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08 Sep '10

The Questions Raised by the New Tribes Mission Scandal

Posted by T.J. Addington in abuse, church leadership, organizational culture
The terrible scandal that has erupted around New Tribes Mission (NTM) over systematic abuse in at least one of their mission schools in the seventies and eighties, along with a failed attempt to minimize what happened, protect the guilty and ignore the victims raises an important question for those of us who lead ministries. When things go wrong – and they will – how do we respond? Equally, how do we minimize the chances that something like this could happen in our own organizations?



Minimizing our risk starts with the ethos we develop in our organization. Many organizations have “elephants” that are off limits for discussion – and everyone knows it. We have intentionally sought to develop an open ethos and environment in ReachGlobal where any issue can be put on the table and where there are no lingering elephants in the room. An open ethos that invites dialogue rather than discourages it gives everyone permission to talk about issues that are of concern to them. NTM had a history of the opposite: One could not challenge leaders without it being framed as a spiritual issue of rebellion. There was not an open ethos and the result was that it took decades for a known problem to be brought into the light. One of the questions every leader ought to be asking right now is whether there is an open ethos in their ministry where known problems can be brought into the light easily and without incrimination!


Leaders who seek to cover up sin in order to preserve the reputation of their organization end up doing just the opposite. One of the first jobs of a leader is to provide a safe environment for those who work for them. This includes physical safety where possible – missions is inherently dangerous in many places – but it also implies a promise to staff that if something occurs that should not have that they will always respond in the best interests of those affected and in the best interests of all of their staff.


NTM failed this test miserably. In the attempt to minimize damage to their reputation they responded in ways that put children more at risk and by not acting vigorously and quickly to address the problem caused huge pain to many families and former MKs as evidenced by the stories that are being told. Even now, many former NTM MK’s and personnel are wondering aloud on blogs if there were not other schools where the same abuse took place and whether NTM will address those schools as well. Had NTM addressed the systemic issues quickly, forcefully and thoroughly in the beginning, they would have protected their future staff and spared the organization the agony they are currently experiencing. What they did instead is to put their own people at risk for the sake of their mission and reputation – a moral “exchange” that was unconscionable.


Protecting your staff and acting with integrity requires that leaders confront serious problems directly, with no attempt to hide or cover up the facts, because they know that in doing the right thing they serve their people best and protect the reputation of God. The question is not whether bad things will happen in Christian organizations – we live in a fallen world. The question is whether leaders will act with moral integrity and courage when it does for the sake of their people and God’s reputation regardless of the fallout in the short term. Ironically, short term losses in reputation actually make for long term gains in reputation as staff and others see that leaders can be trusted to do the right thing even when it is hard. Regardless, real leaders confront known issues quickly and vigorously knowing that doing the right thing is always the right thing, no matter what the fallout.


Those who serve on ministry boards have huge responsibility to ensure that they are alerted to potential issues – it should be one of their policies and that such issues are thoroughly explored and responded to quickly. The NTM situation would be a great discussion for many ministry boards. Are they prepared to respond to bad news with wise and decisive action? They need to ask the question, if this happened to us, how would we respond? Don’t pretend that it will never happen to you. It might. The question is whether you are ready to respond in ways different than NTM did?


There is a final question to be raised. The world believes that the end justifies the means. Christians believe that the means must be as righteous as the ends. NTM by its actions and words sent a strong message that they were willing to compromise the safety of their MK’s for the cause of the Gospel. That was an immoral exchange which permanently scarred many MK’s and their families for life. In some cases it also inoculated them against the Gospel itself. The ends never justify the means no matter how noble the cause of our ministry.


It is easy to throw stones and that is not my intention although I am sad, angry and believe that NTM utterly failed in its care for its staff, the ethos they developed and the response they exhibited. But my real question is whether we as ministry leaders and organizations can learn something from their leadership failure and ensure that we have done all that we can to develop healthy ministry environments where serious issues cannot be swept under the rug, where the care and safety of our staff is a high priority and where our ends never justify our means. That to me is the relevant response to this sordid affair.