WASHINGTON, Dec. 22 (RNS)--Church Women United is facing criticism -- and a potential reduction in funding -- from some of its supporters after officers of the board of the interdenominational Christian women's group fired or demanded 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 other full-time employees as well as two part-time workers lost their jobs Dec. 11.

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

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

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

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

Recently, the organization has been developing a mentoring program for young women and a partnership with other organizations to address children's environmental health.

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

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

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

Frost, who also is the representative of denominational executives on the Church Women United board, said she was not contacted about the firings before they happened and there is not a documented reason for the action. Some people believe it may be related to financial troubles, but others have said there has been ongoing "financial distress" and cannot 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 said two others resigned.

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

Champion acknowledged Hurty has written a letter withdrawing her resignation.

"This is not a crisis for Church Women United," she said. "This is not 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 it because it did not follow proper personnel procedures. She said board members were called individually on the day before the termination and polled on their views about the matter.

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

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

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

Rose said the terminations leave the organization with two professional staff members, one in New York and one in its Washington office.

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

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

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

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