A History of the Ohio Council of Churches (1919-1984)
By E. Rudolph Walborn
The Beginnings/Six Thousand Country Churches: Publication of Six Thousand Country Churches in 1919 by the Federation on Country Life of the Federal Council of Churches led the established denominations in Ohio to develop a renewed effort to express Christian unity by tackling the problems of the weakest links, the small communities.
The book, by Charles Otis Gill, with a foreword by Gifford Pinchott, was the result of an intensive state study of Ohio begun in 1912 by the Federal Council. Ohio was chosen because of its geographical location and because of the diversity of church conditions. After general conclusions, maps of each county were included, showing locations and sizes of congregations according to denomination. In seventy counties conditions were described as “appalling”. In eighteen, chiefly in the south and southeast, there were 1500 churches founded partly by the result of denominational zeal and competition. Ministers were too few, mostly untrained, and chiefly part-time. Churches were too many and too small for useful programs.
Gill’s summaries provided an impetus for the organizations of the Ohio Federation of Churches on October 20, 1919.
Previous attempts at Interchurch Cooperation: As early as 1859, laity had organized the Ohio Sunday School Association in Ohio, which worked through county associations to encourage development of Sunday Schools. In the 1920s and 1930s the organization became the Ohio Council of Religious Education, with stress on weekday religious education programs.
In 1901, an Ohio Federation of Churches and Christian Workers was organized, seven years prior to the formation of the Federal Council of Churches. This cooperative effort was premature, with no definite objectives and insufficient support, and only lasted a few years.
An organization of Ohio Home Mission Executives existed after 1912, and the experience of these individuals aided in the formation of the new council.
During World War I days, the national denominations had drawn together in an Interchurch World Movement to cope with wartime problems. A considerable amount of money was raised for projects such as service to new war-time communities.
After the 1918 Peace, the Interchurch World Movement was ambitious and proposed to undertake the completion of the Ohio Surveys. The Rev. B.F. Lamb, a Methodist minister who had been working for several years organizing Evangelistic Missions for the Portsmouth District of the Methodist Church was enlisted in early 1919 for this purpose. The survey was completed and county maps were prepared by the new Council, under Dr. Lamb’s leadership.
Council Organization Begins: As the survey moved forward, the Federal Council of Churches decided to encourage the organization of a state council of churches in Ohio. Only one state council was then in existence, in a tentative form, in Massachusetts. The Rev. W.K. Anderson, a Methodist minister who had worked with the Interchurch surveys in Michigan, was asked by the Federal Council to come to Columbus in early 1919. On April 21, he brought together representative church people, looking toward the formation of an interdenominational organization. Thirty-one representatives from seven denominations, the community church movement, and from city federations of churches responded.
Dr. William Oxley Thompson, President of the Ohio State University and a Presbyterian minister, was asked to convene a representative meeting. This was held in Cleveland on May 7 with 58 persons present, 30 of whom were from 13 denominations. The Interchurch World Movement immediately indicated its willingness to work with the proposed federation and to finance it.
W.K. Anderson, employed by the Federal Council, and B.F. Lamb, employed by the Interfaith World Movement, had met after both men arrived in Columbus, and they decided to join forces.
The Ohio Home Missions Council, which had become a Comity Committee, was also prepared to participate, as was an Ohio Rural Survey Committee, which had been the arm of the Interchurch World Movement.
By October 20, 1919, 10 denominations and six city councils has ratified a constitution and appointed delegates to the Ohio Federation of Churches. Fenton O. Fish, in A History of the Ohio Council of Churches (1919-1954), an unpublished manuscript calls this “Founding Day.” Dr. W.O. Thompson was elected the first President. To staff the new Federation, William K. Anderson was named Executive Director, and B. F. Lamb was named Associate in charge of completing the survey. Their tasks were separate and mutually exclusive. Funding was provided by the Interchurch World Movement, with small contributions to come from denominations. In March 1920, the Rev. A. B. Eby was named Associate Director of Rural Surveys.
In addition to underwriting the surveys, the Movement convened and paid attendance expenses for a conference of 2,800 pastors. This became the Ohio Pastors Convention, later Convocation, and has continued as first and largest state pastors gathering in the nation.
The enthusiasm for church cooperation was soon subdued when word came on July 1, 1920, that the Interchurch World Movement was without funds, and support for the Ohio Federation was ceasing. W.K. Anderson left in October for a pastorate in Pittsburg, and B. F. Lamb was asked to continue with the new Federation, with the prospect for support not very optimistic. His active leadership in the Council as Executive Secretary continued until 1951, and he continued leadership in the Temple of Good Will until his retirement in 1968.
When the development of the proposed Temple of Good Will required B. F. Lamb’s major efforts, the Council reorganized in 1949 and named him as President, working with the Temple. The Rev. Henry O. Shillington from Massachusetts was named in 1949 to be Associate Executive Director, in charge of Council activities. After 1952 when the Temple became an independent organization, he became Executive Secretary and served until 1957.
A major thrust was to insure accountability to denominational members. In 1957, a study of the philosophy of the Council was drawn up and a 10-year plan adopted. The focus on denominational participation continued. In the interim, Frank Jennings of Massachusetts and O. M. Walton of the Cleveland and Pittsburgh Federations served as Acting Executives.
In September 1958, the Rev. John M. Wilson of the Minnesota Council of Churches staff arrived as Executive and continued his service until early 1969. He spent several more years working with the Ohio Council of Churches Foundation. His efforts in building denominational responsibility with full accountability laid the groundwork for Ecumenical Study in Ohio in 1966. Its recommendations were ready for the 1968 Assembly. The Rev. Carlton N. Weber, a staff member of the Ohio Conference United Church of Christ, was named Executive and has served the Council since early 1969.
The First 50 Years:
By the time of the fiftieth Assembly of the Ohio Council of Churches in 1968, the programs and services developed as new challenges occurred in the effort to display Christian unity. By the end of this period, departments were developed with staffing provided chiefly by denominational grants, often augmented by funds generated by the departments themselves.
Town and Country: This was the first concern of the Council (called a Federation until 1922). Already in 1912 a half-dozen denominations had been represented in a Home Missions Council, and this interest was carried over when the Council was organized. It became known as the Comity Department, and by 1922 a working document was adopted as “The Principles of Comity: Guiding the Ohio Federation of Churches in Solving Interdenominational Problems in Town and Country Territory.”
Suggestions for solving the problem of inadequately-churched rural communities included establishing one strong denominational church, a strong independent community church, or a federated church, whose members retained denominational ties until a community or denominational congregation could evolve.
In 1924, the Rev. W. H. Thompson, a Baptist rural worker, began service which continued until his death in 1948, except for a recess of three mid-depression years when the Council could not fund his work. He developed a broad knowledge of the Ohio rural scene and helped development in several communities of federated churches, and this effort was seen as a chief contribution of the Council. It was not always welcomed by some denominational leaders not involved in the Council.
During Thompson’s years an action program to meet spiritual and physical needs in town and country grew out of the conviction that (we) “believe that all of life is sacred; for this reason, the Church should be concerned with every area of mankind’s experiences.” Christian laity from rural agencies were drawn in to conduct community and church studies with program implementation, to develop rural poverty programs, and to train leadership to be change agents for new emerging community life and relationships.
During and after World War, II years, planning and director were given to area where new war production plants brought in populations which swamped the existing church resources. The post-war years were a time of world hunger, and through Church World Service (CWS) and Christian Rural Overseas Program (CROP), a vigorous and varied program of material, financial, and service aid was given access the world’s needy spots. Christian laity from rural organizations were enlisted in a great variety of generous programs.
Short courses for rural pastors were sponsored through the years at the Ohio State University, Oberlin School of Theology, Rio Grande College, and at various campuses.
In 1949, the Rev. Clyde N. Rogers came to the Council as Director of Ohio CWS/CROP and Town and Country. In 1954, Margaret Brugler, who had work with CROP since 1948, became Co-Director of the two services. After the Council reorganization, Miss. Brugler was named Ohio Field Director of CROP in January 1969. Mr. Rogers retired as Director of Town and Country in April 1969. From 1966 to 1969, the Rev. Glenn Biddle also served in the Town and Country Department as Human Resource Developer (anti-poverty).
Ohio Pastors Convocation:
An annual interdenominational meeting for pastors has been a strong feature of Council activities. It became a pastor-guided and financially independent activity, although strong direction has been provided by the Executive Directors: B. F. Lamb, Henry Shillington, John M. Wilson, and Carlton Weber.
The first meeting was called by the Interchurch World Movement, which paid the expenses of 2,800 pastors to attend an April 1920 convocation at First Congregational Church, Columbus. The first regular convention was held in January 1921, with the hope that denominations would underwrite the expenses of their pastors. Only 75 did attend. Attendance has varied over the years and now averages about 1,500 clergy and laity.
The meetings have continued annually, always in January, and attendance and excitement have been high as great national and international speakers appeared. At first, meetings were held in Columbus Memorial Hall, then in Veterans Memorial Hall, and in the last two years, in the Ohio Center.
During the years, many major church leaders in Ohio have chaired the convocation. The Ohio meeting was the first state convention of pastors and has been regarded in ecumenical circles as “the best.” A “first for the first” was an interdenominational communion service begun in 1928 and continued for many years.
Following the 1941 retirement of Mr. A. T. Arnold, its Executive for 30 years, the Ohio Council of Religious Education, a lay directed program with an emphasis on weekday religious education, merged with the Ohio Council of Churches. It had sponsored a youth program and an Ohio Christian Youth Convention Department was staffed first by W. H. Thompson, who was also Town and Country Director, succeeded in 1945 by the Rev. George Cole. In 1949, the Rev. J. Albert Clark began his 20 years of service with the Council.
Weekday religious education was an active program of the Council following the merger. Dorothea Wolcott led the program from 1944-1948. Lillian White Shepard was named Director in 1948, followed by Mollie F. Stahley. In 1954, Lillian E. Comey joined the Council and served until August 1969.
Cecil Hankins became camp director in 1942, and there was a strong emphasis on church camping in the 1940s. Camp Indianola (near Lancaster) was owned by the Council for some years; Camp Pioneer or Camp Buchseib (Columbus) was a gift of Emil Buchseib. As denominations developed their own camping programs, the Council’s activities in this field were phased out.
By the end of this period jurisdictions had developed their own educational staffs, made possible by their expanding financial resources. A council program of service to congregations was no longer needed.
Church Women United:
The beginning year for women’s activities was 1924. An annual meeting was a high point, often held concurrently with the Pastors Convocation and the Assembly meetings. Church Women United operated as a separate movement and drew devoted and loving women.
Emphasis for the women has been on Christian World Missions, World Relations, Social Relations, Leadership Education, and UNICEF.
In the 1930s, the women became interested in the plight of migrant workers, first in Hardin County and later across rural northwestern and western Ohio. Summer workers were financed, and the plight of this otherwise neglected area of Ohio’s populations- seasonal but increasingly permanent- was placed before church people.
In 1936, Ruth Worrell became the first Director of the Women’s Department. Other Directors were Rose Atic, 1942-45; Mabel Fish, 1946-53; Doris Curtis, 1953-56; and Marjorie Vincent, 1956-69.
Communication has always been an important aspect of the Council’s work. In 1920, Vinton E. McVicker was hired part-time to do publicity. In 1922, the Ohio Christian News publication was begun with a four-page letter press, letter-size sheet format, edited by Mr. McVicker. The concept of a weekly Christian newspaper for Ohio churches grew.
The paper contained promotional news of the Council and provided existence in Cleveland, Toledo, Akron, Columbus and Cincinnati.
During the depression’s fund shortages (from 1932-38) the paper was not printed. In 1939 publications was resumed, and since that time the Ohio Christian News has had a circulation of about 10,000. In the 1940s the publication was in a 9 x 12 inch magazine format, with a two-color cover.
Promotional news of the Council was prominent, particularly for the Ohio Pastors Convocation, as well as news of Church Women United, the Annual Assembly, and the full report of the Executive Secretary for the year’s activities. Pages were given to the activities reported by the local federations of churches. B. F. Lamb was the Editor for the revived paper, and the federation secretaries were listed as associates- they also contributed articles. Stories of local congregations, with pictures of buildings and of church leaders, were used generously.
The editorials in each issue are strong and well-written articles, often seasonal, but also issue-and cause-centered. In early issues B. F. Lamb spoke out strongly for temperance, peace, conscientious objection, Sunday closing and against Sunday movies, race-track gambling, and state lotteries. John M. Wilson continued to write strong editorials on social issues, especially on Vietnam.
In the 1950s and 60s, the News appeared in a 6 x 9 inch, 16-32 page magazine format. Since the 1968 reorganization it has been generally four pages, in tabloid size, with promotion of Council activity and statewide ecumenical news but few community and individual congregational features. Carlton Weber has continued the tradition of strong editorial writing, often introducing the moods of church year observances.
The Ohio Christian News has been circulated consistently not only within its member denominations but also the other Christian leaders in the state and has been an effective communicator.
Broader attempts at communication have also been employed, including public service broadcast programs and reports to news media, particularly at the times of the convocation and General Board and Assembly meetings. The Rev. Stanley B. Matthews was the first full-time Public Relations Director of the Council, serving from January 1955 to October 1956. From 1958 to 1964, the OCN was edited by part-time Editor William Sheppard. The Rev. W. Donald Pendell served as Communications Director from 1964 to 1969, a responsibility she resumed in 1982.
Public Affairs: The Council has always been interested in acquainting public officials with the viewpoint of religious forces. The forum for much effort has been in the state legislature, and B. F. Lamb reported that in his first 20 years of service, a full two months of each year were spent working with the legislature and with public officials.
The early concern for world peace has continued to the present. B. F. Lamb called for support of the United Nations, and over the years, the Council has taken a strong stance on peace issues.
After the repeal of the 18th Amendment (Prohibition), the Council displayed a strong interest in local option election legislation. Attempts in the legislature to legalize gambling were opposed by the Council. In the 1970s, the Council combined in a consortium with unsuccessfully opposed amendments to that state constitution which would permit state-run lotteries.
Movie censorship was stressed in the 1930s, and the Council even provided a library of films appropriate for showing in churches, including the classic “King of Kings.”
Sunday public entertainment was opposed, as was the Sunday opening of businesses. The Council kept a watchful eye on infringement of the First Amendment.
Until the mid-60s, the Public Affairs Department was staffed primarily by the Executive Director. When the Ecumenical Commission on Church and Government (ECOG) was established in 1966, Eleanor C. Bruce was named Coordinator.
Pastoral Services: A program to develop more effective chaplaincy services in mental hospitals, schools for the retarded, and youth and adult correctional institutions of both state and community was begun in the 1960s. The Rev. Harold Lindberg was named Director of Pastoral Services in January 1967. At one time, state chaplains came into appointment, often by a local superintendent, without any specific training in chaplaincy. Gradually, the state developed requirements and a training program for institutional chaplains.
Prince of Peace Declamation Contests: While never a formal department of the Council, this has been an important peace education activity. Begun in 1924 and continuing until 1966, the declamation contests for high school students were organized at the community, district, and state levels, often in connection with the Ohio Council of Churches.
About 2,500 high school youth often began the annual competitions, and the top four winners, after regional eliminations, were awarded scholarships to various Ohio Christian colleges. Regional winners were given trips to Washington and the United Nations.
Evangelism: at the heart of each of the denominations in Ohio has been evangelism, and this has always been seen as their prerogative. Denominations have often encouraged and aided their congregations in evangelistic programs and exercises. Sometimes communities were involved in joint programs.
Several programs of evangelism were encouraged by the Council in the 1930s and 1940s, sometimes as part of national programs.
By 1959, a department of Evangelism had been organized. Previous emphasis was on providing materials and leadership to various community-wide programs of evangelism outreach. More recently, the emphasis has been on consultations designed to emphasize the potential Christian witness in all of the ecumenical activities of the Council.
Church Planting and Strategy: The Council continually takes a look at its own operations. By the 1960s a Regional Church Planning Office was in operation, which applied sociological methods to the total church picture. The first area of work was northeast Ohio, with major emphasis on the Cleveland and Akron areas. Thirty-nine reports helpful to denominational leaders had been prepared by 1967. Denominational jurisdictions provided funding.
To provide a comparable service, the Council set up a Southwest Ohio Church Planning and Strategy Office in 1962, with the Rev. Thomas Kalshoven as Director. The work broadened to cover the entire state, and in 1964 Mr. Ira. Harrison was named Associate Director. Concerns moved from research designed to guide the placement of churches to study of problems and issues confronting the Church in Ohio.
Faith and Order: A series of conferences in the 60s, attended by denominational appointees of top level church executives and theologians, began with discussion of “The Nature of the Church.” Out of the conferences came wide discussion of the theological issues of ecumenism as related to the mission of the church. Out of a sentiment for Christian growth and a desire to lessen competition and consolidate energies came an understanding of the depth of the ecumenical possibility for Ohio as related to the mission of the church.
The sponsoring commission has included both Protestant and Roman Catholic representation and has received valuable help from the Ohio Theological Colloquium and the theological schools represented in the area.
Migrant Ministry: The interest of the Church Women United introduced this activity in the 1930s. By 1965 migrant work was established as a department with its own staff leadership. The Rev. W. D. Pendell, who was also Communication Director, was the first Director of the department. Bertie (Eby) Dell, named Associate Director in 1965, was Director from 1967-69. Fifteen local committees involved a direct pastoral concern for farm workers and their families and hired summer staff workers. The department has expressed a prophetic ministry through education in legislative issues and the support of programs dealing with the socio-economic problems of farm workers.
Social Concerns: Throughout the history of the Council, there have been expressions of Christian convictions about moral, political, and social issues. These sometime sprang out of the coincidence of meetings of church people and issues of the moment. For example, when the Ohio Pastors Convocation was in session, the pastors passed resolutions, either out of the enthusiasm left by particular speakers or the eloquence of one individual or the drafting’s of a brief committee meeting. The impression given from reports of the media were sometimes controversial, and it was not plain that it was not really the Ohio Council of Churches speaking but only the ministers present at a convention of Ohio pastors. Post-convention reports of the Ohio Pastors Convention in spring issues of the Ohio Christian News were full of resolutions and expressions of opinions on social problems.
The 1957 Assembly approved 14 Christian Social Aims of the Ohio Council of Churches which reflect long-standing concerns of the Council. They include: freedom of worship, speech, press, and assembly; international relations-support for the United Nations disarmament, opposition to nuclear bomb testing, colonialism, cultural relations, economic aid, and international trade; the Christian conscience and war; immigration; education; economic life-elimination of poverty, maintenance of employment, conservation, fair distribution of wealth, and adequate programs of housing, Social Security, health, public welfare, and assistance to the aged; highway safety; the family; juvenile behavior and treatment of juvenile offenders; racial integration in evangelism, housing, justice systems and employment; abstinence from intoxicants and narcotics; opposition to gambling; human treatment of inmates of penal and mental institutions; and Sunday observance.
By 1967, the Assembly had prepared and adopted a new “Christian Social Aims of the Ohio Council of Churches,” similar in some respects to those of a decade earlier.
The statements are on such sensitive themes as: Human Rights: Conscientious objection, Dissent, Collective Bargaining, Racial Justice; Elimination of Poverty; Human Resource Development, The Limitations of Private Welfare, Public Welfare, Social Security, Income Maintenance; International Cooperation; World Hunger and Population Control; Vietnam; Middle East, Church-State Relations: Extremism; Health; Mental Health; Medical Ethics: Psychedelic Revolution; the Offender in Our Society; Capital Punishment, Penal Reform, Probationers and Parolees, Juvenile Delinquency; The Problem of Alcohol; Alcohol Education in the Ecumenical constituency’s own members, in the community, Social and Legal Control; Denominational Response to Inner City Needs.
In the 1968 restructuring, authority for public statements continued to be restricted to actions of the Assembly (in emergencies to the General Board for subsequent ratification). Statements are not binding on denominations and their members. The media still report statements and actions as those of the whole Christian community. The question of whom is speaking is not yet solved, and this only reflects the problems of the conventions of national denominations when they make social statements. Does this represent the view of the whole denomination?
A Symbol of Christian Unity: In 1924, the Assembly appointed a committee “looking toward a building to be the headquarters of Protestantism in Ohio, housing not only the state Council of Churches, but denominational and other interdenominational organizations…if funds could be raised.” Mr. Harvey Firestone, Sr., was an Akron industrialist who served as President of the Council from 1922-25. At one time, he indicated a willingness to invest as much as $1 million in such a structure, but the depression made his gift impossible.
The proposal lay dormant, except in the mind of B. F. Lamb. By post-World War II years building was again possible, and more money was available for church purposes. At the 1945 Assembly the idea of a “Temple of Good Will as headquarters of the Ohio Council of Churches and Ohio Protestantism” was revived. After preliminary work, approval was given at the 1946 Assembly.
In 1947 the Assembly moved “to proceed with the program, looking forward the erection of a building for United Protestantism, in the city of Columbus, to be known as the Temple of Good Will.” B. F. Lamb proceeded to work to secure funds and with loans was eventually able to purchase a site on Civic Center between Long and Spring Streets, from Front to the Scioto River.
An exciting plan was drawn up by Chicago architect, John Quincy Adams. It was a many storied building which could house headquarters and assembly and meeting space. An empty show factory, a parking garage, and the Chittenden Hotel, which operated for a few years as a temperance hotel, were also a part of Temple enterprises.
When the National Council of Churches of Christ was formed in 1952, the location of a National headquarters was studied. Columbus and the Temple were considered but lost to the current New York site in a 1954 decision.
In the meantime, Temple projects had moved ahead slowly. In 1949, B.F. Lamb was named President of the Council, with Temple responsibility. In 1952, his formal connection with the Council was closed after 33 years of service. This was longer in time than that of any other individual in a single ecumenical position. Now 99, but alert mentally, he is living in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
By 1966, the Temple had not raised sufficient funds to complete securing the land it had under purchase, and B. F. Lamb was retiring. The Temple Corporation was asked the Ohio Council to set up an Interchurch Center, Inc, to receive and liquidate the Temple enterprise and erect an appropriate building for Council use. John M. Wilson was assigned this responsibility, which he continued for two years following his 1969 retirement as Executive Director of the Council.
The result was the Interchurch Center at 89 E. Wilson Bridge Road, at the northern edge of Worthington, with convenient access through U.S. 23 and I-270 to any part of the state. The location is in a still expanding office area. Funds from Temple assets provided most of the cost of the modest one-story brick building. It contains office space for the Council staff and support workers, a meeting room, and limited space for rental offices.
The Last 20 Years:
By the late 1960s the emphasis by Henry Shillington and more so by John M. Wilson was drawing the attention of denominational executives to what participation in the Council meant. Accountability and openness had been stressed. The major questions were: should the Council be permitted to die and a completely new structure developed, or could the Council be restructured to face a new church situation?
An Ecumenical Study Commission was named and proceeded through a detailed analysis, making its final report to the annual Assembly in November 1968. The commission was chaired by John Lane Williams and composed of 25 representatives named by denominations, as well as representatives from non-member judicatories, including Lutherans and Roman Catholic Dioceses.
The commission asked:
To what extent, if at all, is the reality of the Church expressed in the Council of Churches?
To what extent, if at all, are Councils of Churches instruments which the churches find useful in fulfilling their mission?
To what extent, is if at all, are Councils of Churches contributing, or capable of contributing to the realization of the unity of the Church?
It was decided to continue the Council with a radical restructuring. A new constitution was prepared and adopted by the Assembly in 1968. It included an annual assembly, composed of jurisdiction executives, clerical, and lay delegates. It was established as the authority and a major means of maintaining accountability. The Assembly is designated as the policy-making body of the Council, with responsibility for formal public witnesses, the administration of the Council, and communication to the denominations. A General Board composed of the executives and representatives of the judicatory units holding membership in the Assembly meets quarterly to exercise regular responsibility for the activities of the Council.
Two divisions were established: the Division of Church and Community and the Division of Church and Witness. The Division of Church and Community was to develop structures throughout the state, such as the rural southeast and rural northwest, and became responsible for the functions of the previous church planning and strategy organization; for mass media services, continuing education, and for the work of the existing metropolitan councils of churches.
The Division of Church in Witness was to function through commissions in specific areas of ministry, such as Church and Government education, institutional ministries, Church Women United, and World Hunger. The variety of commissions was left to the General Board, which could organize new commissions or dissolve them, depending on the current ecumenical needs as determined by denominational representatives.
In addition to an Executive Director who was assigned overall direction of the Council, associate directors to be assigned overall direction of the Council, associate directors to be assigned to each of these two divisions were also authorized.
The new direction was to turn from direct and specific service to congregations, with the expectation that the commissions would focus on the cooperative use of the resources of the denominations had become able, with their increasing resources, to provide staff within their own structures in such areas as youth work, camping, education, social concerns, and evangelism, in contrast to earlier years when the Council had filled this vacuum of leadership.
A new constitution was adopted in 1968 with its preamble reading: “In the Providence of God, the time has come when it seems fitting more fully to manifest oneness in Jesus Christ as Divine Lord and Savior, through an inclusive cooperative e agency in the Christian Churches of Ohio.” The constitution opened a way for denominations not previously members to join, such as the American Lutheran Church, four of the six Roman Catholic dioceses, and more recently the Greek Orthodox Church in North America. Some of the major Black denominations had been long-time members, and this new constitution permitted still others to join the Council.
New Leaders Enter: To provide leadership for the restructured Council, the Rev. Carlton N. Weber was named Executive Director. He represented his denomination on the Ohio Ecumenical Study Commission, and the denominational leadership felt his experience would enable them to put their hopes into a working model. The Rev. Arleon Kelley was named Director of the Division of Church and Community. A Methodist, Arleon Kelley was an Associate Director of the Indiana Council of Churches, with a wide background in rural work. The Rev. Henry Gerner was named Director of the Division of Church and Witness, coming from a wide experience in pastoral work in the Methodist Church and in ecumenical campus ministry, most recently as Director of the United Christian Ministry, Bowling Green State University.
After several key years with this newly restricted Council, both men moved on to other work, Arleon Kelley to the National Council of Churches as Associate Executive Secretary, and Henry Gerner as Director of Pastoral Services at an Indianapolis hospital. Each helped to forge a responsible new way for the Council to work at ecumenical relations in geographical areas and around temporary and continuing areas of cooperative social witness.
In 1971, Robert Graetz, Jr., began his service with the Council as Legislative Representative, a responsibility he continued until December 1983.
In June 1973, the Rev. Keene R. Lebold, an active ecumenical voices in the United Church of Christ and formerly Director of the Merom Rural Institute in Merom, Indiana, became the Associate Executive Director.
Commission Replaces Division: As the move to focus attention on the spheres of current social issues became apparent, the respective commissions were related directly to the General Board, and the Division of Church in Witness was dissolved and the Division of Church and Community became the Commission on Ecumenical Relations.
This 1975 change in the ecumenical model as originally projected n 1968 permitted direct representation from each denomination into each commission where strategy and ministry were developed. They thus not only became channels for the state ecumenical witness, but also were oftentimes a major factor in the development of concomitant and complementary denominational programs in those fields.
Roman Catholics Enter Council: The last 15 years have seen gradual growth in the membership of the Council. Perhaps the most significant step in this expansion of participants merged into a single procession through downtown Columbus to a packed Veterans Memorial Hall, for what marked the first such joint membership in a major northern industrial state.
1984 Operations * (This section, “1984 Operations,” was provided by Carlton N. Weber.): It should perhaps be underscored, with a look at these most recent two decades that the two-way accountability to denominations and to the ecumenical structures which had been hoped for, has become a hallmark of its mode of operation. It has allowed for Council to move forward in critical areas of life in Ohio in ways that have been positive and effective.
The Council has set it highest priorities on economic justice, criminal justice, justice for minorities, and public education. It has continued in advocacy roles for minorities, for persons with handicaps, the poor, and the unemployed. In recent years, the clear inter-relationship of these concerns with international peace and justice have added this dimension to the Council’s programs.
In ministering to and among these issues, the Council’s seven commissions have developed basic policy papers around which denominations could find consensus, have developed conferences at the rate of three per month to share more data with their constituency, and have provided reminders of Christian perspectives as these data relate to individuals and groups in our society. The 1984 commissions are Criminal Justice, Ecumenical Relations (which includes Coalition of Ecumenical Staff, Disability Task Force, Camp Leaders Network, Farm Labor Committee, Leisure Ministry Task Force, and Town and Country Coalition), Immigrant and Refugees, Minority Church Persons, Poverty and Economic Justice, Public Policy, and World Peace and Justice.
The Council has found increasingly in the last 10 years that coalitions with other organizations which share its concern and goals have been essential for effective and efficient action. By establishing its two-year Plan of Action and its annual legislative targets, the Council has been enabled to utilize its resources of finances and staff in ways that are distinct, clear, and focused on accomplishment.
Its legislative action, which was a part of its original mission 65 years ago, has continued to the present. During the 60s, a special organization called the Ecumenical Commission on Church and Government carried this important legislative function In the 1968 restructuring a Commission on Public Policy became an integral part of the Council’s witness. Thus direct ministry to people such as prisoners, persons with mental disorders, refugees, and senior citizens has been balanced by dealing with the ways in which corporate systems have a strong influence on the practices of our society. To illustrate, the Council has maintained an ongoing concern for how tax funds are received and spent, even as it have been concerned about the ways in which people of low incomes are given adequate assistance and care.
The Council has also demonstrated in these years that programs which have been under its care at one time can be released to be on their own as soon as they have gained a level of self-identity and maturity. Thus the Council’s development and nurturing of the chaplaincy in the state institutions now rests primarily in the state chaplaincy office and the Ohio State Chaplain’s Association The Council’s active involvement with a migrant ministry in the 1950s and 60s was invested in indigenous Hispanic organizations like LaRasa Unida and, more recently, in support of labor-organizing efforts among the workers. Church Women United and Project Equality continue without direct Council assistance.
While support for the Council has risen slowly, increasing operational support has required a careful survey of staff members. In 1984, the Council’s program staff has four members in addition to the Executive Director and Associate Executive Director. Bertie Dell, Communications; Kay Keller, Legislative Representative; Robin Tetzloff, Immigration and Refugee Service; and Debbie Anderson as Peace Coordinator. There are five members of the support staff. This staff, augmented with others who serve on a short-term basis with support from public and private agencies, includes Vista workers with the Immigration and Refugee Services, seminary and university students who have field work assignments with the Council, and specialists in selected areas of concern identified and funded by specific groups of denominations holding membership in the Council.
And Now, What’s Ahead?
After 1984, what? Church unity in practice is more possible than at any previous time. Churches are speaking and talking to one another as never before. The Christian Mission is seen more visibly than ever before.
Whether, the immediate future will bring forms of church unity, such as the Consultation on Church Unity has had under discussion for 20 years, may not be visible.
The 1983 World Council of Churches Lima document on Baptism, Eucharist and Ministry suggests that churches and local congregations can share Christian life more than they ever have before.
What does this say to the Ohio Council of Churches?
A look at the present Ohio church situation shows fields in which the Council may still have new responsibilities. The 1919 study showing “Six thousand Country Churches” in Ohio opened the eyes of the church people to duplications and inadequacies in that time.
Are there still 6,000 rural churches today? The member jurisdictions can probably report that there are fewer small inadequate churches within their jurisdictions. Yet a trip through any Ohio area will show that small new congregations- Bible, charismatic, Pentecostal, or other independent churches- have taken over the buildings. How can these near-isolationists be brought to see that Christian unity is a part of the Christian mission?
A journey through city streets, especially in changing neighborhoods, will give a smaller view. Old church buildings, large and small, are occupied by the independent congregations. How can these too be reached with the word that there is a unity in the Christian mission?
A growing concern in the Council and its member denomination has been the concern for a continuing vitality of the Christian congregation as represented in these new efforts. Are there ecumenical dimensions to this growth and nurturing process as we minister to all segments of this generation and the one to follow? What does it say to our future relation to those smaller denominations and fellowships which are not part of the Council to date? There are great expectations too to the “small church” classification. The Southern Baptists, the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, and the churches in the Evangelical groups should not be forgotten. There is a place for them too in the conciliar movement.
Another concern is how to continue relating directly to the members- the constituency-of the 27 jurisdictions that have found joy in the Christian unity expressed in Ohio Council of Churches. There are 852 names of participants in Council activity listed in the 1984 directory. Obviously, these represent a very small amount in the total 2.5 million adult members of these denominations represented. How can we expand their feeling of joy in oneness of Christ’s body? How do denominations explain the ecumenical dimension of their ministry to their own members? What procedures within interchurch or through the public media can be effectively utilized to transmit the ongoing virtues of the body of the Living Christ?
A fourth concern beyond the future of denominational vitality, the pastoral concern for congregations and their memberships, and the expansion of the number of individual participants in the united Christian witness of the Council, is how the total church has a meaningful role within the society and tine of history in which it is currently set. The church is always in a delicate balance, able to have an effective impact on the value systems of our corporate life together, as well as to focus on a personalized, eternity-oriented devotional search and discipline.
The continuing ecumenical role of organizations with the Ohio Council of Churches is to keep those two perspectives in balance. Personal faith does influence the way we function in society, while at the same time the realities of the blessedness, and the evils of our day, call for the fullest expression of our Christian discipleship.
Sixty-five years of cooperative witness as part of the body of Christ is a noteworthy reality to be celebrated. It is also the threshold for the days ahead, when the servants of one Lord, one faith, one baptism move ahead together a Kingdom which should someday be revealed in fullness.
“Like a Mighty Army Moves the Church of God”