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National Council of Churches Charts New Course

The National Council of Churches, America’s leading ecumenical group, charted a new course by selecting a long-time educator and ecumenical leader to head a newly restructured and downsized organization.

After confirmation next month to a four-year term of office, Michael Kinnamon, 58, will become the ninth general secretary of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A., an umbrella group of 35 U.S. denominations with 45 million members in 100,000 congregations across the United States established in 1950.

Kinnamon, a professor at Eden Theological Seminary in St. Louis, succeeds Bob Edgar, who left in August to become president and CEO of Common Cause, a non-profit political advocacy group in Washington.

Kinnamon inherits an NCC on more solid financial ground than when Edgar took office eight years ago, but he also takes over in a time of organizational transition. Kinnamon said in a press release he wants to change the way the group’s members relate to each other.

“What I want to stress is that a council of churches isn’t just an agency that does things for churches,” he said. “It’s a community of the churches themselves.”

When Edgar, a former Democratic congressman, came to the National Council of Churches in 2000, the 50-year-old organization was on the brink of closing its doors. Edgar was widely credited with turning around a $6 million deficit by trimming staff and budget and finding new funding sources, including secular foundations and others from outside the membership of the NCC.

The strategy drew critics who charged the organization was moving away from purely ecumenical concerns toward a partisan political agenda.

Kinnamon told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he probably wouldn’t rely as much on outside funding. “Bob did a great job, but some money he brought in was soft money,” he said. “I want to make sure this is a council of the churches.”

Kinnamon told the newspaper he wants most of the money the council raises to come from member denominations and institutions with the same vision as the council. “Not all members support the council financially, and I hope to change that quickly,” he said.

Part of that challenge will be to convince member communions to step up to the plate. As the mainline denominations that belong to the NCC have lost members over the decades, their funding to the organization has declined. More recently a trend in religious bodies has been toward decentralizing, forcing traditional larger national organizations to compete for funding with groups that are local and regional, smaller and more hands-on.

Last week the NCC announced it was eliminating 14 of about 40 jobs at its New York and Washington offices in order to balance a $6.9 annual million budget without dipping into the $6 million it has in reserves.

Clare Chapman, acting general secretary since Edgar’s departure, told United Methodist News Service the council is fiscally stable, but the action was an attempt “to keep it that way in the future.”

Some of the jobs eliminated in the staff reorganization are held by top staff members with tenures as long as 30 years.

The restructuring doesn’t take effect until Dec. 1, but the first departure became public this week with a news release announcing that Shanta Premawardhana, the NCC’s associate general secretary for interfaith relations since 2003, was elected Sept. 28 as director of inter-religious dialogue and cooperation of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, Switzerland.

Premawardhana, a native of Sri Lanka, is a former long-time Baptist pastor in Chicago who has been active in leadership of the Alliance of Baptists and has written for and been quoted by EthicsDaily.com.

Chapman told EthicsDaily.com the work of Premawardhana’s Interfaith Relations Commission–along with that of the four other existing program commissions–would continue in the new structure with a reconfigured and smaller staff.

The NCC’s Governing Board acknowledged in a press release that the staff cuts mean a reduction in the scope and breadth of the work currently underway, but said they also provide an opportunity for “taking a fresh look” at the way the commissions do their work.

Pat Pattillo, a veteran Baptist communicator and fund raiser, told friends in an e-mail he plans to retire from the NCC Dec. 1 after seven years as associate general secretary for communication. Pattillo, 66, previously worked for Hong Kong Baptist University, Samford University and from 1967 to 1986 was on administrative staff at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Kinnamon, an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago Divinity School, takes over as head of the NCC in January. He has been the Allen and Dottie Miller Professor of Mission, Peace and Ecumenical Studies at Eden Theological Seminary since 2000. He taught previously at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky and Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis.

He was general secretary of the Consultation on Church Union, which later became Churches Uniting in Christ, from 1999 to 2002. From 1980 to 1983 he was executive secretary of the World Council of Churches’ Commission on Faith and Order.

Kinnamon has written extensively on the ecumenical movement, including a 2003 book, The Vision of the Ecumenical Movement and How it has Been Impoverished by its Friends.

Kinnamon is a member of the NCC’s Governing Board and chair of the Council’s Justice and Advocacy Commission. He took the lead role drafting several resolutions and statements on a wide range of justice and peace issues and was primary architect of a strategic plan that was implemented with the recent staff restructuring.

“Michael Kinnamon is well known to those of us on the Governing Board and we have always appreciated his ecumenical commitment and knowledge, his commitment to the visible unity of the body of Christ, and his unwavering dedication to social justice,” said NCC President Michael Livingston, executive director of the International Council of Community Churches in Frankfort, Ill.

Kinnamon is married to the Rev. Katherine Kinnamon, associate minister of Webster Groves Christian Church in St. Louis. The couple has two daughters, Anna and Leah.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.