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Denominations Trim Presence on Capitol Hill

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.

  • pagansister

    Churches are feeling the pinch just like everyone else in this country. No surprise that they can’t continue their presence in Washington, DC.

  • Mordred08

    “The Family Research Council, perhaps the premier conservative Christian lobby in Washington, has moved a half-dozen employees off its full-time staff”
    The silver lining on the rain cloud, perhaps? Granted it’s a pretty big rain cloud…

  • jestrfyl

    One of the things that amused me when I lived in the DC area was the God Box on Capitol Hill. It is a building very near the capitol (a super high rent district) that houses (housed?) many of the lobbying groups from diffrent denominations. That same ecumenical gathering could happen somewhere else, even outside the proverbial Beltway, and have as good a presence. Every mile away from the center of DC the rents decrease. With the Metro and relatively easy entrance into the city, these same groups could continue to lobby in person but not pay the staggering rent for their facility. Frankly, I wonder how seriously the legislators and their staffs take the lobbying from these groups anyway.
    This is one more ocassion when everyone has to think in ways other than “That’s the Way We’ve Always Done It”. Creativity in many things will save the day!

  • Observer

    Re. jestrfyl: Unless I am mistaken, the “God Box” to which you refer is the United Methodist Building and is actually owned by the church. While I am not aware of the rent paid by the other religiously affiliated tenants in the building, I am pretty certain that the particular blessing of history in that building’s location so close to the Capitol prevents the churches from paying high rent. Indeed, I believe secular groups rent space from the church, perhaps making it an act of good stewardship instead of the waste that your comment implies.

  • jestrfyl

    Thanks for the information. I had no idea who owns “The Box”. It’s location is one of the best in the city. Given that, I guess the rent is not too bad. However, as an escapee from the region, I know the other costs are astounding. In an era of diminishing resources, it sems hard to justify covering the expenses required for the staff. In that the denominations involved all seem to be good stewards of the money entrusted to them, it will be interesting to see what choices they make in regards to this. I am sure the Methodists will be tempted to sell their building to any of a zillion willing and anxious organizations. I expect the building was a gift from a time when property of that sort was not in such great demand.

  • soularpowered

    Jesterfyl and Observer it is wonderful to see people who have the facts commenting and those who are informed responding well. As I read this story I could not help reflecting that in all Christian groups, just as soon as we are about to make a giant step toward unity, peace, and christian progress all Hell breaks loose. It certainly seems to have done so this time. Perhaps we are doing something right if the evil one is so wracking destruction in our land.
    Peace and all good always.

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