with the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches (MCC), a predominantly gay and lesbian denomination, even though the MCC has not been admitted into the NCC;
- The NCC's work in helping rebuild predominantly black churches during a series of arson attacks earlier this decade;
- The mission earlier this year by Campbell, the Reverend Jesse Jackson and an ecumenical delegation to secure the release of three US prisoners held by the Serbian government.
However, Campbell added that the high-profile moments are not necessarily the ones she would savor or remember the most. She recalled there were numerous times "away from the cameras" when religious leaders and others were "able to transcend their differences, find common humanity, and cross some divides that normally aren't crossed."
Campbell's retirement from the NCC finds her taking up a new position, as director of religion at the Chautauqua Institute, a New York state summer educational program. She hopes to attract a more racially and culturally diverse pool of preachers and lecturers.
Campbell said the new position played to her strengths. "At heart," she said, "I'm an educator."
Chris Herlinger is ENI's United States correspondent and information officer for the Church World Service (CWS) Emergency Response office.
Copyright © 1999 Ecumenical News International.
See "NCC to undergo major restructuring to solve financial woes | Newly elected secretary faces an organization with a $4 million shortfall" (Nov. 18)
Read more about the National Council of Churches' fiftieth anniversary at its Web site.
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