Bishop Vashti McKenzie on leading National Council of Churches as it nears 75 years

‘I think that the difference, at this point, is that I am adding activism to advocacy,’ she said as she became NCC president after serving as interim leader.

Bishop Vashti McKenzie greets community members in Buffalo, N.Y., at Bethel AME Church after worship the Sunday following the shooting at a Tops supermarket in May 2022. Courtesy of Bishop Vashti McKenzie

(RNS) — Bishop Vashti McKenzie retired two years ago as the first woman bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. But she didn’t stay still for long.

Last year, she was named interim president of the National Council of Churches, an ecumenical organization with 37 communions, or member denominations, including Protestant, Orthodox, evangelical, Anglican, historic African American and peace church traditions.

McKenzie was originally appointed for a two-year stint, and the NCC general board decided at its spring meeting in early May to elect her as the organization’s president and general secretary as it prepares to mark its 75th year in 2025. 

“She has been a blessing to the council and a blessing to the ecumenical world,” said Christian Methodist Episcopal Bishop Teresa Jefferson-Snorton, NCC chair, announcing the development at the May 15 worship service in Washington, D.C., that launched the upcoming anniversary.

McKenzie, 76, talked with Religion News Service about why she’s continuing with the ecumenical group, how she responds to its critics and what lies ahead for its future.

The interview was edited for length and clarity.

Why did you say yes to this more permanent role?

The more I delved into it, took a deeper dive into advocacy and activism work and, of course, unity and ecumenism, the more I saw needed to be done and wanted to do. I’ve always had a passion for justice work. It’s not a new passion. I grew up in a family that was a part of social justice, the Civil Rights Movement and the whole nine yards. My parents took me to the March on Washington.

RELATED: Bishop Vashti McKenzie to lead National Council of Churches for next two years

When it started in 1950, the National Council of Churches was a key leader of mainline Protestants, but in more recent years, it’s had a staff of fewer than 10. It’s reduced its annual budget to about $2 million and moved from the so-called God Box in New York City to Washington. What is the status of the organization’s staffing and funding now?

We have about 10 staff members now who work and, of course, any number of volunteers. NCC went through a reorganization in 2013, reducing the size of the organization. In our headquarters now we have about 10 people, some who work outside of the DC area, in a hybrid situation, and some people who work on the ground. The budget is just about that (same) size.

U.S. Surgeon General meets with NCC's Executive Committee members prior to the Governing Board Health and Mental Wellness kick-off luncheon at the NCC Governing Board Week of Events. Courtesy Bishop Vashti McKenzie

Bishop Vashti McKenzie, center front in purple and black robe, poses with other National Council of Churches leaders in May in Washington, D.C. Courtesy of Bishop Vashti McKenzie

The NCC has launched a two-year celebration to mark its 75th anniversary in 2025. Is there any particular thing you’re seeing ahead that might be different than the past?

I think that the difference, at this point, is that I am adding activism to advocacy.

It’s not that we haven’t done activism. We have. I mean, the NCC was right there at the March on Washington 60 years ago. It was a part of the planning and organizing just like NCC was a part of the Poor People’s Campaign and their march. I believe we need to do more. We need to be more on the ground.

We can’t be everywhere but when some things happen, we need to be there. So when the shooting at the Tops market happened in Buffalo, NCC was on the ground. I was there. We worked with our NCC communion churches in that area. When the children were killed at Robb Elementary School, we went to Uvalde. We worshipped in our communion churches and talked with the pastors there to see how we can support them. After the cameras go away, after the lights are turned off, what kinds of things do you need?

The NCC’s general board adopted a resolution this month (May) that called on the president and Congress to pass legislation that would end what it said were “the massacres from weapons of war in our communities.” What do you think it will take for there to be an agreement on this hotly debated issue?

The memorial in front of Tops featuring photographs and flowers to remember those killed in the supermarket shooting. Courtesy Bishop Vashti McKenzie

A memorial in front of Tops supermarket in Buffalo, N.Y., featured photographs and flowers to remember those killed in a mass shooting at the market in 2022. Courtesy of Bishop Vashti McKenzie

Well, it amazes me that we cannot figure out how we can have gun safety and have a right to bear arms at the same time. We have fabulous intellect and creative and innovative people and we ought to be able to come up with a plan. I don’t think people realize what an assault rifle does to a body: When 100 rounds go into the body, there’s nothing left. We’re trying to take the weapons of warfare off the streets, the assault rifles and the magazines that turn a regular weapon into that kind of weapon.

Until all of us care about the rest of us being safe, then nothing will be done.

Institute for Religion and Democracy President Mark Tooley, who is a longtime critic of the NCC, tweeted recently that he has to explain your organization to “anybody under age 60.” And, he added: “Its demise is instructive: vague theology & chronic political activism.” How do you react to that appraisal?

NCC came together because faith leaders realized collaboration was better than competition. And so they came together to collaborate, not to merge their theologies. They came together to collaborate in response to a social condition of the industrial age where children and adults were being harmed. And so, just as we care about whether children go to bed with empty bellies or full bellies, we’re also concerned about the practice and policies that force children to go to bed hungry. And so you may consider it vague and may consider it chronic activism. But if someone doesn’t speak out, then we’re always waiting for somebody to ride in on a white horse and rescue us and we can’t do that. And so it’s up to us who are already on the ground to be able to give some practical hands-on — not just theory but practical hands-on — application of these entities that come together to make up NCC.

Bishop Vashti McKenzie addresses the Governing Board Health and Wellness Task Force. Courtesy Bishop Vashti McKenzie

Bishop Vashti McKenzie addresses the Governing Board Health and Wellness Task Force in May. Courtesy of Bishop Vashti McKenzie

The NCC and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism sought the guidance of Harvard students in recent months on how best to work on reparations. What do you consider the most important advice that they have given you that the NCC hopes to heed?

A part of what was engaging was the fact that Christians and Jews were able to address this subject together, and that both had interests and both have sacred texts to support it, which defies the myth that this is only an African American thing. What excited me about this Harvard project is that you have young minds, addressing an old subject and coming up with something fresh: the Bible study that NCC is going to do on June the 12th for six weeks, leading the Bible study in a virtual setting where we invite others to come and join us in this subject.

You have been the first woman bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and now you’re the first African American woman president and general secretary of the NCC. Do you expect to break any more barriers before you truly retire?

I didn’t expect to break the barriers that I have. (laughs) You don’t get up in the morning and say, “OK, what mountain shall we climb today?” That’s not how that happened. I remember when I began to feel the call into episcopal service, (Howard Divinity School) Dean Lawrence Jones said: “There are people who pursue the episcopacy and there are those for whom the episcopacy pursues. Stand still and wait to see what God says.” It came looking for me and I answered and pursued.

The same with NCC. I was standing at an event and someone came up to me and said to me, “NCC is looking for an interim leader. Would you be interested in it?” I said, “This is not the time or place to discuss it.” We were standing at a funeral. “If you seriously want to engage me in a conversation, give me a call.” And they did.

RELATED: Harvard, National Council of Churches, Reform Jews seeking reparations blueprint

Donate to Support Independent Journalism!

Donate Now!