World Vision, the giant international Christian relief and development organization, made two announcements last week. I was shocked and disappointed by both. The nature of my alarm was somewhat different than what I’m reading among my friends who share my evangelical Christian faith, and among others who have reacted to the announcements.
World Vision announced on March 24 through an exclusive interview with Christianity Today that it had amended its personnel policy to allow the hiring of gay Christians who were in legal same sex marriages. They did this, World Vision president Richard Stearns said, not to establish a theological position on homosexuality or same sex marriage, but to be reflective of some Christian denominations that had shifted to more permissive positions on homosexuality.
Two days later, through the same publication, Stearns announced that the organization had totally reversed its decision after virulent backlash from evangelical leaders.
I headed World Vision U.S.’s public relations department for nearly five years, leaving in 1983, and have been a management and public relations consultant for 36 years, primarily in the evangelical sector. I haven’t provided public relations counsel to World Vision for three decades, but from my perspective as a WV alumnus and a PR practitioner, I see World Vision’s handling of this self-made crisis as a public relations debacle of stunning proportions.
This has nothing to do with my own view on the interface of Christian teaching and sexual orientation and practice. There is plenty to say about this, but I am not most qualified to present the varied theological positions. I have worked through enough public relations crises, however, to have an opinion on potential causes for this mishandling of very public statements by a strong and important organization. I see at least six:
- Detached Retina. World Vision totally lost view of its core mission and the potential of endangering the aid it provides for millions of people around the world, when it decided to publicize its personnel policy change. There was no reason for a public announcement of a change in its hiring practice or to clarify its position on the accepted conduct of its employees. It did so, it appears, to establish a leadership position among Christian organizations on an issue not central to its mission around the world. Whether you support its (short lived) decision to hire gay Christians or its reversal, World Vision was—Don Quixote like—tilting at windmills where it should not have been.
- Presbyopia. With age, many of us lose our ability to see things close up. Called presbyopia, it’s a good word for WV’s vision problem–not seeing those closest to it, the core of evangelical Christians that have and still do constitute an overwhelming portion of its support. It is nearly unbelievable that Stearns and WV leaders were surprised by the storm of protest to its first decision by Christian leaders and the thousands of child sponsors that revoked support within 48 hours. There clearly were not adequate discussions or research with the customer base. Stearns admitted this when he announced the reversal: “We did inadequate consultation with our supporters. If I could have a do-over on one thing, I would have done much more consultation with Christian leaders.” But by hearing from supporters and leaders only after the first decision, it left World Vision looking not like a wise industry leader that consults its constituents before making important decisions, but as a weak leadership team that caved when criticized.
- Double Vision: World Vision wisely does not take sides on theological issues such as baptism, charismatic expression, divorce and remarriage, or eschatology, which it leaves to the churches. But World Vision is and is known as an evangelical institution and part of the universal Church. As such it draws lines, which it was clear about in its statements this week, requiring that employees be faithful followers of Jesus Christ. It was unfocused thinking to put an issue of stunning social importance in the lap of the church while taking a position that was contrary to a very high percentage of the very churches whose members support the organization. Additionally, Christian institutions (not just churches) must define truth not by keeping everyone happy, but through biblical study, revelation, and conviction.
- Mistaken Identity: In making its case for a personnel policy change, World Vision said it allowed the organization “to treat all of our employees the same way: abstinence outside of marriage, and fidelity within marriage”—giving state-legalized same-sex marriage the same standing as the marriage of man and a woman. To identify moral clarity through appeal to state law is a perilous move, one that—of course—held little sway with those who believe homosexual conduct is contrary to scripture and legal sanction of same-sex marriage an abomination. The decision appeared to be cleared by legal counsel but not Christian counsel.
- Distorted Selfie. What is the distinct character of a Christian organization? It’s defined by beliefs, mission, and shared Christian values. Trust is broken when an organization violates these values that it shares with its recipients, its customers/donors, its partners, and its own history. It will take years for World Vision to rebuild that trust.
- Myopia. While I do not know World Vision’s current leaders well enough to discern how much they have been influenced by the political and social environment in Seattle and the state of Washington, the blind spot demonstrated this week suggests there has been an impact. Otherwise, it is difficult to understand the first decision. I’m afraid World Vision could not see beyond the Cascades, their eyes focused—if even unintentionally–on local preferences, politics, and the social environment in their home state, and not seeing national and international positions in the evangelical community that came surging into their view when they publicized their short-lived new personnel policy.
The sad part of such public relations mishandling is that an organization emerges with its reputation severely damaged. In this case, those in the heart and the right of the evangelical community have been given ammunition to doubt the orthodoxy of World Vision and its leaders. The bleeding was stopped but the scar will be unsightly for some time. Then with a reversal, those who support a stronger embrace of homosexuals by the church felt betrayed by a World Vision that – it appears to them—capitulated under the strong arm of fundamentalism.
I think of the president of World Vision when I was part of the team, esteemed evangelical leader Ted W. Engstrom, who passed away a couple of years ago. I can see TWE writing memos in heaven on the dangers of compromise, but also on the mismanagement of the public trust.
May World Vision draw from his wisdom and example of clear leadership.