WASHINGTON, Dec. 22 (RNS)--Church Women United is facing criticism -- and a potential reduction in funding -- from some of its supporters after officers ofthe board of the interdenominational Christian women's group fired ordemanded the resignation of almost half of its staff.

Kathleen Hurty, who served as executive director of the New York-based organization, said she and four otherfull-time employees as well as two part-time workers lost their jobsDec. 11.

Hurty said the reason for the terminations was "really unclear." Shesaid she originally felt pressured to resign, but decided to withdrawher resignation and considers herself fired.

"I care a great deal about the mission of Church Women United and Ithink this action defies their mission," she said. "It is anorganization that has so much rich history and tremendous potential andthis is a real setback."

At least two denominational women's organizations -- thoseaffiliated with the United Methodist Church and the Christian Church(Disciples of Christ) -- are so upset about the turn of events they havedecided to temporarily withhold their funding of Church Women United.

Founded in 1941, the racially and ethnically diverse organizationis a grass-roots movement that includes what leaders say is some 500,000Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox women. Those affiliated with theorganization meet regularly in local communities for prayer, Bible studyand discussions of advocacy issues, such as justice for women andchildren.

Recently, the organization has been developing a mentoring programfor young women and a partnership with other organizations to addresschildren's environmental health.

As of Dec. 31, there will be eight staffers left on theorganization's payroll.

Joyce Sohl, deputy general secretary of the women's division of theUnited Methodist Church, said her organization will hold on to its 2001contribution of $32,000 "until we see what the future directions aregoing to be for the national organization and until there is somejustice resolution to the personnel issues."

The Rev. Ellen Frost, senior associate for Disciples Women, thewomen's division of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), said herdenomination also has decided to withhold its contributions "until thissituation is settled."

Frost, who also is the representative of denominational executiveson the Church Women United board, said she was not contacted about thefirings before they happened and there is not a documented reason forthe action. Some people believe it may be related to financial troubles,but others have said there has been ongoing "financial distress" andcannot understand why the firings occurred at this time.

The Rev. Jerrye Champion, president of Church Women United,confirmed three full-time and two part-time staffers were fired and saidtwo others resigned.

"Our intent was to terminate," she said, declining to explain thereason for the firings. "We were providing an opportunity forresignation if persons desired to."

Champion acknowledged Hurty has written a letter withdrawing herresignation.

"This is not a crisis for Church Women United," she said. "This isnot something that has just happened in a spontaneous way."

But Dorothy F. Rose, a member of the board's personnel committee,said the action was a "surprise" to her and she disagreed with itbecause it did not follow proper personnel procedures. She said boardmembers were called individually on the day before the termination andpolled on their views about the matter.

"The three officers went into the office on Monday and told peoplethey had an hour to clear out their desks and go home," said Rose, ofBaldwinsville, N.Y. "I consider it to be inappropriate."

Champion disagreed with those who questioned the manner in whichthe terminations took place.

"We have followed all the rules," she said. "We are located ... allover the country and so we have to have a way of keeping theorganization mobilized instantaneously."

Rose said the terminations leave the organization with twoprofessional staff members, one in New York and one in its Washingtonoffice.

"I think the organization has placed itself in jeopardy," she said.

Church Women United issued a statement Thursday declaringconfidence in the organization's future, but declining to discuss"confidential personnel matters."

"We do, however, want to take this opportunity to assure oursupporting denominations and all other interested persons that the workof Church Women United will go on, even more effectively and with evengreater commitment than it has in the past," the statement reads.