WASHINGTON — Imagine finally making it to the big game, then having to take half your team off the field.
That’s how it feels for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobby that recently laid off more than a dozen staffers, said legislative director Ruth Flower.
The cuts come just as the new Obama White House is opening doors that had been firmly shut to progressive people of faith during the Bush administration. “We have a seat at the table now,” Flower said. “We can talk to people in the administration and propose things and actually be listened to. We just have fewer people to fill the seats.”
The Friends committee lost 20 percent of its budget in the collapsing stock market, Flower said, making the staff reductions painful but necessary. The remaining 30 employees are taking 10 to 20 percent salary cuts, she said.
The Quakers aren’t alone. Religious advocacy groups across the nation’s capital are facing budgets drastically curtailed by the economic recession. In response, some are cutting staffers or freezing travel budgets and salaries.
Charged with representing their churches in the corridors of power and educating members about Washington politics, many faith-based lobbies are financially supported by denominations that are reeling from a drop in donations and slumping stock portfolios.
“Everybody’s hurting,” said Jim Winkler, general secretary of the Washington-based General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church. “I don’t know any major denomination that’s not having hard times.”
Winkler said his office, which is supported by a small portion of the money collected at Methodist congregations, is asking staffers to cut down on telephone and travel expenses — to stay at friends’ houses instead of hotels and to forego rental cars.
It’s not just church-affiliated lobbyists feeling the pinch.
The Family Research Council, perhaps the premier conservative Christian lobby in Washington, has moved a half-dozen employees off its full-time staff, according to U.S. News & World Report. And Hadassah, a Zionist women’s organization that lost $40 million to convicted con artist Bernard Madoff, laid off two of its three Washington staffers, Washington Jewish Week reported in January.
“Our supporters are feeling the pinch just like everybody else right now,” said J.P. Duffy, a spokesman for Family Research Council.
The irony for liberal-leaning groups is that the cutbacks are coming just as they emerge from the political wilderness. Many say they’ve already had more meetings with the Obama White House than during the Bush administration’s eight years in office.
“To date they have been very open to meeting with members of the faith community,” said Maureen Shea, director of government relations for the Episcopal Church. “We know we won’t always agree, but if we get to make our case we feel better about it.”
Many mainline Protestant churches have been slimming down their Washington operations for years, observers say, as the denominations continue to lose members and change priorities.
The Rev. Bob Edgar, former general secretary of the National Council of Churches, which is rebuilding its Washington office after cutbacks in 2007, said lobbying is a job best done in the capital.
“This is the most important time to have a strong faith witness in Washington,” said Edgar, who now heads Common Cause, a public interest advocacy group. “I don’t think you can do it in New York. You miss too much not being here every day.”
But for the Church of the Brethren, their six-decade long presence in Washington became too expensive to maintain after the small Anabaptist denomination lost $7 million in assets in 2008, largely because of the free-falling stock market, said spokeswoman Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford.
Church leaders shuttered the Brethren Witness/Washington Office on March 19, making the Rev. Phil Jones, its only full-time staffer, a man without a job.
Jones, 54, said “one of the real struggles is that I was really looking forward to having access to the White House in this administration.”
“It’s devastating to me to that our church, which is a historic peace church, would cut its peace and justice program,” Jones said.
Peace churches, like the Brethren, maintain that Christians are called to push their government to be non-violent.
As he packed up his office on Wednesday (March 25), Jones reflected on the day he was let go. March 19 was the sixth anniversary of the war in Iraq. Earlier that day, he had mailed a letter to President Obama, expressing concern about Iraq and the influx of U.S. troops into Afghanistan.
“To me,” Jones said, “it’s a personal irony that the Iraq war outlasted my tenure.”
By Daniel Burke
2009 Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.