Jim Winkler, who sometimes has been a lightning rod for controversy in advocating the church’s social positions, will depart this year as the top executive for the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.
Winkler, who has worked for the agency for 28 years, is ending his 12-year term as the top executive. The United Methodist Board of Church and Society is charged with advocating the social teachings approved by the United Methodist General Conference, the denomination’s top policymaking body. The agency owns the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill and has a presence at the United Nations in New York.
The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, limits elected executives of general boards to serving a dozen years. Church law allows agency boards to suspend this provision by a two-thirds vote, and the Church and Society board has asked Winkler to remain in his job until his successor is hired.
“It’s been a phenomenal honor to serve the church in this way,” Winkler said. “I know there are a lot of interesting jobs in the church, but I can’t imagine any one being more interesting than this one in the amount of information and the sheer breadth of issues we address.”
The Board of Church and Society has set March 18 as the deadline for applications for a new top executive. Winkler told United Methodist News Service he is not sure what his future work will be.
“I’ve always been impressed by Jim’s ability to move with comfort into some difficult conversations with people of power and influence to represent our United Methodist social witness and see that it does not go unheeded,” said Phoenix Area Bishop Robert Hoshibata, the board’s chair as well as chair of the search committee.
At times controversial tenure
Both Winkler and Hoshibata agree the job can at times be controversial.
That was especially true in 2010 when the U.S. Congress passed and President Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act health-care reform law.
The majority of United Methodist lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives voted against the plan. However, then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D.-Calif., referred to The United Methodist Church as one of many organizations “sending a clear message to members of Congress: Say yes to health care reform.” More specifically, the United Methodist Board of Church and Society was included on Pelosi’s website in a list of organizations supporting reform.
Winkler has faced frequent criticism that his advocacy does not speak for every United Methodist.
“Never once have I purported to speak for the whole United Methodist Church,” Winkler said. “The general board is directed by General Conference to speak its convictions on what’s happening in the world, and we do that.”
For example, he pointed out, eight consecutive gatherings of General Conference had called for comprehensive health-care reform in the United States.
The United Methodist Book of Discipline contains a Social Principle on the “Right to Health Care” and the Book of Resolutions includes a number of resolutions on the topic.
Winkler also sparked controversy on July 28, 2011, when he and 10 other religious leaders were arrested in the U.S. Capitol as they refused to stop public prayers asking the Obama administration and Congress not to balance the budget on the backs of the poor.
Not every issue Winkler and his staff deal with is controversial among church members. The agency also campaigns to stop human trafficking and child abuse and supports ministries aimed at fighting substance abuse.
The past two years, the agency has called on United Methodists to give up alcohol consumption for Lent, donate the funds they would have used to buy alcohol and start an international conversation about the harm done by this common vice.
What’s next for agency
Hoshibata said that whoever follows Winkler likely also will sometimes take unpopular positions and face criticism from some in the denomination.
“I think that by the very nature of our work, we are in a divisive role,” he said. “Any statement that we make — even though we are backed up by our Book of Resolutions and Social Principles — because of the diversity in our United Methodist Church will be potentially divisive.”
He said his search committee is hoping to attract a wide range of qualified candidates. Applicants must be professing members of The United Methodist Church with “a biblical and theological understanding of its mission and social witness” as well as a thorough knowledge of the denomination’s doctrines and governance.
Applicants also must be articulate in expressing the mandates of the church and justice issues.
“There is a deep appreciation for the presence of our general board on Capitol Hill,” Hoshibata said. “We feel it’s made a difference in the way our country’s government has responded to some of the concerns of United Methodists. We’d like to see a continuation of that.”
He added that the board also would like to see the next top executive expand on the agency’s mission to talk about how the global church can become more involved in the board’s work. “My concern is that we want to share with the whole global community the variety of concerns that we address,” he said.
*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.
News media contact: Heather Hahn, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.