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.
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.
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.
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.