On Cameron Strang’s Apology and Doing Ministry Better

I’m not a subscriber to Relevant magazine, and have never been published by Relevant in print or online. But of course I’ve heard of the popular magazine aimed at young evangelicals in their 20s and 30s, and even though I’m not in Relevant’s demographic, I’ve read and perhaps have even shared the occasional article from its eclectic mix of faith, culture, media, social issues, and more. According to its website, Relevant reaches “about 2,300,000 twenty- and thirty-something Christians a month” on all of its platforms, so it has certainly been on my radar.

Then (September 18) one of Relevant’s former managing editors went public about how after six months he had to quit what he had once thought was his dream job. He had been hired to develop content, but soon found himself undermined and pushed aside by his temperamental, micromanaging boss, treated as a token Black person within the organization, disillusioned by Relevant’s concern for its public persona that seemed to outweigh a genuine concern for racial justice.

Two days later (September 20), Relevant posted a blog response, saying that it had reached out to apologize personally, acknowledged the evil of institutional racism, mourned over “the ways racism has manifested within the walls of the Church and companies like ours,” and stated their desire to improve the way they covered racial injustice.

But that wasn’t the end of the controversy. Other former employees had also been responding with their own sadly similar experiences and concerns over the treatment of women and people of colour, including another former managing editor. Religion News picked up the story (September 21). And finally (September 23) Relevant founder and CEO Cameron Strang made a public apology:

Over the last week, I’ve heard from former members of the RELEVANT team pointing out long-term insensitivity and poor leadership on my part. I’ve heard about patterns of toxic communication that have caused pain for members of my staff. I’ve learned how my insensitivity has hurt people, and when it came to women and people of color on our staff, I was blind as to how some of my statements were especially insensitive and hurtful. Hearing that I’ve hurt so many members of our team and ended up reinforcing toxic systems I want to help tear down has been hard. I’ve caused pain to a lot of people and I’m deeply sorry.

In addition, he said:

I don’t want to see any of my negative patterns continue. I don’t want my lack of positive leadership to hold RELEVANT’s mission back. So, this morning the RELEVANT leadership and I decided that I would step away from my position. Call it a sabbatical, or a leave of absence, but I want to use an extended period of time to engage a process of healing, growth and learning. I will be seeking counseling, as well as reaching out to Christian leaders about ways I can grow and better understand important issues, especially about race and equality.

As I followed this story, I was dismayed by this “ugly” side of working for a Christian organization. At the same time, I’ve been reflecting on the experiences of others who have had to contend with dysfunctional leadership and a toxic environment in the church and other Christian work places.

What if anything can we learn from this to do ministry better?

Here are a few observations.

1.  When people are in a toxic work environment it’s difficult to speak up, whether from fear of losing their job or fear of damaging the organization, or because they’re already stressed out by the situation or treated as if they’re at fault. Some employers will take advantage of this and continue with their bad behaviour. Yet if one employee is being undermined and devalued, it’s quite likely happening to others as well.

2.  Sometimes you just need to get out for your own health and sanity—to rest, heal, and find another place of ministry where you can flourish. It’s your soon-to-be-former organization’s loss and your gain.

3.  We need sincere apology. While some say that Cameron Strang’s apology does not go far enough, others in his position may not have apologized at all, whether from fear of possible legal action or financial implications, or personal embarrassment or potential damage to the reputation of their organization. But leaders who refuse to apologize for the hurt they have caused fail to live up to the faith they claim, and withhold healing for themselves, their present and former employees, and their organization.

4.  We need change. I’m glad that Cameron Strang is stepping away from Relevant to allow himself space to process and to make changes. By God’s grace, may this be a time of repentance in the sense of turning away from past patterns of behaviour to new ones, and may the change be both individual and as an organization.

5.  We need accountability. A new minister once told me that when he first settled into the big chair behind his desk, he had to remind himself, “You are not God.” He needed to be accountable in his role, yet whether from personal ego, the cult of personality, inadequate organizational structure, or other reasons, accountability for leaders is sometimes lacking in our churches and other Christian organizations.

6.  We need to think systemically. For accountability, we need to think systemically. What structures are in place to prevent toxic behaviours in the workplace? Are their regular reviews? Is there a grievance policy? Is there professional development to educate and encourage leaders in positive behaviours?

7.  We need to examine ourselves. It’s not only Relevant that needs to address its dysfunctional leadership patterns and toxic work environment. Instead of simply pointing fingers, we need to consider our own behaviour as well. As Charlotte Donlon writes:

Recognizing my own sins doesn’t take away RELEVANT’s sins. Their actions should be exposed. The victims should be heard, believed, and supported. But I should also search my own soul and allow RELEVANT’s actions to be a mirror that shows me the truth about myself, the sins I need to turn away from, and the transformation I need to beg God, by his grace, to provide.

Relevant’s story is not yet over. I truly hope that Cameron Strang and Relevant—and all of us!—can keep learning and do ministry better.

Other helpful links:

20 signs of a toxic church culture

How to recognize a toxic work environment and get out alive

Signs you work in a toxic workplace

Have you been following the Relevant story?

What wisdom do you have to share on struggling with a toxic work environment?

As always, you’re welcome to leave a public comment on this blog, or contact me.

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Ordained minister with 25 years' experience as lead pastor of a mid-size, multi-staff church, now resident author with a liturgical worship community, and editor of Purpose, a monthly magazine of everyday inspiration. Author of Four Gifts, Sacred Pauses, and other books on Christian living. For more, see aprilyamasaki.com and WhenYouWorkfortheChurch.com.

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