Major US Ecumenical Organizations Restructure

National Council of Churches general assembly of 1960, held in San Francisco.
Photo by Milton Mann-Jack Tar Hotel Photo
A general assembly of the National Council of Churches in its heyday. This Messenger magazine file photo pictures the assembly floor in Dec. 1960 in San Francisco, with a 70-foot pastel painting of Christ as the focal point.

Two long-standing ecumenical bodies in the United States–the National Council of Churches (NCC) and Church World Service (CWS)–have undergone restructuring and re-envisioning in recent months.

The NCC began a plan for re-envisioning and restructuring last fall, which has since included the elimination of at least six administrative positions on the staff, and the announcement of a move away from historic headquarters in New York. The NCC counts 37 member communions from a wide spectrum of Protestant, Anglican, Orthodox, Evangelical, historic African-American, and peace churches among its membership of 40 million people in more than 100,000 congregations.

CWS, which formerly shared the same general assembly as the NCC, has instituted a new governing structure that is independent of denominational representation. A global humanitarian agency, CWS works to help the world’s most vulnerable people overcome hunger and poverty through sustainable development. The Church of the Brethren is an active denomination in CWS, which is the primary means through which Brethren Disaster Ministries extends its work internationally.

Restructuring at the NCC

The governing board of the NCC last fall adopted the recommendation of a task force on Re-envisioning and Restructuring. The task force was co-chaired by NCC president Kathryn Lohre and former Church of the Brethren staff member Jordan Blevins, who directed the Peace Witness Ministry based in Washington, D.C.

The 17-member task force carried out its work over six months, drafting a vision statement calling for a “shared commitment to a transformed and transforming NCC through which the churches and other partners seek visible unity in Christ and work for justice and peace.” Transitional general secretary Peg Birk was named to lead the implementation.

Interaction of three foci will mark the “new NCC,” said a release: theological study and dialogue, inter-religious relations and dialogue, and joint advocacy and action for justice and peace. The new vision is that ministries of education, formation, and leadership development will integrate these foci and bolster the role of the NCC within the ecumenical landscape.

The National Council of Churches logo and headquarters building in New York, circa 1989
Photo by RNS
The National Council of Churches logo and headquarters building in New York, circa 1989. The NCC recently announced a move from its historic location at 475 Riverside Drive to consolidate at offices in Washington, D.C.

In mid-February the NCC announced it will move from the Interchurch Center at 475 Riverside Dr., New York, to its offices in Washington, D.C. The move aims at “streamlining operations to free up the council to be about the priorities that the churches set together,” said a release. In related changes, the NCC announced that outside vendors will likely provide human resources, IT, strategic accounting, and communications support.

Satellite offices for three leading staff remain in New York: Joseph Crockett, assoc. general secretary Education and Leadership Ministries; Antonios Kireopoulos, assoc. general secretary Faith and Order and Interfaith Relations; Ann Tiemeyer, program director Women’s Ministries.

Birk will join Cassandra Carmichael, head of the NCC’s Washington Office, and Shantha Ready Alonso, director of the NCC’s poverty initiative, in the offices at 110 Maryland Ave., Washington, D.C., at an ecumenical center owned by the United Methodist Church. The long-run savings of the move is projected at between $400,000 and $500,000.

The move highlights the shrinking of staff and resources of the NCC since its heyday in the 1960s when, according to a release, it “occupied three floors of the Interchurch Center in New York, in addition to its offices at 110 Maryland Avenue in Washington. The NCC was the impetus in the planning of the Interchurch Center, which opened in 1960. The Interchurch Center was conceived as the ‘Protestant Vatican on the Hudson’ when President Dwight D. Eisenhower laid the cornerstone in 1958.”

The NCC has not held a general assembly of denominational delegates since 2010 when the last one was held in New Orleans.

The shrinking of the NCC has occurred during the same period of time as the rise of a new ecumenical body, Christians Churches Together. CCT is not a church council in the way that the NCC is. With a minimal staff, it was created as a new kind of forum for leaders of Christian denominations and organizations across the US to meet once a year to broaden and expand their fellowship, unity, and witness. CCT is more inclusive of the diversity of Christians and includes five main “families”: Evangelical/Pentecostal, Orthodox, Catholic, Historic Protestant, and Historic Black churches.

The Church of the Brethren general secretary and Annual Conference moderator and/or moderator-elect attend the CCT annual meeting. Brethren Press publisher Wendy McFadden represents the Brethren on the CCT Steering Committee, and was just elected president of the Historic Protestant family of churches.

“One of the key aspects of this transitional period is the recognition that structures that were very effective from the 1950s through 2000 are no longer sustainable,” commented Church of the Brethren general secretary Stan Noffsinger who serves on the NCC governing board, is a past officer of the executive committee, and one of the heads of communion helping guide the NCC through its transition.

Noffsinger clarified that at the root of financial issues for the NCC is “the global recession affecting contributions to member communions, and their ability to support the structures of the past.” The NCC “was built on a church that was very strong and committed to ecumenical work,” he said, using “church” to refer to the broad Christian community in the US. “While this spirit is still strong, we just cannot afford the structure anymore,” he said.

The NCC banner is carried proudly at the 1963 March on Washington
Photo by Religious News Service
The NCC banner is carried proudly at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The NCC group was led by Robert W. Spike (center left), then executive director of the NCC Commission on Religions and Race, and John W. Williams (center right), of the National Baptist Convention of America.

“The transitional general secretary of the NCC was given a charge to carry out, and we’ll soon be living out the streamlined structure,” Noffsinger said. “We in the Church of the Brethren continue to be fully engaged in and supportive of the NCC.”

Structural changes at CWS

Church World Service also has made major structural changes. CWS elected a new board of directors last October at its annual members meeting. The board is now smaller and “non-representative,” with board members no longer considered to be representatives of their denominations.

A majority of the CWS board is still required to be recognized members of member denominations, but the remainder is now drawn from professional backgrounds that bring helpful skills and experience to CWS. This “leaner” board is expected to provide a new “pool of talent” said a CWS release in which Amy Gopp, chair of the nominations and board development committee, explained that “a majority of the directors are connected to churches that are CWS member communions, but the elections also make the board interfaith.”

The series of programmatic and staffing changes that have followed the election of the new board will help CWS “sharpen its focus and become a more global organization,” according to a release. The more global approach includes identification of the CWS headquarters in New York as a corporate center, and a change of web address from to . A global CWS Growth Plan is being studied by the new board, which met for the first time Jan. 22-23.

“For more than 65 years, the board of Church World Service has been composed of representatives from its member communions, with CWS board participation often included as a part of their job responsibilities,” said a CWS explanation. “The new board makeup, which expands representation to include people who are not of a member communion, is a major component of the agency’s CWS 2020 Vision, which defines a new foundation for CWS work as the agency adapts to current ecumenical, economic, and global contexts.”

CWS also has made staffing changes including naming James Landis vice president of program operations, and Maurice A. Bloem executive vice president. John L. McCullough continues as CEO and president. Donna Derr, a former member of the Church of the Brethren denominational staff, continues in a key role as director of development and humanitarian assistance.

The Church of the Brethren previously was represented on the CWS board by Roy Winter, associate executive for Brethren Disaster Ministries. He had been vice chair of the board for the past year, was on the executive committee, and chaired the planning committee. Now he continues as a denominational representative but no longer a member of the board. He also continues on the disaster and humanitarian assistance advisory group.

“CWS has been working on defining direction and improving structure and governance since it separated from the NCC,” said Winter. “This new board and reorganization is the result of all these years of work.”

A smaller board is “critical to improve the governance of CWS, to give it a board that could provide critical oversight and guidance to staff,” Winter added. “All these things I voted for, and supported. This seems like the right direction for CWS. However, these changes will require CWS to be more intentional in connecting with its member communions. Without continuing to nurture the relationship with the church, CWS could slowly drift away from its faith-based roots.”

— This report was prepared by Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, director of News Services for the Church of the Brethren. It incorporates information from NCC releases by Philip E. Jenks and CWS releases from Lesley Crosson and Jan Dragin.