WASHINGTON, Nov. 17 (RNS)-- One year after the National Council of Churches teetered on the brink of extinction because of overwhelming financial troubles, the venerable ecumenical body concluded its annual meeting in Atlanta with what its general secretary termed a brighter future despite -- ongoing fiscal uncertainty.

The 51-year-old council added its 36th member church during its Nov. 15-17 meeting in Atlanta. The new member is the Alliance of Baptists, a moderate group that formed in opposition to the conservative direction of the Southern Baptist Convention. The NCC also announced that it managed to balance its budget for the past year and projects a balanced budget for the first six months of 2001.

However, that financial stability came with a price. The NCC is cutting some 17 staff positions.

Moreover, its immediate financial future is dependant upon an anxiously awaiting half-million dollars in extra funding from its largest contributor, the United Methodist Church.

With the expected money from the Methodists, the NCC will end the year with a $176,000 surplus. Without it, the NCC will end the year in the red, and could quite possibly go bankrupt.

But the Rev. Bob Edgar, the NCC's general secretary, remained confident.

"Not only is there light at the end of the tunnel, but the track on which this train is traveling is more solid," Edgar said.

After a year of soul-searching and belt-tightening, Edgar said the NCC leaves Atlanta with three main priorities: living within its fiscal means, a new 10-year effort to overcome poverty and a commitment to reinvent the NCC as a new body that will attract the participation of evangelicals, Pentecostals and Roman Catholics.

"We leave in celebration," he said.

After years of mounting deficits, the NCC -- thanks in large part to Edgar's leadership -- has reined in its spending and vowed not to touch its $3.4 million endowment, which has shrunk from $15 million just six years ago.

The $500,000 from the Methodists is part of a comprehensive $2 million bailout from member churches. Edgar said Methodists were scheduled to vote on the money this weekend and that it looks "positive" that it will come through. To trim its expenses, the NCC plans to eliminate at least 17 staff positions, bringing the number of full-time staff to 47. Officials say five of those positions are open and simply will not be filled, and an additional five staffers will move over to the NCC's humanitarian arm, Church World Service.

Since the NCC and Church World Service parted organizational company earlier this year, the NCC has shifted from managing a $77 million budget to a budget of only about $7 million. Edgar said the "restructuring" -- not a downsizing -- of staff is a natural process.

"Last year the business office managed $77 million; this year they're managing $7 million," Edgar said. "You don't need 28 people to manage $7 million."

As part of the council's focus on poverty, the NCC has promised to research the root causes of poverty and come up with realistic actions; it also has set up measures to track its progress. The NCC plans to collaborate in the project with Call to Renewal, an ecumenical anti-poverty group, and groups such as the Children's Defense Fund.

Edgar was encouraged to see a greater sense of "ownership" of the council's future, particularly among Orthodox churches and traditionally black denominations. The NCC has "grown up," he said, and emerged stronger for its struggles.

"We leave with more enthusiasm, more optimism for the future of the council because we found focus, we found direction, and we're living within our means," he said.

Still, the meeting was not without controversy.

On Tuesday, the NCC joined Catholic and evangelical leaders in signing a joint statement on marriage, bemoaning rising divorce rates and pledging to strengthen the institution of marriage.

While the statement did not mention same-sex unions, some of the NCC's member churches said the statement read as an attack on gays and lesbians, and Edgar quickly withdrew his support.

"I am concerned that in our dangerously fragmented and violent society, misinterpretation of the declaration may be used by some as a pretext for attacks on gay and lesbian persons," Edgar said in a letter withdrawing his endorsement sent to the other signers of the document.

The marriage flap showed the potential potholes Edgar may face on his road to build a "larger ecumenical table" with evangelicals and Catholics. Edgar said the incident showed how precarious ecumenical relations can be.

"Because of my learning on this issue, maybe it will be helpful, maybe I'll be more alert, to the unintended consequences of my actions in the future," Edgar said.

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