January 31, 2014

Staff-Dominated and Well-Funded, UMC’s Lobby Office Continues without Winkler

The United Methodist Church’s controversial D.C. lobby office is now adjusting to life without its longtime CEO, Jim Winkler.

Since 2000, Winkler chose to run the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) in an extremely divisive, politically partisan way while frequently violating clear church rules against such offering-plate-funded agencies opposing our denomination’s biblical position on sexual morality. Anyone who cares about the integrity and public witness of the United Methodist Church should take some time to review some of the lobby’s “greatest hits” as well as more systemic problems under Winkler, especially since I have yet to observe a single GBCS defender demonstrably willing to address such problems in an honest and fair-minded way. Winkler has recently left to become President and General Secretary of the National Council of Churches.

I earlier noted the challenges Winkler’s replacement, the Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe, faces in earning back the trust of non-liberal United Methodists. (Her outspoken liberalism stance resulted in the last General Conference replacing her on the UMC Judicial Council.)

In any case, the GBCS’s last board of directors meeting under Winkler’s leadership, held last fall in suburban Maryland, offered a view of the agency’s ongoing institutional trajectories as it moves forward without him.

The four-day meeting opened with a worship service which included, among other things, a brief shout-out to the “LGBT” cause as well as an odd statement about how “God has a body” represented by the Earth. The latter appeared to have more in common with New Age pantheism than with the foundational Christian doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation.

Global Church

Out of necessity, the GBCS is increasingly addressing is our denomination’s global nature. For example, there was some discussion of the terrible civil war raging in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, home to hundreds of thousands of members, and recent physical violence in Zimbabwe between two United Methodist congregations who are loyal to rival political parties.

However, the 63-member board includes only three (less than five percent) African United Methodists, despite sub-Saharan Africa now being home to nearly 40 percent of the world’s United Methodists.

Bishop Christian Alsted (Northern Europe) shared an update on how he is working with General Conference Secretary Fitzgerald Reist to chair a task force to working over several years to thoroughly revise the UMC Social Principles to make them more theological and global. Other GBCS directors on this task force are Randall Miller of the California-Nevada Conference (a gay activist who was recently the CEO of the main LGBTQ protest caucus in the UMC), Chelsea Calderon (New Mexico), and Jefferson Knight (Liberia).

Winkler-ized Staff Dominance

Winkler shared that he personally had “hired nearly all” of the GBCS’s continuing staffers, raising serious questions about how much difference his departure will make.

GBCS currently has two dozen staffers. The modest cuts the 2012 General Conference made to the GBCS’s apportionment income were not enough to eliminate a single permanent staff position.

No informed person honestly disputes that the monolithically liberal GBCS senior staff have enjoyed little to no effective accountability as they have abused their positions to promote their personal pet political agendas, even when these agendas are directly contrary to the mandate the church has given them (and paid them to do) of promoting the UMC’s official social teachings.

For example, Winkler made a special point of praising the work of staffer Katey Zeh, Director of the GBCS’s Healthy Families, Healthy Planet Initiative. Zeh has described her personal UMC affiliation as a means for her to fight the UMC’s biblical position on sexual morality, which she calls “institutionalized heterosexism.” A zealous champion of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice (which opposes any legal restriction or even moral disapproval of the violence of abortion), Zeh has taken her abortion-supportive zeal to the point of tweeting appeals to raise money to help directly pay for abortions. Winkler noted that her work to influence the UMC and use our church’s name to promote her agendas was partially funded by the U.N. Foundation of agnostic mogul Ted Turner.

Part of the problem is not only is the board of directors geographically skewed, but the U.S. (i.e., main) portion, overall, has long been heavily “stacked” with individuals whose liberal theology and leftist politics are rather unrepresentative of the denomination as a whole.

But even aside from that, the GBCS staffers are rather bold in seeking to corral rather than follow the board.

After several directors spoke against a controversial statement on North Korea, staffers Liberato Bautista and Mark Harrison defended it, helping ensure the narrow vote to endorse it.

Winkler boasted that the GBCS has “forged stronger ties than ever” to the growing overseas portions of the denomination. It was reported that GBCS staff have been making frequent trips to Africa, building the GBCS’s ties and support base there. While ignoring the GBCS board’s direct mandate to seek respectful dialogue with IRD/UMAction, GBCS staffers have a track record of using such travels throughout the denominational connection to pursue a cynical “divide and conquer” political strategy of bearing false witness and making unfair ad hominem attacks against fellow United Methodists in renewal groups like UMAction. (For an example of this being done by staffer Neal Christie, who is now making numerous trips to Africa, see this account.)

At one point, staffer Bill Mefford approvingly plugged the passion of some directors for “marriage equality” (i.e., redefining marriage to include same-sex couples), prompting director Chris Pierson of Northern Illinois to use the group prayer time to promote direct opposition to the UMC Social Principles on this matter.

In smaller meeting among non-American directors, Christie and Bautista seemed eager to repeatedly inject their own priorities and agendas, especially pacifism and the concern expressed by overseas UMC leaders over global warming (the latter of which appeared to resonate more with the overseas directors). It is worth noting that the absolutist pacifism reflexively touted by the GBCS staff does not stem from any principled opposition to violence, as demonstrated by their simultaneous strong support for abortion. One of the directors noted the difficulties in talking about homosexual practice in a global church whose members live in cultures ranging from those in which it is taboo and illegal to European nations in which marriage has been redefined in both the state and the established church so that non-government-sponsored churches (like the UMC) are facing the threat of eventual government coercion. In response, Christie urged promotion of such common values as hospitality, respect, and human dignity. Notably, he did not cite such values are holy living, sexual self-control, religious liberty, or basing one’s morality on Scripture rather than one’s surrounding culture.

A striking example of how the GBCS’s self-perpetuating leadership manipulates the larger board of directors to which the agency is nominally accountable was seen during a meeting of the “Peace with Justice / International Issues” committee. The discussion of Iran was dominated by an official from the politically left-of-center Connect U.S. Fund, brought in from outside the church ostensibly to portray an overview of the factual reality of the situation. What he actually offered was a very opinionated, extended verbal editorial arguing that Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, is a generally trustworthy, well-intentioned moderate reformer and that the U.S. should take a softer stance towards the Islamic theocracy. In typical GBCS style, contrary expert perspectives were excluded from the discussion.

Financial Strength

Perhaps the most surprising part of the meeting was how, for all of the financial and membership decline cutting ministries and programming elsewhere in the UMC, the GBCS is sitting pretty atop a heap of money.

The trustees report noted that the GBCS’s endowment had recovered from the crash of 2008 and was now about $16 million. That report also noted that the Methodist Building right next to the U.S. Supreme Court (the source of great rental income) was the agency’s biggest asset. We have commented earlier on the financial scandal of how the GBCS staff for years misused building-related funds restricted for temperance and alcohol problems to instead pay for general expenses and then got a court order (initially opposed by the D.C. Attorney General’s office) to retroactively invalidate a 1965 restriction of these funds.

The GBCS projected spending a total of $6.1 million in 2013 and then raising its annual expenditures to $7.2 million in 2014. Between $2.1 and $2.3 million of this comes annually from apportionments skimmed from the offering plates of local United Methodist congregations.

At one point it was dubiously suggested that the GBCS staff were making a huge financial sacrifice by not working elsewhere. But according to the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) report to the 2012 General Conference, the base salary for GBCS’s five senior staffers at that time ranged from $103,500 to $130,600, before benefits. Where else could you earn enough to be in the top one-tenth of one percent of the richest people in the world while enjoying as little real accountability as the GBCS staff enjoy and openly vilifying many of the very people who pay your salary?

The GBCS staff’s zeal for policies of raising other people’s tax burdens made it seem a bit odd when the financial discussion turned to how the GBCS structures its own compensation packages to limit how much taxes they personally pay.

Other Matters

In other business, the GBCS directors:

  • Approved grants for a variety of local and wider projects in different parts of the denomination.
  • Heard briefly from the board’s president, Bishop Robert Hoshibata, about some good work being done by his Desert-Southwest conference to fight human trafficking.
  • Met with Shaun Casey, a professor at the UMC’s Wesley Theological Seminary and partisan political activist recently appointed to lead the State Department’s new Office of Faith-Based Community Initiatives.
  • Watched an odd short film called “Redemption of the Prosecutor,” which apparently seeks to build support for giving teenage felons a second chance after fifteen years of imprisonment. Jointly produced by the GBCS and a similar office of the United Church of Christ (UCC), it tells the story of a former state Assistant Attorney General who felt motivated by his Christian faith to regret dehumanizing those he prosecuted for violent crimes and so eventually quit his job. It also offers a sympathetic view of Cyntoia Brown, a young woman serving a life sentence for fatally shooting a man in what the film portrays as self-defense. “Redemption” offers no sympathy for Brown’s victim, seems more concerned with pointing viewers to the goodness of Brown than the goodness of the Savior, and offers no clear presentation of the Gospel beyond some vague suggestions that Christians cannot faithfully work as prosecutors.
  • Had some very brief, one-sided talk characterizing voter-identification requirements in North Carolina as “suppressing people’s rights,” and ignoring the fact that such provisions are supported by 72 percent of North Carolinians, including a majority of African Americans.
  • Without dissent, the directors signed the GBCS up to join the U.S. Climate Action Network, with the only discussion being about the nominal membership fee. Regardless of the cause, it was striking to see the absolute lack of discussion, questioning, or desire for full consideration before directors rushed to give the church’s name and resources for the unrestricted use by a secular political activist group.

 

Winkler memorably closed his final General Secretary’s Address by sharing that when he first became the GBCS General Secretary, Bishop James Matthews gave him a little toy rhinoceros, telling him, “in your work, you need to have a thick hide, and a sharp horn on the end doesn’t hurt either!” Winkler proceeded to dramatically pass on the rhinoceros to Henry-Crowe.

Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe now has a choice to make. Will she follow Winkler’s example and the rest of the staff’s habits of remaining callously indifferent to the pain and heartfelt concerns of countless faithful Christians within and beyond the UMC, and then turn a metaphorical weapon of violent goring against those same disciples? Or is Henry-Crowe interested in leading the GBCS in a genuinely new direction – in sincerity and substance rather than just window-dressing and lip-service – of advancing rather than shattering church unity within and beyond the UMC, of having the integrity to follow the GBCS’s own rules, and of defending the teachings of the church rather than the personal agendas of the staff? Even when this would mean opposing years of the GBCS’s own institutional momentum, the clear eagerness of much of the board and staff to continue its ongoing course, and her own well-known liberal track record?

The ball is now in her court.


13 Responses to Staff-Dominated and Well-Funded, UMC’s Lobby Office Continues without Winkler

  1. eMatters says:

    They are obviously led and staffed with mostly non-Christians. It is a travesty that so few Methodists know what they are supporting. And what racism for them to under-represent the Africans!

  2. cleareyedtruthmeister says:

    Well done, John. The biggest enemies to the GBCS are orthodox Christianity and facts. The biggest friends are ignorance and apathy.

    It is unconscionable that such an organization would take moneys dutifully given for the work of God and use them to pursue personal political agendas. And for these directors to claim sympathy for the poor while making that kind of money–well, they give ordinary hypocrites a bad name.

    If even half the UMC laity knew what the GBCS actually did they would shut the GBCS down in weeks. The organization is beyond reform.

    • John Lomperis says:

      Thanks for your encouragement! UM Action indeed exists to shine light on what many UMC denominational officials would prefer to keep hidden.

  3. Donnie says:

    The GBCS is one of the major reasons why I left the UMC (that, and my local church was pushing the gay rights thing pretty hard at the time of my departure).

    It’s also why I chose a non-denominational church for my new church. At least now I only have to worry about what comes out of that pulpit, not what some bureaucracy is saying for me without my consent.

  4. Mike says:

    2 questions for you, John:

    1. How are Board members selected? Is it covered by the Discipline?

    2. What are the powers of the Board? Is that covered by the Discipline?

    I guess that’s 4 questions, but any response would be appreciated.

    • John Lomperis says:

      Mike, as all things in the UMC, nothing is simple. But here’s at least an overview answer:

      1. Each of the five US jurisdictions has a nominating committee that basically selects the jurisdiction’s representatives to boards and agencies. There some degree degree of membership-based proportionality for the US directors on some general agencies, like the GBCS, but not on others. In contrast to US directors who are directly chosen by more grassroots leaders from their home region, the token non-US directors must be approved by the US-dominated Council of Bishops to serve.
      The numbers in terms of geographic distribution of the board of directors are specified in the Discipline. However, it is not really honest for the GBCS to hide behind the Discipline in defending its marginalization and tokenization of African UMs. Other general agencies (but not the GBCS) submitted petitions to GC2012 to restructure their respective boards of directors, and these plans were ultimately basically rubber-stamped. If the GBCS really wanted to have globally just and proportionate representation, it could have easily gotten that into the Discipline. But why would the current leadership of the GBCS want to cede their privilege and powers to others who do not share their secularized faith?
      Additional members of the boards of directors, ostensibly for the sake of diversity or expertise, are named by a sub-group of the board of directors.
      2. Boards of general agencies can potentially do a great deal of things. But de facto, the most influential decisions they make are (1) choosing a new General Secretary every 12 years (or occasionally firing the GS, which is basically what happened at GBGM a few years ago), and (2) amending and eventually approving petitons to General Conference and other resolutions.

  5. Betsy Kersey says:

    Our concern has been and will continue to be that GBCS is predominantly pro abortion, pro sexual promiscuity, while trying to convince that they are pro family in the UMC…what a travesty .. Too bad Jim Winkler left such a legacy..thank you John Lomperis for defending UMC faith.

  6. Roger says:

    A few informed entities have known about the way the GBCS has operated in the past. The key word is accountability. The General Conference must look into this situation and see what needs to be addressed.

    In the meantime, the leaders who are responsible for the agencies, committees, and local churches need to look at what is going on and determine if it follows our beliefs and polity. They should start exposing these errant entities, individuals or groups.

    A big element is the Council of Bishops. In the absence of the General Conference, they are the body that should stop the cheerleading for apostate causes and policies. This is the primary group that should be the protector, enforcer, and example of how to implement the General Conference’s directions and actions. Their posture to all these issues is critical to the correction and accountability of the Gospel Ship called United Methodist.

  7. Paul W. says:

    It has been known for years now that the GBCS is a rogue agency that thumbs it’s nose at any position it disagrees with. This is a well-established fact (due in no small part to the great reporting done by IRD). Clearly, though, someone must be happy with them because they remain in power.

    So, the question is, how do we throw the bums out? And how do we throw out the bums that allow the GBCS to operate with impunity?

    • Donnie says:

      I’m not sure there really is a satisfying answer to those questions. I got tired of waiting for things to change, so I left.

  8. Linda H. fleming says:

    My daughter tried to tell our Norlina, N C church but nothing became of it and she left the denomination. My Dad said over 50 years ago that the National Council of Churches was the work of the devil. I know our congregation sits in the dark but I believe it to be our own fault.

  9. Dave Gingrich says:

    The best way to stop this is to stop giving money to the UMC. Give to worthwhile churches and charities instead.

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