Jim Winkler departs National Council of Churches after two terms as chief

Winkler, who had served as NCC’s general secretary and president since 2013, gave no reason for his departure.

Jim Winkler, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, speaks to journalists during the 2014 Religion Newswriters Association conference in Decatur, Georgia, on Sept. 19, 2014. RNS photo by Sally Morrow

(RNS) — The National Council of Churches announced Wednesday (Jan. 26) that Jim Winkler, its general secretary and president since 2013, is leaving his post.

Winkler told readers of the Protestant ecumenical organization’s e-newsletter of his departure on Friday, writing in a “Final Column” that “I have completed two terms as president and general secretary and now move to the next chapter of my life.” 

He did not cite a reason for his departure. Winkler also did not respond to a request to comment on his move.

“Jim’s last day is January 31st,” Bishop Teresa Jefferson-Snorton, chair of the NCC board, told Religion News Service in an email.

As recently as November, Winkler appeared to be planning to stay for a third term as leader of the 72-year-old organization. At an event heralding the release this spring of an updated New Revised Standard Version of the Bible in collaboration with the Society of Biblical Literature, he told the audience, “I look forward to seeing you next year, if not earlier.” 

The NCC’s announcement on Wednesday said, “An interim President/General Secretary will be named soon, followed by a formal search for an elected leader.”

Winkler arrived at the NCC shortly after it had begun to downsize to its current form — what Winkler described in the newsletter column as “a tiny staff of less than 10 persons and a budget of about $2 million a year.”

RELATED: National Council of Churches elects all-female officers, approves NRSV update

Two years before, the organization’s annual report showed that its expenses of about $5.6 million were running more than $1 million more than its revenue. In 2013, the group moved its headquarters from its historic “God Box” office in New York City’s Interchurch Center to a suite in Washington’s United Methodist Building. Leaders at the time hoped the move would enable the cash-strapped organization to eventually save it $500,000. 

Officially founded in 1950, the NCC has its roots in the Federal Council of Churches that started in 1908. Long considered a key voice for mainline Protestant Christianity, its leaders have sometimes had regular access to the White House. In recent years it has expanded its reach beyond its 37 Christian member denominations to engage leaders of non-Christian faiths, working against “anti-Muslim animus” and supporting Sikhs who have suffered other attacks.

In his farewell message on Friday, Winkler noted the NCC had established new interreligious dialogues with Buddhist and Hindu communities.

In recent years, too, it has made combating racism a core aspect of its work. In 2018, on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the NCC held one of its largest events ever, drawing thousands for a march from the King Memorial to the U.S. Capitol for a rally to kick off its A.C.T. Now to End Racism initiative

At that time, Winkler said the NCC was past its financial “near-death experience” and ready to “fearlessly” take on racism and the legacy of slavery, which he called “the toughest issue in the entire history of North and South America.”

The NCC has since developed a list of resources to support the reparations bill in Congress, H.R. 40, including scholarly articles, Bible verses about justice and “counterarguments to the objections.” Winkler spoke in favor of reparations during the NCC’s 2020 virtual Christian Unity Gathering.

“Reparations for enslavement is biblical,” he said, citing a verse from the Book of Deuteronomy that says, “And when you send a male slave out from you a free person, you shall not send him out empty-handed.”

Winkler was also among the faith leaders who joined an August march to the U.S. Capitol to demand passage of the Biden White House’s infrastructure bill, arguing that it would support more just and equitable conditions in the nation. The previous week, he spoke at another march focused on voting rights and a $15 an hour federal minimum wage.

The NCC’s member denominations represent some 35 million Christians in Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican, evangelical and historic Black denominations and “peace churches,” including Church of the Brethren.

Prior to his work for NCC, Winkler served for almost three decades at the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society, where he became general secretary in 2000.

RELATED: The rise and fall and rise of the National Council of Churches (COMMENTARY) 

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