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Identity crisis

Cutbacks to United Church justice programs spark protest

By Mike Milne

I've been hearing definitely from some people who are concerned and unhappy," admits Nora Sanders, speaking by phone from her Toronto office. The United Church's top administrator took a week-long trip to Manitoba and Northwestern Ontario Conference this past September to connect with church members and leaders in that region. Amid sunny welcomes and Native feasts, she also came face-to-face with discontent -- both at a meeting of rural ministers in Brandon, Man., and later from 22 disgruntled members and leaders in Winnipeg.

The issue: sweeping General Council program and staff cuts. At a special closed-door meeting last June, the General Council Executive cut $3.3 million from the budget and terminated 27 staff.

The United Church's most committed advocates for peace, justice and human rights -- all longtime national, Conference and Presbytery volunteers -- are usually busy lobbying governments and political leaders. These days, their focus is on the church itself. Most are calling on decision-makers to account for last summer's cuts, which affected most areas of church work but hit justice advocacy particularly hard.

At the forefront of the protest is a network of about 100 people calling itself United for Justice. Toronto minister Rev. Brian McIntosh says it was spawned in part by his personal alarm over decisions to cut staff working in "areas central to the historic identity of the United Church."

The group sent a letter to the General Council Executive in August protesting staff downsizing, planned cuts to mission and global partner grants totalling $1.8 million, and the assumption that congregations will pick up justice and advocacy work dropped by national staff.

United for Justice also questions a decision-making process that puts elected General Council representatives in charge of broad-sweep policy and priority decisions but leaves a small staff leadership group to interpret those priorities in practical terms. The group wants the Executive to involve volunteers in implementing policy.

At an August meeting, General Council's Sub-Executive denied the network's demand that the full Executive be reconvened for an emergency meeting. It also decided against allowing a United for Justice delegation to attend this month's scheduled Executive meeting and asked the moderator to write protesters on its behalf.

Rt. Rev. David Giuliano's four-page reply chides the network for its "adversarial tone," saying "the language of demands [is] difficult for me to hear in the context of the Body of Christ that we share." The letter explains the Sub-Executive's refusal to allow a delegation and asks network members to "use existing channels" to express their concerns. Giuliano notes that the group is not alone in advocating for the church's "historical ethos," citing as an example the Community of Concern, which rallied around opposition to including gay and lesbian candidates in the United Church's ordered ministry.

Rev. Susan Eagle, a United for Justice member who is also a city councillor in London, Ont., calls the Sub-Executive's refusal to allow a delegation "pretty high-handed."

Delegation or not, United for Justice's concerns are sure to loom over the Executive as it gears up for its fall meeting this month in Toronto. Montreal Presbytery's September meeting passed a lengthy motion protesting the budget cuts and the process by which they were reached. It also mandated a Conference-wide consultation "to discuss further the implications of these cuts on the future work, mission and theology of the church."

"There's a concern that we are losing that social justice voice, as a church," says Presbytery chair Paula Kline, director of the United Church's Montreal City Mission. There were also plans for protests and letters from Hamilton Presbytery, the Ontario United Church social justice network and London Conference's church in society committee. Across the church, elected members of the Executive were being asked to account for their actions. "If we're going to face budget cuts, we should do it all together," says Kline.

"We could have asked people to tithe and they would likely have responded if they knew what was at stake," says Very Rev. Lois Wilson, the lone former moderator (1980-82) to sign the United for Justice letter.

Some opponents wonder if the measures undertaken by the Executive to help the church live within its means might themselves cause financial problems in the form of reduced support for the church's main fundraising tool, the Mission and Service Fund.

Dianne Baker of Winnipeg, a former overseas church worker and national volunteer, says she has always supported the M&S Fund. Now, she feels "betrayed" and says "this church is moving in some frightening and wrong-headed ways."

Justice advocacy, she says, is "the face of the Mission and Service Fund. They use that work to market the M&S Fund. Those are the stories used in the Minutes for Mission. I'm worried that is not a message with integrity anymore."

General Council stewardship official Rev. Bill Steadman said the cutbacks hadn't affected M&S donations as of the end of September.

Executive members say the budget reductions and staff cuts were adopted with little debate at last June's closed-door meeting, but not without considerable prayer and pain. Caryn Douglas, principal of the Winnipeg-based Centre for Christian Studies and an Executive member, called the process "exceedingly painful. I wanted to grieve a bit. I felt unprepared. . . . I find it very hard."

For the all the anger over the Executive's action, the tone was civil when Nora Sanders sat down with disgruntled members, staff and committee chairs at the end of her September tour. Rev. Jim Hatherly, the organizer of the Winnipeg meeting, called it "fair" and "congenial." People felt the general secretary "was actively trying to listen" to their concerns, he says. Among protesters, though, "the light switch has gone on, and we are realizing that we have a system that puts a lot more power in the hands of a small number of people -- all of them on staff."

As leader of, and main spokesperson for, United Church staff, Sanders -- with her amiable, open-handed approach and love and respect for congregations and ministries -- has to try to help the General Council navigate this latest storm.

"I'm glad we've had decisions made," she says, "but boy, they're painful. And I'm not surprised to hear people name that. We're all one church. People within the church have different views on things, but I'm so anxious that we find ways to express those and live them out in a way that respects other people and our own ways of doing things."

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