This is part 1 of a series of articles describing the experiences of Christian organization employees working under abusive bosses. These articles are the fruit of interviews with employees who sought diligently to respond to their foul bosses in biblical and thoughtful ways. This article describes their application of Matthew 18 – the confrontation of a sinning brother – to their unpleasant circumstances. For an analysis of Matthew 18 in the context of employment, please see my earlier blog.
In Matthew 18:15-20 Jesus outlines the process for confronting a brother who has sinned against you. The passage goes through three steps of confrontation: 1) Go to the brother one-on-one. If he does not respond in repentance, 2) take one or two other witnesses along to confront him. Again, if he does not respond to the grace of confrontation, 3) take it to the church. If after these steps he does not respond in repentance, the church is to treat him as an unbeliever – he is clearly not interested in what Jesus calls him to be.
As I research toxic leadership in Christian organizations, this passage can create much unnecessary angst as missionaries and employees misapply it to their situations.
In a couple of cases I researched, my interviewees did not believe Matthew 18 was applicable to their situation. Several of my interviewees observed others who approached (one-on-one) the leadership of their ministry and experienced difficulty. They said they did not think one-on-one confrontations would be of any value or was dangerous.
Adam said he “had seen a pattern of other people attempting to bring concerns directly to leadership and they were excused or dismissed.” He noted he was conscious of the Matthew 18 passage, but “was too cynical about the success of it to even try to go through that.”
Going One On One and Upping the Ante
Below are five stories of applying Matthew 18. These five interviewees’ approaches took different forms. They sought to keep the problems as contained as possible, but each sought help from the board of directors, considering that an application of bringing “one or two others” or “the church,” as Jesus suggests in Matthew 18 when the one-on-one did not work.
Though not considering Matthew 18 necessarily applicable, Frances said a pastor friend exhorted her to “not neglect…the noble role of a whistleblower,” referring to Ephesians where it says, “don’t walk in the deeds of the darkness, even expose them.” She was encouraged to confront the chairman of her organization one-on-one as Matthew 18 teaches.
Frances, the CEO of a mission training organization, sought to communicate privately with her toxic board chairman several times, but the chairman “just would not respond.” She explained that communications the chairman had with others in the organization had been “critical” of her and she “had been left…out of important processes in which the CEO always, in the organization’s history, had been involved.”
Though Frances did not consider the Matthew 18 principle to be necessarily applicable to a non-church setting, Frances did try to communicate directly with the chair. However, she said, “I tried to knock on that door several times and that door was slammed shut.” At others’ advice, she “sought to lay out to the entire board in great detail interactions with this person over the preceding months.”
Unfortunately, the chairman “was able to manipulate the board somehow in ways I was never privy to,” she said. She did not survive the experience, being fired from the organization.
Harris, a CEO of a large and well-known Christian organization, considered it a matter of integrity that he speak directly to the Board Chairman, his toxic boss. He believed, “this all could have been solved in one face to face conversation,” a step the Board Chairman never took with him.
While separated by several states and recovering from a serious surgery, Harris wrote several emails to the board chairman. He added, “I didn’t go complain to someone else.” Harris wanted to confront the chairman privately. In addition, he noted that he “wasn’t insulting” or “making accusations” as he wanted to be gracious in his handling of the conflict.
After exchanging three letters, the chairman began his third saying, “I appreciate your note, particularly the spirit of it.” However, when the board voted to fire him, one of the members “stood up and pled with them and said, ‘We cannot do this…We have a biblical principle; we must talk to [Harris].’” However, the board chairman and board members would not speak with Harris prior to his termination.
Several months after his firing, the new board chairman, new president, and the former (toxic) board chairman came to speak with him. He said it “was a pitiful meeting.” The plan of the new chairman and new president was for the former chairman to seek forgiveness from Harris for his failure to respond to Harris’ confrontation. However, when the meeting had concluded, the former chairman had not asked for forgiveness.
Eugene, a middle-manager of a global mission organization, who considered the CEO a friend, would discuss issues privately with the CEO. He had several discussions with him regarding the amount of work the CEO was expecting him to accomplish.
When Eugene wrote the 25-page document to the CEO with suggestions for improving the use of both the CEO’s gifts and his own in the organizational structure, he explained he had no intention of going to anyone else with his recommendations. He said, “I am not going to share this with anybody…If someone is going to take the brunt of repercussions, it is going to have to be me.”
Rather than humbly and respectfully hearing the recommendations and discussing them with Eugene, the CEO asked Eugene to resign. Immediately following his forced resignation, Eugene asked for a meeting with the board chairman seeking to bring accountability to the CEO, but he “wouldn’t talk to me.”
He remembered being surprised that the board chairman would not respond to him. Eugene said, “I’m a senior vice president. If that level person is resigning, or fired, it seems like you would want to talk to them! Hear his side of the story. But, no. That was it!” Eugene “stayed around, waiting for the next board meeting” hoping they would call him in, but they did not.
Approximately, three years later, Eugene received a message from the board chairman asking to talk. The board had fired the CEO and the chairman asked forgiveness from Eugene. The chairman said he “kept sustaining [the CEO] despite all the negative feedback he was getting about the financial state and from the staff.” He told Eugene, “You were right. I should have listened to you.” The board chairman resigned from the board, disappointed in his failures to protect the employees from the CEO.
Graham, the Director of a global mercy ministry, said he sought to follow the biblical principle of “going to someone privately, one on one, and if necessary bring in a couple of the church elders, and if necessary” go further. However, he said his small group of Christian leaders that confronted the founder and CEO of the organization for sexual harassment and abuse, were “trying to avoid going further.”
He considered the “three of us as going to him as the ‘private one,’ [described in Matthew 18] and then, later with the full board of going with the ‘elders.’” In seeking the help of the board as his “church elders” Graham was very disappointed. The board ended up supporting the founder due to pressure from a long-time, big money donor’s pressure. Graham and forty others were fired. After ten more years of complaints of sexual misconduct, the board finally fired the founder.
Graham said, “It [will be] a long time before I [will] join another Christian board. As far as I am concerned, I am swearing off Christian boards.”
Ben had a very different approach to the application of the passage. He explained, “I just felt like the Matthew 18 principle was something that I needed to own in where I had leadership.” Like Adam, he had also seen a “hurting group of people who had really been shot down in their attempts to try to apply that to fix breaks however small, however gradual.”
Ben said there was a group of missionaries he called the “Matthew 18 group…that were constantly butting heads, constantly trying to bring about change.” He said, woefully, “Many of them were in my office a great deal for counsel, encouragement – for prayer – because they were getting really worn out through that process.”
Ben did meet with his toxic CEO to present his resignation, but expected no resolution. Ben and Casandra signed a letter to the board that included “the major concerns we [had] with the organization.” The letter expressed the missionaries’ belief “it could be an amazing organization” if the board would hear the missionaries’ stories. However, the board never spoke with the missionaries.
Isaac, a missionary in a developing country, did not go to his board. He said,
I think they are completely disconnected with what he would be doing. They’re his board…probably just a few pastors somewhere in [the United States] and they know [the founder] and they all go way back and so I would be nothing more than some guy that was upset because he was asked to leave.
It is apparent that toxic leaders are difficult and often dangerous to approach one-on-one. There is no apparent consideration of this given in Matthew 18, and as explained in my other blog on the subject, Matthew 18 seems to take for granted the brothers involved in the dispute are on equal footing. The possibility of retaliation is not mentioned.
In addition, the board of each of my interviewees’ organization took little or no responsibility for oversight of the toxic leader under their charge. None of them took responsibility to bring accountability to the leader until the damage of abuse and firing was already done.
Boards rarely listen. This is proven out in survey after survey of both Christian and non-Christian organizations.
As one individual told me in our organization,
“I am tired of seeing missionaries sent home in body bags.”