Avoiding whistleblowers

February 24, 2003

Did you see the New Year’s edition of TIME magazine, with the cover story on “whistleblowers”?

Three women “of ordinary demeanor but exceptional guts” were named Persons of the Year for their roles in uncovering corruption in Enron and Worldcom, and negligence within the FBI relating to September 11. TIME called 2002 the Year of the Whistleblower.

None of these women sought to become public heroes. They tried to speak truth to power in-house, but they became public figures only because their memos were leaked. Yet “for believing that the truth is one thing that must not be moved off the books, and for stepping in to make sure that it wasn’t”, they were chosen by TIME as Persons of the Year for 2002.

Whistleblowing is not pleasant for anyone – least of all for the whistleblowers and their families. They face a crisis of conscience. They know something and they know it is not right to keep silent. Yet they also know that speaking out could cost them friendships, salaries and jobs. It could lead to attacks on their character, even physical intimidation.

The Al Pacino film, The Insider, tells the story of the man who exposed the lies of the tobacco industry and triggered an historic court decision in the States against cigarette manufacturers … but at great personal cost.

Some time ago, I met Paul van Buitenen, the civil servant who exposed corruption in the European Commission, leading to the resignation of the whole Commission. A fairly young Christian, he had acted out of conscience on information he happened to stumble across in the course of his job in Brussels. Of course, no-one in the Commission thanked him. At the time I talked with him, he was facing enormous opposition, also from close family members who did not share his faith. Eventually he was forced to seek a new job in Luxembourg.

TIME asked the three Persons of the Year if any of them had been thanked by their organisations for taking their stand for morality and ethics. Their collective answer was simply to dissolve spontaneously into laughter. The scarey thing, one of them said, was the amount of resistance they met.

What they had experienced was the typical response of institutions towards whistleblowers: be that a tobacco company, the European Commission, the FBI, Enron, Worldcom… or the Catholic Church, as we are learning from recent revelations of child abuse.

Why is this so typical? Because power, however ‘spiritually’ clad, defends itself.

Of course, this would not be true of an organisation like YWAM, would it?

Oh? Why not? YWAM is an organisation that makes mistakes too. Loren Cunningham, our founder, has often said we probably make more mistakes than any other mission because we give young people the freedom to step out and experiment. And those of us who have been around in YWAM for a while have heard enough horror stories to know how imperfect our organisation is. We are not above instances of leadership abuse, intimidation, manipulation and lapses of integrity. If we think we are, we are living in denial. These instances run totally counter to our stated values, and to our teaching. Yet, sadly, they happen. And sometimes we fellow leaders lack the courage or consistency to rebuke and exhort where necessary.

There is a false teaching circulating that puts leaders on infallible pedestals with special hot lines to God. I heard recently of one YWAM leader who told staff members that “when giants speak, midgets need to listen”! No, we need always to create the space for staff to express concerns.

How then can we avoid provoking whistleblowers?

We need to encourage our fellow leaders to hold us accountable. When they see us operating contrary to our YWAM values and principles, they need to love us enough to challenge us. We need to make our staff aware that leaders are also accountable to those they lead, and that it’s okay for staff to raise questions when they perceive our actions conflict with our stated values.

We need to make our staff aware of the guidelines drawn up by the Global Leadership Team for dealing with conflict issues, and that staff can appeal to be heard in mediation or arbitration processes.

Reading such guidelines can be a bit like having the airhostess explain how to use the lifejacket under your seat – which you never think you’ll have to use. But let me encourage you to familiarise yourself with this document, found on www.ywam.org/documents/rc.html. There’s a section of teaching written by Loren Cunningham on biblical guidelines for resolving conflicts; plus principles of fair practice that bases and ministries should follow in recruiting and accepting students and staff. Then, when conflict does arise, there are guidelines for a mediation hearing, or even arbitration (a hearing with a binding verdict), if earlier phases fail to bring resolution.

These are processes would-be whistleblowers can appeal to. And it is our job as leaders to ensure due process happens. May God forbid that YWAM be a place where people are intimidated into silence on issues of conscience.

While unpacking her boxes from the office, noted TIME, the lady from Enron discovered a company pad of sticky-‘post-its’. Across the top was printed a quote from Martin Luther King Jr, which she wished more people had taken to heart: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Till next week,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

One response to “Avoiding whistleblowers”

  1. The abuse I endured in my own YWAM leadership family and the host family I lived with is a horror story. It affected my mental health and the trajectory of my life in every way. I attempted to advocate for the physical violence in the name of Jesus to end, and the result was that I was kicked out of my family. This is serious. It is a form of psychological torture. I witnessed and endured serious childhood sexual abuse in YWAM and was shunned and ostracized for it, as a child. I attempted multiple times over decades to come forward only to be shamed and silenced. Shunning and ostracism have no place in God’s family, and this horrific practice needs to be stopped. YWAM leadership are bullies, and the damage they cause is REAL.

    Yes, please start holding each other accountable. And just as importantly, listen to the victims. Give us a voice. I have made hundreds of attempts to contact the organization. Punishing sexual abuse survivors is not OK. Having our pain heard and acknowledged can heal life-threatening wounds. Being silenced is a death sentence.

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