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Changing priorities lead to big job cuts

Increased emphasis on congregations comes at the expense of justice work, critics say

By Mike Milne

It was a summer of upheaval at The United Church of Canada's General Council Office. Under budget pressure and charged with a newly minted set of priorities focusing on congregations, senior church leaders laid off 27 people, rehired seven, closed its audio-visual studio and pulled $1.8 million from its 2009 global and domestic grants. Then, just weeks later, program and administrative staff came within a few votes of joining a labour union.

At a closed-door meeting in late June, the Executive of General Council effectively cut its budget from $40.2 million this year to $36.9 million in 2010. Despite the sweeping nature of the cuts, insiders say the discussion had little of the bitter debate or emotional pleas that have accompanied similar actions in the past two decades. The net loss of 20 jobs (effective this past Aug. 31) translates to about 11 percent of General Council staff and leaves some 165 full-time employees at the church's west-end Toronto office.

Six of the jobs were eliminated in the Justice, Global and Ecumenical Relations unit and involved nationally run justice programs. Among longtime and high-profile staff affected were domestic social-justice officer Jim Marshall, refugee advocate Heather MacDonald and human rights co-ordinator Choice Okoro. Two new jobs were created to support social justice work by congregations.

Six full-time jobs disappeared with the Executive's decision to close Berkeley Studio, the church's audio-visual production arm for 50 years, which occupied the main-floor space at Church House. It produced the weekly Spirit Connection television show broadcast on Vision TV for the past 19 years. The show was attracting fewer than 8,000 viewers a week. In the future, the church will likely outsource audio-visual production. Four people were laid off from the newly created Congregational, Educational and Community Ministries unit and four jobs were cut at the church's Toronto resource distribution centre. Four administrative positions were also eliminated. General Secretary Nora Sanders will head a study aimed at finding ways to simplify various General Council administrative policies and procedures.

Job cuts weren't the only fallout. Grants to global partners and special support for Canadian congregations and ministries will be cut by $900,000 each in the 2009 budget. Decisions about whose grants get cut will be made at a later date. Grants to support Conferences' staff costs (about $4.4 million a year) and grants to theological colleges and educational centres (about $2.2 million) will also come under closer scrutiny once task groups currently looking at those areas make their reports.

The cuts do not affect the Emerging Spirit campaign aimed at welcoming more people into the United Church. The $10.5-million effort is funded from a $20-million bequest left to the church several years ago.

Although General Council finance officials insist the church is in good overall fiscal shape, the upheaval at Church House has roots in budget constraints, including flat annual Mission and Service Fund givings (about $30 million for two decades) and salaries that rise with the cost of living (adding $500,000 a year to budgets). At least two years ago, sharp-eyed budget-watchers on the Executive became concerned by the church's increasing reliance on bequests to make up for shortfalls in the annual budget. (This year, $5.7 million from bequests and $1.3 million in interest on bequest funds balanced the church budget.) Last fall, the finance committee called for a reduced use of bequest funds.

Priority-setting became the next order of business as staff grappled with the prospect of smaller annual budgets. Taking their direction from "Call to Purpose," a statement developed at the August 2006 General Council, the Executive successfully set priorities where others have failed in similar attempts for more than a decade.Priorities adopted at last May's Executive meeting put an increased emphasis on congregational ministry, with particular focus on youth and young adults, the environment, Aboriginal peoples and interculturalism. While there was talk about trying to raise more M&S money to beat the deficits, says Executive member Rev. Heather Leffler of Clifford, Ont., "the priorities really are inviting us to go in another direction, so to hold tight to `what-is' with a lot of `what-ifs' didn't make a lot of sense."

Executive member Ted Kostecki, a staff associate at First-St. Andrew's United in London, Ont., says that as priorities were "moulded into policy," the emphasis on congregations became even clearer. "I hate to say it, but we're a congregational church, and for a lot of congregations like ours, it's going to be very refreshing."

Missing from the priority list are many of the General Council's current justice initiatives -- both in Canada and abroad. "By definition, having priorities means saying that some things are more important than others," wrote General Secretary Nora Sanders in a letter to staff shortly after the job cuts were announced. "That is so hard in our context, where nothing we do as a church is without importance."

Jim Blanchard, of Kensington, P.E.I., who chairs General Council's ministry and employment policies and services committee, says that although less social justice, peace and refugee work will be done by General Council staff, similar work should increase in congregations. "It's not something that can be left to others," he says. Churches "need to see this as part of congregational life."

The changes were needed to help the church reconnect with its roots, Blanchard adds. "If you're going to survive, sometimes you have to go back to the foundation and rebuild it. And sometimes you find the foundation has huge holes in it." News of the layoffs and changed priorities led to sharp criticism from several high-profile United Church people.

Kofi Hope, former co-ordinator of the church's national Youth Connections project and currently studying at Oxford University in the U.K. as a Rhodes Scholar, assailed church decision-makers in an open letter. "I see our church operated in a top-down manner more in line with corporate empires or imperial states," says Hope. "How do we make our national decision-making more embodying of the values of a faithful community of Christ?"

Another letter, addressed to Sanders and Moderator Rt. Rev. David Giuliano, and signed by Rev. Brian McIntosh of Toronto and 60 others, questions congregations' ability to do justice work. Referring to work on "justice, peace and the integrity of creation" as a United Church hallmark, the letter says the church's "commitment to national advocacy cannot be given up and given over to congregations alone."

Former moderator Very Rev. Lois Wilson (1980-82) said in a website posting that the Executive's decision "turns us into a congregationalist church -- and congregations simply do not have the capacity to carry the bulk of the social justice work." Wilson also criticized the process at the 2006 General Council that led to the newly adopted priorities and recent layoffs.

This summer's upheaval aside, the priorities will provide remaining staff and the Executive with a roadmap for the future. By 2010, with reduced reliance on bequests, an estimated additional $1 million will be available from reserve funds for spending on new work or emergencies.

For her part, Sanders hopes that work in the somewhat diminished General Council Office will be "less about what we define as units and more about what we define as work. . . . I love the fact that part of General Council's priorities were to do [the work] in a way that stretches us beyond our familiar places. And I think that applies to our office and to all parts of the church."

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