Sandi* has worked for mission agencies almost her entire adult career. In fact, she was the child of missionaries. Japan, Eastern Europe, Africa…she has sought to build Christ’s kingdom on three continents.
And Sandi has experienced multiple toxic leaders in those mission agencies.
I have heard missionaries say many times, “I thought I was working alongside brothers and sisters in Christ with the goal of shining the light of Christ in a dark world.”
But instead they found they were working for men (and women) who abused their authority and expressed extraordinary evil.
Following are a few of her stories
Serving in the Bush
When Sandi was as a small child her parents packed up their children, leaving behind a U.S. mission work to travel to Africa. They were headed out to help a former employee of her father’s who was serving in the “bush.” They arrived in the middle of nowhere to discover the family they were there to help was leaving within a week on a year-long furlough.
They had no idea.
It was years later that she would serve under one of the children of that family. I would sit in an office while she confronted her childhood friend and I experienced my first real abuse of leadership firsthand.
The smooth, charming, and reasonable response from the leader while Sandi nearly came unglued turned my allegiance to him. However, several years later I would discover that he was lying through his teeth, a shocking discovery when I thought Christian leaders could not possibly be so evil.
As a young adult she traveled to work in Austria with a major mission organization. A local supporter of the organization tried to sexually molest her, deeply traumatizing her.
After complaining to leadership, she was told to “wait until he does it again and then tell him no.”
Nothing was done to bring accountability to the molester. It was Sandi’s responsibility to keep from being molested.
Again, as a young adult, Sandi joined a mission work in the Eastern bloc. There were three single woman missionaries “who had been fighting over one man.” They followed Sandi around pretending to be her friend. It became evident they were looking for things they could put on a list of reasons why she “wasn’t fit to be part of their team.”
As she sat in a meeting, the mission leadership allowed the girls to read off their list in front of him making her “look like a fool.” Sandi said she was heart broken and sobbing. The leader “dismissed the girls, then put his arm around my shoulders and tried to comfort me.”
Not long after, they dismissed her from the mission.
Now serving another mission agency, Sandi is facing more toxic leadership.
Johann*, the country director, became emeshed in a conflict of interest in the hiring of a national board member to provide services for the mission. In addition, the board member had a horrible reputation in the village.
Johann had clearly become so close to the situation he could not see straight.
A young couple joined the mission and was providing excellent ministry. Sandi described them as the best missionaries the agency had on the field in her country.
The couple was informed of “payoffs” to the board member by sub-contractors. The board member was withholding some of their contracted fees as payments to keep their contracts.
Two of them came forward anonymously as they knew they would get little work in the future if it was made known they were complaining.
When the young couple went to Johann he promised to investigate. He went to the board member and asked him. He was told it was all foolishness. Johann told the couple the sub-contractors were jealous.
When Sandi also confronted Johann he began quoting Matthew 18. The sub-contractors needed to go directly to the board member and they needed to come out of the closet. He expected at least three to speak publicly. No matter that they would likely lose the contracts in retribution by the board member.
Johann “pocketed” the board, ordering them to provide all email communications with Sandi and to cut off communication with her. Despite being “under” the authority of the national board, he had clearly taken charge of them and they were afraid of him.
Then two days before the board meeting they sent Sandi an email telling her to come to a board meeting in one day. It was “five hours drive away.”
She said she declined.
Though Johann has admitted that he should not have used the board member, he continues to work with him.
Matthew 18 and Mission Leadership
In the masses of emails Sandi has sent to those in authority in the mission agency, there has been a very clear failure to understand leadership abuse. Matthew 18 – where Jesus explains how a brother in Christ should confront another brother who has sinned against him – has become the centerpiece of their counsel to Sandi.
However, Matthew 18 must be very carefully applied in the context of leader – subordinate conflicts.
Matthew 18 contains Jesus’ instructions to privately confront a “brother” who has sinned against you. Should he fail to respond, then it is taught that one or two others should be brought along to confront once again. Should that fail to get his attention, the church should be informed and involved in the discipline process.
Some commentators caution against using Matthew 18 as guidance in cases where there is a “power differential.” When someone in authority sins against a subordinate, they suggest the same “rules” do not apply. Jesus’ use of the term “brother” in the passage may be making it evident his instruction is intended for those on equal footing – ie. my neighbor coming to me to confront my sin…not my employee.
However, rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, it may be more appropriate to apply the principles evident in the instruction Jesus gives even to those cases.
Rather than legalistically following the passage in Sandi’s case, her leaders should be understanding their fiduciery responsibility to the mission organization. They have a responsibility to protect their donors, who have given hundreds of thousands of dollars, from the mismanagement of those funds by one of their leaders.
And they have a responsibility to protect their employees from leaders who are abusing their authority.
They need to investigate the matter. Or, in a case like this consider bringing the legal authorities in to investigate as it may be a matter of breaking the law.
Sandi’s responsibility, as a subordinate, was to share what she knew of the mismanagement to those who have authority over him. Whistleblowers are not ultimately responsible for changing the offender’s heart and should not be expected by those in authority to expose themselves to the possible dangers of confronting a toxic boss.
Many non-profits (and corporations) now have by-law clauses that provide protection for “whistleblowers.” Agencies are beginning to understand their responsibility to protect those who, in good faith, seek to bring accountability to evil leadership.
Read Chapter 18 in Context of Chapter 7
Consideration of Matthew 7, also Jesus’ instructions about confrontation, may also be in order. Confronting dangerous people is not a biblical requirement. Matthew 18 helps those who have no fear of losing their jobs (or lives in some cases) and Matthew 7 speaks to whistleblowing in organizations where there is danger in confronting the toxicity of a leader.
I will not go into more detail as I have written before regarding the interpretation of Matthew 18 in context of Matthew 7.
Sunday School Understanding
Unfortunately, leadership failure is terribly common in mission organizations. Sometimes, they are simply honest mistakes. Sometimes the failures take a more sinister tone.
Either way, leaders need training and a more robust understanding of God’s Word than they received in their Sunday schools. At times they may be just covering the discomfort they have with confronting their subordinate leader by pushing off Matthew 18 on their employee.
It is important these leaders take leadership in holding those mid-level leaders under their authority accountable for their failures.
In the end, Sandi said, “It makes me realize the power of God in my life.” As she noted, many would “fold their tent and go home.” But she is praying that this season of life “will be the most profitable.”
* Not their real names.