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General Secretary's Report to the Governing Board
Grace and peace to you in the name of Jesus Christ! As the World Council of Churches once put it, “Christ has made us his own, and he is not divided.” I give thanks for the way the Holy Spirit is at work through each of our communions and for the Spirit-led commitment we have made “to manifest ever more fully the unity of the church … [and] to come together in common mission” – that God may be glorified.
I also give thanks for the opportunity to engage in ministry with the colleagues gathered in this room, including an excellent staff and my very good friend, Archbishop Vicken Aykazian. Over the past nine months, I have witnessed how our president represents the NCC with dignity, passion, good humor, and deep Christian faith. Whether we are visiting member communions, speaking out for social justice, or meeting colleagues in the Middle East it has been a joy to serve with him – and I look forward to another fifteen months of his leadership.
I want to do two things in this report. First, I want us to recall the six broad goals, derived from the Strategic Plan, that I lifted up at our meeting in February as markers for evaluating our life together. How has the National Council of Churches done, when measured by these markers, over the past six months? At our last meeting, Bishop Chris Epting noted that there has been, for many years, “insufficient accountability” in the life of the Council. But this, of course, points in two directions. The question is not just what the staff has done but what the churches (whose relationship with one another is the essence of the NCC) have done to live out your stated commitments. I will talk mostly about the staff and leave the other for you to ponder.
Second, I want to anticipate our discussions in this meeting of the Governing Board by suggesting a theme that runs throughout many items on our agenda: namely, the fearfulness that is such a prominent characteristic of contemporary U.S. society. And I will end by suggesting that the same fearfulness can be seen in us.
The Strategic Plan has numerous specific goals; but, as I read it, there are six broad objectives that demand priority attention.
1. To strengthen the relationships of the member communions with each other. This, of course, follows from the fundamental premise of the Strategic Plan: that the NCC is not an agency that provides services on behalf of the churches; it is the commitment of the churches to one another. As Arlee Griffin put it in February, we have not gotten to know one another’s “being” deeply enough, and so we get tripped up when it comes to “doing” things together.
The primary response to this objective has been the successful inauguration of the program of church-to-church visits – about which you will hear more shortly. The NCC staff has also made other “informal” visits to churches, including some whose participation has been weak. I have worked hard to improve communication with Ecumenical Officers and other communion representatives. And we are preparing brief profiles of the churches, as well as a prayer cycle, that can aid in building up our shared life.
She will not like me saying so, but I simply must note that the church-to-church visits would not have been possible without the extraordinary efforts of the chairperson of the Membership and Ecclesial Relations Committee, Rev. Lydia Veliko. She exemplifies the idea that the NCC is a “community of Christian communions.”
2. To give energy to ecumenical life across the United States. The concern of those who gather here is not simply for an organization called the NCCCUSA but for a movement of unity, justice, and service.
Our work in this area will never be adequate until we recover a staffed office of Ecumenical Networks, but we have taken steps to work more closely with state councils of churches – especially through our common efforts at immigration reform (which we will discuss this afternoon). I also hope that our close work with the Colorado Council of Churches in preparation for the Denver General Assembly is indicative of renewed attentiveness to these most valuable partners. I, personally, will have met with state or local councils from Boston to Los Angeles during my first year as General Secretary.
I think it is also accurate to say that the Council’s relationships have been greatly improved with both the US Conference of the World Council of Churches and with Church World Service. Later in this meeting we will discuss amendments to the Constitution of the General Assembly. These amendments make clear that the NCC and CWS are distinct bodies, even as we are beginning to collaborate more fully and effectively. I look forward, in this regard, to the report of my good friend and colleague, Rev. John McCullough.
3. To make the programmatic work of the Council more integrated, less “silo-ish”. Efficiency demands the existence of separate commissions with particular focus on such things as education, doctrinal reconciliation, political advocacy, communication, and interfaith dialogue. The genius of the ecumenical movement emerges, however, when these “streams” flow together in a whole understanding of church.
Toward that end, we have held a joint meeting of the commissions (or, at least, their leadership); and I have tried to meet with each of them in order to emphasize their participation in the Council’s larger agenda. Staff morale is good; and the outstanding senior staff – Clare Chapman, Tony Kireopoulos, Pat Pattillo, Garland Pierce, Kurt Kaboth, Cassandra Carmichael, Phil Jenks, and Ann Tiemeyer are meeting regularly with me in order the help coordinate our efforts. I have not yet involved the Executive Committee fully in this integrative work, but we’re just getting started.
4. To be careful stewards of the churches’ resources and to encourage the churches to share your resources ecumenically. As you will hear later, the NCC ran a significant deficit for the fiscal year that ended June 30, almost all of it related to the fall in the stock market. There are, however, reasons for cautious optimism. For one thing, expenses were actually $675,000 less than the amount budgeted for 2007-08; and the expense line will be reduced further this year as the full effect of last year’s staff reductions kicks in, and we don’t have to pay for such things as a general secretary search and transition.
Equally important, the development office has been revamped, with Kurt Kaboth bringing great energy and expertise to this position. Within the last month, for example, we have had very promising conversations with an individual donor about money to revive the NCC’s mobilization to overcome poverty, submitted five major foundation proposals, and had an encouraging meeting with officials at the Lilly Endowment. Perhaps even more significant, leaders in our communions have provided names for a development advisory committee (which has been meeting by conference call) and expressed a willingness to open doors to church members with ecumenical interest and financial resources.
5. To nurture a new generation for leadership in this movement. In addition to our regular efforts through ELMC and other commissions, we have taken one initiative that has me very excited: The NCC’s Young Adult Ministry Team and the Young Adult Task Force of the WCC’s US office, along with leaders of such groups at the World Student Christian Federation and the Young Adult Ecumenical forum, are planning a consultation, aimed at coordinating their complementary efforts, to precede the General Assembly in Denver. They are calling it “New Fire: Blazing a Common Trail of the Young Adult Ecumenical Movement.” Your communions have been invited to participate by supporting the attendance of leaders from your own young adult networks. This is our best hope in years for building on grassroots’ momentum.
My thanks for all of this go to David Fraccaro of the WCC and Rev. Garland Pierce, but also to Shantha Ready, who served as an intern at the Council over the summer and has brought both energy and insight to this work. We will soon invite applications for 2009 summer interns, and I urge you to encourage young leaders in your communion to apply.
6. To become more fully prophetic in our social witness. There are lots of things to talk about: the decision of the United Church of Christ to fund a position in Washington, with half of the person’s time devoted to work for the NCC; the support of an individual donor for a new Washington-based position aimed at revitalizing our Mobilization to Overcome Poverty; the excellent work done by Rev. Ann Tiemeyer to reinvigorate the Justice for Women’s Working Group and other women’s ministries; the exemplary programs and materials produced by Cassandra Carmichael and colleagues aimed at promoting an ecumenical witness for ecojustice; our work on health care and immigration reform; our outspoken support for quality public education and for revision of “No Child Left Behind”; promotion of the Social Creed, adopted last November by the General Assembly; and work done with other partners to stop the war in Iraq, call attention to the state of Palestinian Christians, condemn torture, and encourage a “sacred conversation on race.” At our meeting in February, Rev. Jimmy Hawkins called us, in effect, to a seventh goal: to become a place where all churches feel at home and in which racial justice is at the heart of this community of communions. I am making every effort in this direction.
The Strategic Plan, however, offers a further challenge when it speaks of an “overarching goal” of “promoting a vision of authentic common life as an alternative to that prevalent in contemporary North American culture.” In a recent sermon, my pastor, Rev. Alvin Jackson, suggested that our calling is not just to make a difference but to proclaim a different world – which, it seems to me, is what the Strategic Plan has in mind. I will return to this in a minute.
There are, of course, many other activities I could name from the past six months: maintaining strong relations with international partners, especially through our trip to the Middle East (which we will discuss tomorrow); negotiating a new contract with union employees; reaching out to potential new members…. But I think you have a general picture. While we need to increase revenue significantly, the overall organizational health of the National Council of Churches is good.
I turn, then, to the second part of my report. We have a rich agenda, one that demonstrates our twin commitments of unity and justice. And as I think about this agenda, it seems clear that much of it has to do with the climate of fear that is so prevalent in this nation. Fareed Zakaria puts it quite bluntly in his new book, The Post-American World. “America,” he writes, “has become a nation consumed by anxiety, worried about terrorists and rogue nations, Muslims and Mexicans … immigrants and international organizations. The strongest nation in the history of the world now sees itself as besieged by forces beyond its control.” We are, quite simply, sick withc fear.
Fear, as you know, has a legitimate role in human life. Fear can move us to marshal our resources in the face of crisis, to act on behalf of neighbors who are threatened (and there are real threats in this sinful world). But fear can also turn us against the neighbor – a theme that will likely run throughout this afternoon’s discussions. For example, immigration is such a “loaded” topic because we live in a society that is increasingly fearful of “foreigners.” “On an issue where the United States has been the model of the world,” writes Zakaria, “the country has regressed toward an angry defensive crouch” – with leaders who think that a wall will solve our problems. The Muslim document, “A Common Word between Us and You” is so timely and important because of the fear directed toward Muslims. There is, of course, a legitimate anxiety about the ecological health of the planet; but attempts to address such problems as climate change are often resisted out of a fear that our lifestyle will be cramped. And, looming over all of this is an election dominated by concern for military and economic security – and the fear, on the part of many whites, that a black man might actually be elected president!
This brings us back to the Strategic Plan and its overarching goal. We can urge a reduction in “defense” spending (as we have done); and we can propose steps aimed at immigration reform (as we are doing). But our truly prophetic word will come when we bring the gospel to bear on the underlying fearfulness of this culture – when we offer a witness, rooted in our faith, that engenders hope for a different approach to common life. The headlines these days are dominated by the rhetoric of this political campaign, with both parties striving to demonstrate their credentials as agents of change. But surely we have a vision of change more fundamental than that imagined by either party.
Central to that witness and vision is our claim, grounded in scripture and tradition, that life on earth is fundamentally interdependent (not just interrelated, as Bishop Epting reminds us in the latest issue of Ecumenical Trends, but interdependent). This means that security is never won through unilateral defense – through weapons and walls – but through attentiveness to the injustice that affects other children of God. Israeli security (as we will discuss tomorrow) depends, finally, on Palestinians having a stake in the development of the Middle East. U.S. security depends on reversing patterns of environmental destruction, on caring for strangers and valuing diversity, on reducing the economic disparities that breed global resentment.
Christians know that life should not be thought of in terms of scarcity – a zero-sum game in which my security and well-being are gained at your expense. If Christian faith is true, then life is not a grim competition but a blessing that will prove abundant if shared by all.
This witness is particularly needed in an age when fundamentalist religion captures the headlines. Fundamentalism is the religious form of the world’s anxiety. It draws lines to keep its identity secure by keeping others out. It responds to anxiety by demanding certainty and, in this way, confuses religion with God. It adopts a mindset of scarcity and, thus, assumes that the goal is to defeat the competition. If we, in turn, set out to “defeat” fundamentalism, it will betray our message! But surely we betray our God if we do not proclaim and demonstrate an alternative way of being faithful.
The problem, of course, is that we, too, live fearfully. How else can we account for our persistent disobedience to Christ’s prayer “that they may all be one”? I reported earlier that we are doing well organizationally, but the bottom line is that we are still failing to fulfill our basic mandate. And I think much of the reason is fear: fear of losing a familiar sense of identity, fear of losing institutional prerogatives, fear of having to care deeply about a wider circle of sisters and brothers. My fear, to borrow a phrase from Joe Small, is that in the National Council we have a comfortable arrangement of mutual forbearance that permits us to remain self-contained, while feeling better about our continued disobedience. “We are,” says my colleague, Tony Kireopoulos, “resigned to our divisions.”
The point I am making is obvious and familiar: Our world cries out for a witness to what 1 John calls a “love that casts out fear”; and the deepest witness we can make to such love is the way we live with one another. Remember the next verse in 1 John: “We love because God first loved us.” It is the best possible reminder that self-centeredness is the root of fear. If our well-being is gained at the expense of others, then we will live anxiously. If our status depends on the depreciation of others, then we will live anxiously. If our lifestyle is built on a use of resources that threatens the planet, then we will live anxiously. If our security is based on treating others as enemies, then we will live anxiously. If our sense of community is dependent on exclusion of others, then we will live anxiously. And if our focus is on the survival of “our church” rather than on the one body of Christ and our common witness to God’s coming Reign, then we will live anxiously.
I hope we will keep this perspective in mind throughout our discussions at this Governing Board. To put it simply, in an anxious world, our calling as a community of Christian communions is to point beyond ourselves to the One whose love casts out fear, and to demonstrate that love by living it with one another.
NCC News contact: Philip E. Jenks, 212-870-2228, NCCnews@ncccusa.org
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