2016-06-30
WASHINGTON, Nov. 13, (RNS) -- The Rev. Bob Edgar reaches into his pocket and pulls out a business card. The size of the card is striking, more than twice the size of a normal card, with a detailed listing of his office phone number, home number, cell phone number and personal e-mail address.

For Edgar, the general secretary of the National Council of Churches, the cards serve as a sort of portable notepad. He scribbles notes on the back and puts them in his left pocket, and then when he's done with the card, he folds it and moves it to his right pocket.

Asked if the size and cost of the cards is the reason for the fiscal woes at the ecumenical agency, Edgar grins and chuckles.

"If anything's going to save the National Council of Churches," Edgar says, "it's going to be those cards."

He's only half-joking.

For Edgar, the cards represent an attention to detail and a networking prowess that have propelled him from a Methodist circuit preacher to 12 years as a liberal-leaning congressman, a decade stabilizing a troubled California seminary and, finally, to head of the beleaguered NCC.

As the NCC gathers in Atlanta Wednesday through Friday for its annual General Assembly meeting, all eyes will be on Edgar's nearly year-long tenure at the helm of the 51-year-old organization. For both Edgar and the NCC, it's been a year of ups and downs, success and frustrating failure.

Most give Edgar high marks for helping to balance the agency's budget and reign in its finances. He has quieted critics in member churches and helped to refocus the NCC's vision in a changing ecumenical landscape.

"Part of his task is to help us stay on focus and look at some of the hard stuff we have to do, and with some creativity look to the future with some excitement," said the Rev. David Perry, ecumenical officer for the Episcopal Church. "He's worked really hard at that."

But perhaps Edgar's most difficult task still lies ahead. Edgar has become the leading proponent of the call to bury the NCC -- which today is comprised of 35 mainline Protestant, historically African American Protestant and Orthodox denominations -- and resurrect it as an entirely new body with the sought-after participation of Roman Catholics, Evangelicals and Pentecostalists.

When talking about a revamped NCC, Edgar gets visibly excited. He sits up in his chair, leans forward and quietly pounds a clenched fist on his chair.

"Our primary vocation is not to save the National Council of Churches," Edgar said in a recent interview. "Our primary vocation is to strengthen and inspire the ecumenical movement."

Edgar's tenure at the NCC began with a baptism by fire of sorts in the Elian Gonzalez case. Just weeks into his new job, Edgar was ferrying the Cuban boy's grandmothers back and forth to Cuba and facing unrelenting news media attention.

When the Elian case subsided, Edgar faced problems within the NCC, with a deficit that quickly grew from $4 million to more than $6 million. Member churches began to withhold their money until Edgar got things into shape.

"This is the hardest job I've ever had," Edgar said. "About every other day it's the most fun I've ever had, but it's the hardest job."

Edgar managed to shape a balanced budget and convinced member churches to help repay the deficit. Still, the council faces projected shortfalls next year and may have to cut more staff.

NCC observers say Edgar has had to draw on every skill he gained in the halls of Congress and behind the pulpit.

"Understanding the political dynamics of organizations has been a real asset for him as he's walked into the challenges we face," said the Rev. Daniel Martensen, ecumenical liaison for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Not everyone is so convinced. The Rev. Parker Williamson, editor of the conservative Presbyterian Layman newspaper and a frequent critic of the NCC, said he respects Edgar's intentions, but thinks he will ultimately be unsuccessful in luring Evangelicals and Catholics toward a new ecumenical table.

"He's looking for a lifeboat," Williamson said. "He sees the Roman Catholics, he sees the Evangelicals and he'd like to get a piece of that. But politically, he's thinking organizationally. Evangelicals don't think that way. It doesn't take long to see that they are ships passing in the night."

For Edgar personally, the past year has been a time of intense reflection and deepening understanding of his walk with God.

Edgar says he is humbled by the responsibility and realization that he is trying to overcome 2,000 years of Christian division in order to bring people together. If Methodists or Presbyterians can barely agree among themselves, it's a wonder the NCC can agree on anything at all, he said.

In his 30 years from the streets of Philadelphia to the halls of Congress, Edgar says he has undergone a significant amount of "ego disarmament," at which point he recites his lengthy resume. Still, every day, Edgar finds himself humbled in prayer, taking inspiration from the prophet Isaiah's words: "Here I am, Lord. Send me."

"God doesn't call the best and the brightest to do the act of creation or recreation," Edgar said. "I never would have picked any of the prophets or the disciples. My faith says that God is calling common, ordinary people to do extraordinary things."

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