Tuesday, April 8, 2014

World Vision: A Question of Identity and of Calling

The events of last week regarding World Vision's change in employment policy and then its subsequent retraction, reminded me of a meeting I had a number of
years ago in China.  With the buzz of news, blogs, and Tweets, immediately following the announcements by World Vision, U.S., I decided to think a little more reflectively on what this all meant, and why.

The announcement came as a surprise to many, myself included, and was viewed immediately as controversial, either as a welcomed or unwelcomed change to this great humanitarian organization.

According to the initial announcement, World Vision's American branch would no longer require its more than 1,100 employees to restrict their sexual activity to marriage between one man and one woman.  As reported in Christianity Today online, "Abstinence outside of marriage remains a rule." But the policy change announced on Monday, 24 March 2014, will now permit gay Christians in legal same-sex marriages to be employed by World Vision.

In an exclusive interview with Christianity Today, my friend, Rich Stearns, the President of World Vision U.S., explained the rationale for this change.  He asserted that it was a very narrow change and should be viewed by others as "symbolic not compromise but of Christian unity."  World Vision U.S., hoped to dodge the division tearing churches apart over same-sex relationships by holding to its long-held philosophy of parachurches deferring to churches and denominations on theological issues so that it could focus on uniting Christians around the world serving the poor.

This has gotten me thinking about identity and calling.  When we think of identity, we think of the fact or state of being the same one as described.  Or maybe we think of it as the sense of self, providing sameness and continuity in character and personality over time.  In terms of logic, identity refers to the assertion that two terms refer to the same thing.  All of this carries the sense of individuality, personality, uniqueness, and distinctiveness.

"Calling" raises a slightly different idea.  The idea of calling is a religious term, but it is more than that.  Os Guinness in his well-known book, The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life, states that "At some point every one of us confronts the question: How do I find and fulfill the central purpose of my life?"  He writes how in "an early draft of Fyodor Dostoevsky's, The Brothers Karamazov, the Inquisitor gives a terrifying account of what happens to the human soul when it doubts its purpose: 'For the secret of man's being is not only to live . . . but to live for something definite.  Without a firm notion of what he is living for, man will not accept life and will rather destroy himself than remain on earth . . .  .'"  It seems to me that this can also apply to organizations.

Call it the greatest good (summum bonum), the ultimate end, the meaning of life, or whatever you choose.  But finding and fulfilling the purpose of life comes up in a myriad of ways and in all seasons of our lives.

But, it is not just a personal thing.  As The Random House Dictionary of the English Language (Unabridged) puts it: a call is a summons to a profession, vocation, or trade.  So, as Os Guinness argues in his book, this purpose for life can be found only when we discover the specific purpose for which we were created and to which we are called.

The reaction to this change in one of the world's largest humanitarian organizations was swift, and largely critical.  But, it is not simply a large humanitarian organization.  Since World Vision has long been regarded as a premier Evangelical organization, it is not difficult to guess the lines of divisions among those critical of the change or supportive of the change.

However, on 26 March 2014, just two days later, World Vision reversed this decision.   In a letter posted to the World View constituency and media, Rich Stearns announced that the U.S. Board had just publicly reversed its decision to change their national employment conduct policy:

 Dear Friends,
Today the World Vision U.S. board publicly reversed its decision to change our national employment conduct policy.  The board acknowledged that they [sic] made a mistake and chose to revert to our longstanding conduct policy requiring sexual abstinence for all single employees and faithfulness with the Biblical covenant of marriage between a man and a woman. 
We are writing to you our trusted partners and Christian leaders who have come to us in the spirit of Matthew 18 to express your concern in love and conviction.  You share our desire to come together in the Body of Christ around our mission to serve the poorest of the poor. We have listened to you and want to say thank you and humbly ask for your forgiveness.
In our board's effort to unite around the church's shared mission to serve the poor in the name of Christ, we failed to be consistent with the World Vision U.S.'s commitment to the traditional understanding of Biblical marriage and our own Statement of Faith, which says, "We believe the Bible to be the inspired, the only infallible authoritative Word of God."  And we also failed to seek enough counsel from our Christian partners.  As a result, we made a change to our conduct policy that was not consistent with our Statement of Faith and our commitment to the sanctity of marriage.
We are brokenhearted over the pain and confusion we have caused many of our friends, who saw this decision as a reversal of our strong commitment to Biblical authority.  We ask that you understand that this was never the board's intent.  We are asking for your continued support.  We commit to you that we will continue to listen to the wise counsel of Christian brothers and sisters, and we will reach out to key partners in the weeks ahead.
While World Vision U.S. stands firmly on the biblical view of marriage, we strongly affirm that all people, regardless of their sexual orientation, are created in God's image and are to be loved and treated with dignity and respect.
Please know that World Vision continues to serve all people in our ministry around the world.  We pray that you will continue to join with us in our mission to be "an international partnership of Christians whose mission is the follow our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in working with the poor and oppressed to promote human transformation, seek justice, and bear witness to the good news of the Kingdom of God." 
As I read both the initial announcement, and rationale, for the change to the employment conduct policy, and now its retraction or reversal, several things have come to my mind that I believe must apply to all charitable organizations. These are things that have been at the forefront of my thinking over the past 40 years of experience in the third sector, and particularly, as a member of a number of boards.

At the same time, I feel a little sadness that many may view both the initial announcement, and this immediate reversal of its earlier announcement following a firestorm of criticism, as a concern for its effect on its fundraising, child sponsorship, and trust within the Christian community that has supported World Vision since its founding.  What seems to be missing throughout this entire situation is any clear understanding that marriage is pre-political, notwithstanding the affirmation of the Biblical teaching and World Vision's statement of the creation narrative.

But, first this.  I had the privilege of meeting with the senior leadership of China's Ministry of Civil Affairs, Department of Social Welfare and Charity
Promotion.  The Deputy General Director of the Department posed an interesting question in the course of our discussion.

The question was this: Are standards of Integrity and Transparency established by each country or culture, or are they more permanent?

The context was our discussion about the nature of integrity, transparency, and accountability within the nongovernmental civil society, or third sector, and the role of charity monitoring of that sector.  The question was really whether there are eternal truths, external to our space and time, that establish standards of integrity against which charitable organizations should be monitored, or whether these standards are established locally based on the history, culture, and traditions of a particular country.  Of course, a key underlying thought to that question was who was to monitor this activity and against what standards.

About 18 months later during a public lecture at Shantou, University, Shantou, Guangdong Province, one of the advanced students asked an interesting question.  China, http://www.rvanbroekhoven.blogspot.com/2013/02/global-trends-in-civil-society.html  This was the question:  Are there differences between the way Americans are engaged in charity with their history and tradition of Christianity, and the way the Chinese are engaged in charity without that tradition?  Again, an interesting and somewhat provocative question in an audience filled with people, students, faculty, and citizens of the local metropolitan area, where I had no knowledge of the backgrounds of those attending.

I was reminded of these questions when I heard of the World Vision change in its employment policy which was then reversed within two days.

There is something that often happens in any organizations, but for our purposes, in nonprofit organizations that make up our civil society.  We simply forget our identity and why we were established in the first place.  In other words, we forget who and what we are, and to what we were called to be and do. And we forget by Whose authority and Whose standards our identity and our calling are forged.  Thus, the relevance of the questions posed to me in Beijing and in Shantou.

Any concept of accountability must, it seems to me, include some standards against which compliance and accountability are to be determined.  But, that still does not solve the problem.  The law, may in its own way, set forth standards applicable to how a nonprofit organization must be organized and operated.  Some of these may have moral content or be based on some standards of morality, while other laws might simply reflect certain administrative or ministerial requirements that do not invoke some profound moral standard.  As a result, many laws are country specific, and reflect the history, culture, and traditions of that country.

Similarly, organizations may have their own standards of integrity and morality, as well as reflecting the organization's values and culture.  To the extent that they embody some principle of integrity or morality, the question often is raised about the source of those principles of integrity or morality.

Rules or standards of etiquette, on the other hand, are generally culturally and traditionally specific to a place and time.  They simply involve manners, and for the most part, carry no particular moral standards.

The problem becomes more difficult when we talk about morality.  It is important to distinguish morality and values.  They are not the same although the terms are frequently used interchangeably without much thought.  If there are no first principles, however general, that may be expressed to convey moral content, then it seems that any real discourse about what is right or what is wrong, what is moral or what is immoral, what is good, or what is bad, is basically impossible.  There must be some set standards against which all arguments concerning standards are discussed and evaluated.  This does not mean that there cannot be interpretive differences or differences in their application.

So much of the issues that gave rise to the confusion over the changed employment conduct policy of World Vision U.S. and its subsequent reversal is related to that difficulty we have in talking about these kinds of issues without some clear and permanent baseline against which our discussions are conducted. And it is this which leads me to the questions of identity and calling.

I recall when Bob Pierce, an American pastor, founded World Vision in the 1950s preaching and making movies to raise awareness about poverty in Asia. Bob Pierce set about as simply one man trying to help one child in one country with $5.00, and began the child sponsorship program in 1953, caring directly for children in orphanages.  In the late 1960s, the child sponsorship program spread to more countries in Asia and South Central Asia.

From those earlier years, World Vision was always thought to be within what was considered to be the core of evangelicalism, and I make this comment theologically rather than politically as the term is so often thought of today. That was its identity, but it was also its calling.

I also remember when the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA) was founded, World Vision was one of the founding members, and perhaps without that early leadership of Stan Mooneyham and Ted Engstrom, both previous presidents of World Vision of World Vision International, ECFA may never have gotten off the ground as a standard-setting and accrediting body for evangelical organizations.  It was Stan Mooneyham and Ted Engstrom, working with Billy Graham and other senior leaders of American evangelicalism that led to the formation of ECFA.

From its founding, ECFA has been distinctive in its vision of being Evangelical, that is, centered on the tenets of orthodox Biblical Christianity, and promoting integrity in the Evangelical nonprofit sector in the United States.  Indeed, the ECFA mission statement is: Enhancing Trust in Christ-Centered Churches and Ministries.

In this respect, ECFA Standard 1 provides:

Every Organization shall subscribe to a written statement of faith clearly affirming a commitment to the evangelical Christian faith, or shall otherwise demonstrate such commitment and shall operate in accordance with biblical truths and practices.
In an age in which words are twisted and used for purposes other than their original meaning, it is important to recognize that what is expressed in this ECFA Standard 1 is not a statement of political or popular understanding of what evangelicalism is and what evangelicals are.  Rather, it expresses the theological understanding of that term as generally described in the ECFA's doctrinal statement of faith, which is set forth as part of that Standard.

In essence, ECFA affirms a number essential elements undergirding the evangelical Christian faith. For my purpose here, I only identify three.  First, a believe in the Bible to be the inspired and only infallible, authoritative word of God.  Second, the belief in the Trinity of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. eternally existing in three persons.  Third, a statement of what those beliefs are.

Like many others involved in the charitable sector, I regarded Ted Engstrom as something of a mentor for more than 20 years, first when he was Chairman of the Board of Directors for ECFA and later during my tenure as Chairman of that Board.  But, I first knew Ted in the mid-1950s when he was a leader in Youth for Christ, and followed him later as he became president of Youth for Christ International.  And, indeed, it was during my Chairmanship of ECFA when Rich Stearns also became a member of the Board of ECFA.

Which brings me back to the questions of identity and calling.  Rich Stearns wrote a great little book in 2009, The Hole in Our Gospel: The Answer that Changed my Life and Might Just Change the World.  In his introduction, Rich Stearns asks two questions: What does God expect of us?  What is the Christian Faith About?  In other words, what is our identity and what is our calling.  But he then goes on to press the question further:
     I am a Christian -- perhaps you are too.  [This is a matter of identity]  But, what does that mean exactly?  To even be a Christian, we must first believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.  That in itself is not small idea.  If it is true, it changes everything, because if Christ is God, then all that He said and did is deeply significant to how we live our lives.  So we believe. But God expects more.
     And so the question, "What does God expect of me?" is a very profound one -- not just for me, but for everyone who claims to follow Christ.  [Here, Rich addresses the question of calling and gets very personal as he moves away from the abstract and theoretical.]   Jesus had a lot to say about it.  Yes, He did give us deep insights into the character of God and our relationship to Him as well, but He also spoke at length about God's expectations, or values, and how we are to live in a world.  So, how are we to live? What kind of relationship are we to have with a holy God?  What is God asking for, really, from you and me?  Much more than church attendance.  More than prayer too.  More than belief, and even more than self-denial.  God asks us for everything.  He requires total life commitment from those who would be His followers.  In fact, Christ calls [emphasis added] us to be His partners in changing our world, just as He called the Twelve to change their world two thousand years ago.
* * *
      The idea behind The Hole in Our Gospel is quite simple.  It's basically the belief that being a Christian, or a follower of Jesus Christ, requires much more than just having a personal and transforming relationship with God.  It also entails a public and transforming relationship with the world.
     If your personal faith in Christ has no positive outward expression, then your faith -- and mine -- has a hole in it.  
So that is the context in which we can consider both the announced revised employment conduct policy by World Vision U.S., and its retraction several days later.  It is really a question of identity and calling.  You see, World Vision is not just another large humanitarian organization among a number of humanitarian organizations, providing the same or similar type of relief to the poor, needy, downcast, and disenfranchised, as good and as important as those things are.

As Rich Stearns point on in his book, the humanitarian identity and calling flows from what it means to be a Christian and a follower of Jesus Christ.  Rich does not go straight to the challenge to be a public and transforming change agent in our relationships with the world.  He could.  But, he does not.  His entire thesis and book is based on the idea that the Gospel, and of Christian identity involves first of all, requires the follower of Jesus Christ to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and that if Jesus Christ is God, then everything He said and did is deeply significant to who we are and how we live our lives, not simply our engagement with the poor and disenfranchised.

If, as Rich Stearns argues, the gospel has a hole in it, then it is important to understand what the gospel is.  And Rich points out, both in his prologue and in the first chapter, that the gospel is "glad tidings, esp. concerning salvation and the kingdom of God as announced to the world by Christ." Further, "This new kingdom, characteristics of which are captured in the Beatitudes (Matt: 5:3-10), would turn the existing world order upside down.

This book, The Hole in the Gospel, is the compelling true story of Rich Stearns, who left his position as the corporate CEO of Lenox, Inc., a major U.S. corporation, to lead World Vision. This is all about his personal calling, "a call that tore him out of his corner office at one of America's most prestigious corporations -- to walk with the poorest of the poor in our world."  But it is more than that.  It is the recognition of a call to which Bob Pierce, the founder of World Vision recognized when he is established World Vision; a Biblically based identity with the poor and a call to serve them in the name of Jesus Christ.   This is both World Vision's identity and its calling.  It is also what distinguishes World Vision from many other worthwhile humanitarian organizations.

World Vision, U.S. states on its website, that it is committed to the poor.  That:

The resources at our disposal are not our own.  They are a sacred trust from God through donors on behalf of the poor.  We are faithful to the purpose for which those resources are given and manage them in a way that brings maximum benefit to the poor.
* * *
We are stewards of God's creation.  We care for the earth and act in ways that will restore and protect the environment.  We ensure that our development activities are ecologically sound. 
Both of these statements reflect a philosophy of stewardship based on Biblical teaching.  In other words, both of World Vision's identity and calling are also based on the concepts of stewardship.

I think it is also what World Vision might not have carefully considered enough in the announcement of its changed employment policy, and what I think might have been under the surface in its reversal of that revised policy, was this idea of Christian identity and its calling as stewards of all of God's creation and resources dedicated to ministering the the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the poor.  It seemed to defer to the variety of understandings of the authority of the Bible and its definition of marriage to sources outside of World Vision.  In a world and age of changing social norms, this can be dangerous to one's identity and sense of calling.

Now this:

On Friday, 4 April 2014, The Wall Street Journal reported a story that had already been in the news.  It was about the Chief Executive Officer of Mozilla, the nonprofit organization behind Firefox Web browser.   According to its website, "The Mozilla Project is a global community of people who that openness, innovation, and opportunity are key to the continued health of the Internet."  It is a community-based approach that views the Internet as a global public resource that must remain open and accessible, as a means of enriching the lives of individual human beings. The Mozilla Foundation invites all people to join to support its principles and to make this vision of the Internet a reality.

The Chief Executive Officer and co-founder, Brendan Eich, announced in a blog
that he was resigning as CEO and leaving Mozilla. Brendan Eich was the creator of JavaScript for Netscape Navigator, a brilliant engineer that was one of the co-founders of Mozilla.  But, he had also presumably been known for his opposition to same-sex marriage and had contributed $1,000.00 to support Proposition 8, the California ballot initiative that sought to ban same-sex marriage in California.  Although there were some stirrings of disapproval at the time of the donation, it was this donation that became the trigger for the outburst against Mr. Eich at the time of his selection as CEO.

The New Yorker magazine reported that none of this was a surprise, although his resignation came only two weeks after he assumed the office of CEO.  There was an outrage in the technological community in Northern California, and within the Mozilla community.  But, it was a petition circulated by the dating site, OKCupid recommending that customers stop using Firefox, and the call from some of the Mozilla employees for his resignation that led to just that.

As the New Yorker reported, "the obvious point to make about Eich's resignation is that it shows how much a part of the mainstream that support for gay rights has become, particularly in the technological world."  So, "the real mystery here, then, is not why Eich stepped down but why he ever got the job in the first place."  He was essentially forced out of his own company after running the show for two weeks.

None of this was about government censorship.  One writer stated that Eich did not have any right to be the CEO of Mozilla.  "His personal views were simply at odds with community standards." Whatever those "standards" are, assuming of course that they are "standards."  But again we have a question of what Mozilla is and what it was called to be when it was formed. all of which was set out in its organizing vision statement.

Then this:

Little Sisters of the Poor is an international congregation of Roman Catholic woman religious, originally established during the French Revolution and later established in its aftermath in 1839, and in 1868 came to America.  As part of a network of collaborators, it serves the elderly poor in more than 30 countries around the world.  Its mission, or calling, is to offer the neediest elderly of every race and religion a home where they will be welcomed as Christ.

Its vision is to contribute to the culture of life by nurturing communities where each person is valued, the solidarity of the human family and the wisdom of age are celebrated, and the compassionate love of Christ is shared with all.

Its statement of "Stewardship" states: "the recognition that all life and all other goods are gifts from God and should therefore be used responsibly for the good of all; trust in God's Providence and the generosity of others to provide for our needs; just compensation for our collaborators; a spirit of gratitude and sharing."

When the Congress of the United States passed, and the President signed, the Affordable Care Act, the Act and implementing regulations mandated certain coverages to be included in health insurance coverage.  The mandate covered contraceptive services for all employers and educational institutions without cost sharing to the employee.  The services covered included contraceptives and contraceptive services, including abortifacient drugs and devices, and female sterilization.

Failing to obtain an exemption from the mandate as a "religious employer," the Little Sisters of the Poor filed a class action lawsuit seeking to uphold its rights to carry out its vows of obedience in the service to the poor.  In its statement when faced with the denial of its application for exemption, the Little Sisters of the Poor said:
     Because the Little Sisters of the Poor cannot in conscience directly provide or collaborate in the provision of services that conflict with Church teaching, we find ourselves in the irreconcilable situation of being forced to either stop serving and employing people of all faiths in our ministry -- so that we will fall under the narrow exemption -- or stop providing health coverage to our employees.  Either path threatens to end our service to the elderly in America.  The Little Sisters are fervently praying that the issue will be resolved before we are force to take concrete action in response to this unjust mandate. 
So although the U.S. Supreme Court granted a temporary injunction while the case is being litigated through the courts, the litigation continues to drain resources and energy as the Little Sisters of the Poor continue to attempt to vindicate their identity and calling, but also to vindicate the Constitutionally recognized right of religious freedom.

Several years ago, CIVICUS  observed in its newsletter, and I have repeated here and in talks I have given, that threats to the charity sector, and to charities in particular, come in three different forms. First, there are those threats which are internal to the organization.  Then there are those threats which are external to the organization or sector.  These may included barriers that prevent organizations from becoming established to how they operate and raise funds. The third threat includes those threats that are common to human life and existence, such as war, conflict, or natural disasters such as earthquakes, hurricanes or typhoons, or volcano eruptions to suggest a few.

So, loss of trust.  Some of this loss simply occurs as a result of scandals reported in the media.  But, this loss of trust may occur in a variety of ways that are not directly connected to any "scandal." While not a scandal, charities may lose trust when disclosures of fundraising, or use of funds are inadequate or when the ratios of administrative or fundraising expenses to operations may suggest that funds are not being used effectively for the purpose for which they were raised, or for the mission of the organization.  There may be a loss of trust on the part of the public for something as simple as the way funds are raised and how those funds are used.  Similarly, a loss of trust, especially in the case of a particular supporting constituency when there are policy changes, expansions of mission emphasis, or maybe just change in leadership.

So, loss of trust in not just limited to the perceived scandals that are reported in the media.  There may be legitimate decisions taken by boards of charitable organizations that seem to shake the confidence and trust of its donor public.

Governments receive their funds through taxation and coercion; businesses through the sale of goods and services.  Loss of trust may adversely affect the reputation and authority of government, and loss of trust may adversely affect the viability and sustainability of a business.  But loss of trust to a charity can affect not only the reputation of that charity, but also the well-being of other charities, and indeed the entire sector in a community or country, and thus the welfare of the community.

However, the charity and charity sector is also challenged by external threats, such as the legal and quasi-legal means whereby governments restrict the space in which charities operate.  These may include barriers to entry, such as those which discourage or burden, or prevent formation of organizations or their operation as charitable entities.  There may be barriers to speech and advocacy, which may include the use of laws to prevent organizations and associations from engaging in the full range of free expression and public policy.  Others may use laws as means of restricting a charity's ability to raise and use funds necessary to carry out its work, or that prevent the organization from carrying out the legitimate activities for which it was established.

I would include within this variety of external threats, threats which might not be occasioned only by government action.  It may well be that external threats to the existence or effectiveness of a charitable organization arise because of changing norms or public pressure.  As certain norms and practices change and spread through societies, public pressure through protests, funding, and more recently, through the negative use of social media, may pose threats to specific charitable organizations or classes of charity.  In such cases, the charitable organization may simply bow to the pressure, and change policies which are considered to be in conformance with prevailing social norms or at least to those norms which seem to get the most attention, particularly in new media and social media networks.

If moral standards never change and are eternal and universal, it is clear that cultural norms do change, and often that change is at variance with well-known tried and true principles of morality.  Of course, there will always be debates about the source and authority of those moral codes, but this does not suggest that there are none.  In the case of World Vision and Mozilla, the same-sex marriage issue predominated in the internal decisions regarding employment and conduct policies and the selection of leadership without regard to their respective identities and callings.  But, these decisions also resulted from the external pressures caused by changing norms, in large measure advanced in social media and in the mainstream press.

Little Sisters of the Poor was faced with losing its long-standing identity and calling in order to be in compliance with the law and regulations or to face extinction or heavy fines which would result in its demise in America. Although the issue drawing most attention in the media regarding this particular litigation, as well as those joined in similar lawsuits, is the question of religious freedom, what is also at stake is the identity and calling of Little Sisters of the Poor and similar religious charitable organizations.

Isn't it true that every organization, whether or not it is a charity, faces the same questions of identity and calling, or what some might think of as mission.  I think that in the case of World Vision and Mozilla, there might be some loss of trust on the part of its donor constituency or users in the case of Mozilla. Certainly, there are boycotts in play for Mozilla, and it may lose some of its browser clientele.  Also, whether or not Brendan Eich got the comeuppance he deserved as some suggest, or was himself a victim of intolerance will be debated for sometime.

While there is no question that World Vision will survive and prosper over the long haul, there is no question that its trust and reputation has been harmed, if not by the actually change in policy, then by the way it was announced with the immediate retraction.  So, for a season, there might continue to be some controversy.  But, knowing Rich Stearns as I do, and being familiar with approximately 55 years of history of World Vision, I think that the organizations contrite and humble apology to its constituency, and indeed to the larger evangelical community, will do a great deal in restoring its trust with its loyal partners, child sponsorship supporters, and larger world-wide constituency.  It may lose some donors and partners because of it stand, but I think in the long run, it will have preserved its identity and calling.  That is good!