Ben and Casandra’s Story: Grieving Loss Under Toxic Leadership

It took two years.

Ben taught theology and was a chaplain for a mission college in Africa. In addition, he was responsible for the expansion of the library and development of a master’s degree program. Ben’s wife, Casandra, worked with her husband on the organization of the library and as an administrative assistant.

They served the mission for two years before they resigned.

They grieve the loss of what they had in Africa. Casandra said they loved the “passionate” missionaries with whom they worked and the couple has remained good friends with a number of former African students and co-workers, hearing from them frequently.

It was a very good two years.

The graduate program they designed continues to operate after almost 10 years. They feel they had an impact in their ministry with the mission.

Demeaning and Manipulative

When we talked recently they described a visit they made to the mission the year before they sold their house, quit their jobs, and moved their two children to the African country. Over meals with various missionary families, no one mentioned anything negative about the leadership.

It all seemed like peaches and cream as they prepared to move.

However, after their two years of service, Ben and Casandra described the leaders of the ministry as “demanding,” “demeaning,” “manipulative,” and “harsh.” They described several times that unreasonable “demands” were made by the CEO, including an “email about an additional layer of responsibilities” they received one month prior to moving onto the mission field.

During their first year at the mission, a missionary, who was acting as Director while the CEO was out of country, came to Ben and informed him that the CEO said Ben wasn’t “pulling his weight” and needed to take on night guard duty.

Ben calmly told the intermediary that he wasn’t told that by the CEO and he did not have the time to devote to guard duty.

Ben described that when he would meet with the CEO,

“The moment I walked in, it was not a dialogue. It was a pretend dialogue that I could say what I wanted to say and for as long as I wanted to say it. But, the answer was already etched in stone and was going to be carried out.”

Casandra had few conflicts with the CEO, but when she was helping in one of the other offices, she was “yelled at by [the founder’s wife] to not be involved at all because I ‘didn’t know what I was talking about.’”

Seeking Accountability and Change

Ben did meet with the CEO to present his resignation, but expected no resolution.

In addition, Ben and Casandra signed a letter to the board that included “the major concerns we [had] with the organization.” The letter from a large group of missionaries’ said, “It could be an amazing organization” if the board would hear the missionaries’ stories and make changes.

However, the board never spoke with the missionaries.

Ben explained the “judging” section of Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:1-5 did not come to mind until after several months of being away from the organization. That passage says,

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you.

Matthew 7:1-6 (ESV)

At that time, following writing letters to the board, CEO, and faculty, he said,

“I recognized that I just needed to forgive them. I was never going to be asked for forgiveness . . . I didn’t need to be putting myself in the seat of judge.”

While still with the mission, Ben said he “very much ruminated on” verse seven where it says, “Do not cast your pearls to the pigs.” He explained,

“I began to feel more and more affirmed in my thinking that my job was not to try to change them. I was going to fry myself if I took that campaign on. It was a waste of time and energy to try to change the situation in that sense of casting pearls.”

Dealing with 1 Peter and Matthew

When asked about his consideration of the Matthew 18 principles of conflict management, Ben had a very different approach to the application of the passage.

In Matthew 18:15-17, Jesus gives direction for confronting the sin of a brother. The multi-step process includes:

  • Go in private to the one who has sinned against you.
  • If unrepentant, bring another person or two to once again confront the sinner.
  • If continuing in unrepentance, tell it to the church.
  • If rejecting all these pleas for confession and repentance, they are to be treated as an unbeliever.

He explained,

“I just felt like the Matthew 18 principle was something that I needed to own in where I had leadership.” He had also seen a “hurting group of people who had really been shot down in their attempts to try to apply [Matthew 18] 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 also said there were those who “camped out” in the 1 Peter passage where it says,

Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God.

1 Peter 2:18-20 (ESV)

Ben explained that they said, “We’re just here to take it. It doesn’t matter what happens, it’s not our responsibility. We’ll take it. We’ll suffer. He is our master; therefore, we will be subservient to him.”

Ben said he thought most about the 1 Peter passage. He said he “went back to it again and again and again. Sometimes looking for a loophole.”

However, Ben argued their positions with the organization were “voluntary” and received no funding from the mission. He suggested their “accountability” was “to those who put us there”; The churches and individuals who supported them financially were their “bosses.”

As an example, Ben recounted a sermon given in the organization chapel by the founder that was a “tirade against the students” and spiritually “manipulative.” He sent the recording to several supporters who were his mentors for their advice.

He asked them, “Is it me, people.” Ben wanted to be accountable to those who would be honest about his evaluation of the leader.

Ben said they all responded, “Something’s wrong. It’s not you . . . something’s broken.” He believed it was to these supporters he was “subservient to in his position.” He explained, “It is a very unique relationship to have. Because, yes, [the CEO] is my boss. Yes, I answer to him. But my livelihood in no way depended on him.”

As Ben considered the application of Matthew 18 to their situation, he suggested there was no church authority in place for the third step:

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

Matthew 18:17 (ESV)

No Change

Ben noted the CEO always justified or explained away his sin, often blame-shifting. He saw this happening both in interactions with him and as others approached the boss.

Others in the mission had approached the board prior to their families leaving the organization with no success.

According to a Workplace Bullying Institute survey, this experience is not unusual. In a 2012 survey, only 3.5% of those who confronted their bullies at work experienced a change in bullying.[1] They found that there was little recourse for those under toxic leadership. In another WBI survey, 61% of the victims lost their job, while only 15% of the perpetrators lost theirs.[2]

As a parachurch and mission organization, no ecclesiastical governing body had authority to act as “the church” found in Matthew 18.

Family Business

Ben called the leadership a “family business.” He said, “[I had] very little sense that I was part of something whose passion was building God’s kingdom. It was very much building ours,” referring to the family.

He had discovered “if you weren’t in the family, you were out of business.” Ben said the “family called the shots and it didn’t matter the thoughts, opinions, the ideas of anybody outside.” He explained, “Real decisions were made around the family table.”

Party to the Abuse

Ben explained the responses of some staff to the toxicity of the CEO, “Some people were the fighters and some people were just apathetic.” As noted above, in his experience, the fighters were “worn out” through a lack of change coming from their battles.

However, the apathetic ones “put their heads down” and “counted the minutes when they could drive out the gates and do what gave them life and meaning, a purpose and joy.”

Ben determined that he did not want to “become apathetic to leadership” or “go find another mission somewhere for survival’s sake.” However, in the end, Ben and Casandra believed remaining at the organization would mean being “a party to the abuse” and did not want to risk joining either of these “camps.” 

The Return and the Church’s Response

Ben suggested the negative effects their experiences had were not as great compared to others possibly due to “living off campus” and being there only two years. However, he said, their “jaws were on the floor with what other people needed to do and go through to unwrap their minds, hearts, and spirits from that experience.”

Though they felt somewhat spared from a lot of direct abuse, Casandra pointed out that Ben had hives for a long time after leaving, and noted, “He had lots of wounds of internal stress from it all.”

Both shared they “were very fragile for a time. We were looking for and very much needed support and encouragement.”

Ben told the story of returning home from the mission field and experiencing two different responses from church supporters. Some seemed to have little concern and apparently did not understand the difficulties he and his family had faced. Ben and Casandra’s sense of failure due to returning so soon from their mission seemed to be exasurbated by these responses.

Ben said, “Some churches very coldly listened to what we had to say; ‘Well thank you for your service. God bless you as you go.’” In fact, they noted that only one of their five supporting churches really sought to minister to them when they returned.

This church welcomed them back, sought them out, spent time with them, and supported them fully. This was a very healing time for them.

When Ben, Casandra, and I first spoke, Ben said, “It has been three years since we have been back” in the United States. He said he had received that day an email from one of his former students, they were going to be hosting another student at their house in a few days, and their church in the United States continues to support the ministry of another former student.

Ben said, “We didn’t cut any ties with [the country], just with the organization. It is very much an ongoing part of our lives and always will be.” In the end, they believed their multiple communications to the leadership and board of directors provided opportunity for corrections to be made had those entities listened to their pleas.

Casandra said,

I came to a point where I knew in my heart that spiritually, emotionally and professionally that ‘the person I am’ did not line up with who and what the organization leadership had demonstrated to me in the past two years. While, I loved the ‘mission of ECU’ and my role at ECU, I could no longer turn a blind eye to the leadership decisions and how the organization leadership treated its students and especially “the help” (ie. nationals in general). The hierarchy of power and status based on race (“we are white and therefore superior”) and the lack of grace, humility, and servant leadership displayed by the organization leadership was directly opposite of everything I believed that God called me to be and how he called me to serve. I could no longer be part of an organization that manipulated Scripture to promote its own agenda.

Ben and Casandra said they never “questioned their decision to leave.” They had comfort in knowing God had called them “there for that time . . . God has equipped us with the mission of what He wanted us to do. We felt we accomplished what we were there to do.”


An important period of healing came when they returned to the United States. There was a “mission group” at one of their supporting churches who cared for them. Casandra said, “They just really embraced us and were willing to help.”

Ben added, “They wanted to know how we were doing. How they could help us.”

When we spoke recently – eight years after our initial interview – Ben and Casandra explained that the good response they received from this one church was likely due to the church’s intentional development of a relationship with their missionary.

The group asked Ben and Casandra to come meet with them to “debrief with them, not to pick apart the ins and outs of the organization, but for us. It wasn’t about trying to fix what we left behind.” He said most “people didn’t really understand” and that made this mission group’s support so helpful.

Casandra added,

“There was a measure of failure you wrestle with. We moved our entire lives and sold our house . . . and two years? But, we were never made to feel like failures . . . We were able to make a difference at that time and whether it was two years or 20 years, we gave our best and we left when we could no longer operate there in good conscience before God and our supporters.”

Another aid to their healing came with a new vocational direction. They moved to Europe to pastor an international church. There they found it helpful to be in a cross-cultural setting (which they felt called to all along) and among people who did not know them. In addition, they were not in the United States where the failure they felt was so prevelent.

The process of healing has been a longer process for Casandra. She isn’t sure why. She continues to struggle with how to view missions in the church and she has no desire to return to Africa. Ben, on the other hand, jokingly said, “I’m just dead inside.” Remembering his response to leaving the mission mockingly said, “Well that sucked . . . next?”

When they got free from the toxic leadership, Ben and Casandra found healing in the words of scripture, from those individuals who supported them, and in new vocational directions. God has provided good ministry for both Ben and Casandra.


[1] Namie, “2013 Instant Poll – D: The Timing & Results of Targets Confronting Bullies At Work.”

[2] Namie, “2014 WBI U.S. Workplace Bullying Survey.”

One thought on “Ben and Casandra’s Story: Grieving Loss Under Toxic Leadership

  1. Thank you for the sharing Ben and Cassandra’s story. Lots of lessons to be learnt. I thank God that they were able to find healing and godly encouragement, from the experience.

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