By all appearances, it was a typical church meeting: muffins, coffee, fluorescent lights, uncomfortable chairs. But at stake were the reputations of perhaps a dozen leaders, the continued faith of many more hard-pressed and hurt Christian workers, and perhaps above all, the unity of the Spirit and the testimony of the Church.
On June 20, 2013, about 50 people sat on folding chairs in a church, with a dozen or so more attendees joining online, for a resolution meeting of Evangelical Baptist Missions. Nearly two years earlier, the EBM board had announced that the agency would be permanently closing due to insolvency—amounting, for EBM’s missionaries, to nearly total losses of their EBM accounts.
The meeting was an attempt to settle accounts, not so much the financial ones as the more volatile emotional and relational ones. The board would explain the what, how, and if possible, the why of what many certainly felt was appalling stewardship of both resources and trust.
I hadn’t planned on attending the meeting, but as an intern at the hosting church, I jumped in to meet a few simple needs and hopefully lower the stress for a few people. Fetch coffee, help someone get on wifi, hand out paper. Once the meeting began, though, I realized I was there to observe and to learn, and that I would stay for the whole day-long event.
I was (and am) in the first six months of a two- to three-year ministry preparation internship, and the EBM resolution meeting turned out to be an unintended but vital part of my training. Nearly two years before, as a member of EBM Chairman Don Whipple’s church, I had been stunned along with so many others at the emerging crisis that had engulfed EBM—with our pastor at its helm. Besides the EBM chairman, our church is home to several EBM missionaries, so we reeled in the confusion of it all on multiple levels. As an intern in the church these past few months, I saw more of the personal weight of responsibility and stress that Whipple carried, though I still knew few of the specifics.
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There were good reasons to expect this meeting to fail. Not everyone who could or should have been present was. Not everyone who wanted to be present could be. And no one came without strong emotions weighing on them. Out of this mixture of combustibles, several difficult balances or tensions defined the goals of the day: accountability with forgiveness; expressing anger and hurt while remembering years, even decades, of shared love and labor; accepting responsibility but also necessarily limiting it.
Members of the board came to the meeting not knowing what they would face: A firing squad? The end of their good reputations? Forgiveness? Prolonged strain?
Missionaries, their family, pastors, and others came with equal uncertainty: Would there be excuses? Legal language and limited culpability? An explanation for the near silence of the past two years? Apologies? Clarity about who and what had led to such a disastrous state of affairs in the first place?
Board members, each in turn, addressed the audience. Some read verbatim from prepared statements; one or two spoke without notes. The board ended each session answering questions from the audience. Some questions sought information. Some sought to assign blame. Information and answers from the board revealed that at least three factors had over time plowed the agency deeper and deeper into the ground, until there was no hope of unearthing it: organizational leadership (staff) that differed from and did not follow the board’s direction; a board that failed to hold staff accountable for current information and responsive, responsible decision making; and a series of costly contracts that failed to deliver just as the U.S. economy dropped precipitously. Taken individually, each factor was serious. Taken together, compounded and continued over years, the combination proved fatal.
And so there were no startling disclosures of misconduct, no arch-villains revealed, and no target upon whom one could justifiably unleash two or more years of stored-up anger. Instead, there were six humbled, self-doubting board members asking forgiveness—not for avarice, or grandiose pride, or intentional wrong-doing—but instead for hesitancy, lack of resolve, naiveté, and simple (but disastrous) mistakes.
But it was also clear, as the morning progressed, that not all parties to EBM’s demise were present at this meeting. As this gradually became clear, it led to the pivotal moment of the day. When it was pointedly stated that others should be sharing at least equally in blame with the board, Chairman Don Whipple replied, “If you’re asking who is responsible, who did this, we’re—this board—we are saying to you today, ‘We did. We accept responsibility’.” In that not quite spoken distinction between being fully responsible and accepting full responsibility, grace entered definitively into the day’s agenda. When, hours later, there was nothing left but for the board to ask a response, the responses given included both hurt and forgiveness. And from all quarters came the acknowledgment that everyone in the EBM family—staff, board, missionaries, sending and supporting churches—had, in order to preserve a cherished myth, neglected to act on warning signs. It was, as one attendee put it, “The myth that as long as we’re all in this for Jesus, there won’t be any irreversible consequences. It’ll all come out alright in the end. But it won’t always, and it didn’t this time.” If there was any lesson that emerged from the day-long meeting, this was it: that earnest effort and lofty goals must be paired with competence, realism, and timely accountability.
Around the room, many cried as they gave or received forgiveness. With these tears came expressions of renewed trust as well, and the beginnings of conversations about moving forward.
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Resolution—even reconciliation—did not mean a tidy and satisfying end on all, or even most, points. Sin, and its cost, does not evaporate like that. Honest answers were often not satisfying answers. Missionaries were told to expect about 20 cents on the dollar in the final settlement. Moving forward into the future meant burying some hopes previously held for it. And although the meeting made it plain that the death of EBM had cost everyone, probably no one left feeling like the cost he or she had borne had really been adequately known: Missionaries who had felt forgotten and used, then left to wonder in silence for two long years. Their parents who saw them left in a lurch in distant and difficult lands. Pastors who had gotten tangled up in knots of financial crisis, angry members, and the challenge of shepherding well through it all. Board members who felt both responsible for, and victims of, the EBM dissolution, whose soul travails over the dissolution could not really redound to their public credit.
As the wisdom writer said, “Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy” (Proverbs 14:10).
Part of the wonder of this day, then, was that no one insisted on being fully understood, even as they sought to understand others. And with these little quiet deaths to self, condemnation may yet fall to grace.
Charlie Armstrong has a masters degree in communication from Purdue University. He and his wife, Rachel, and their two children are in the process of being sent to a church-planting ministry.