The January 11 issue of WORLD Magazine includes an article by Warren Cole Smith entitled “Going Public.” The article is about the American Bible Society (ABS) and “years of troubles” that “suddenly came into the public spotlight” when ABS fired CEO Doug Birdsall in October 2013. Interestingly, WORLD headlined the section containing this article “2013 News of the Year.” Apparently that means that WORLD considers this story to be one of the most important, if not the most important, news events of the past year.
I am actually not going to delve into most of the “years of troubles” that the article describes because, in my opinion, that was not the most important thing, or perhaps even the most troubling thing, about the article. What troubles me is the way in which WORLD has depicted the ABS as being completely in the wrong and at fault in the matter of Birdsall’s dismissal when, based on the information provided in the WORLD article, it would seem that the dismissal was entirely justified.
Smith writes that the ABS board brought Birdsall in early in 2013, and that he brought along “impeccable evangelical credentials and a reputation for moving fast and for revitalizing large organizations.” A few lines later Smith reports than Birsdall met with “influential leaders” in April 2013 about his plans for ABS. The ABS building in New York City apparently has some extensive problems and bringing it up to New York building code standards is slated to cost some $20 million. Per Smith, Birdsall told his influential gathering about “his plans for a $300 million center for Manhattan’s growing evangelical church,” a project that would replace the current 12-story ABS building.
The proposed 30-story building would include “an Omni hotel, ABS expansion space, and room for special events and other ministries to work.” Bob Rowling, a billionaire Dallas developer whose TRT Holdings own the Omni Hotel chain, committed to finance the plan. (That is a major conflict of interest right there, but that is not even the biggest problem). Smith goes on to say that Birdsall “moved forward on other fronts. He went through an informal process of grading ABS board members with an A, B, or C. Board members who received an A were, in Birdsall’s opinion, in a position to lead and mentor others. Board members with a B were those who could be excellent contributors but who had areas in need of development. Those with a C should not have their terms renewed. Birdsall placed about a third of the board members in each category.”
Smith then reports that when the ABS board chairman found out about Birdsall’s “assessment process and his plans for the building, he saw it as insubordination. The board fired Birdsall in October.” Now, I do not have any independent information or further details of the sequence of events beyond what Smith reported, but the manner in which his article was written certainly seems to imply that Birdsall came up with this plan for the ABS building and presented it to “influential leaders” in a matter of only a few months, and apparently without having the plan approved by the ABS board, perhaps without even presenting it to the board. If that is not insubordination I do not know what is. Someone with the impeccable credentials Birdsall was supposed to have brought to the table would certainly know that he had no authority to devise and promote such a plan without board knowledge or approval. Furthermore, if any CEO is going to be so brazen as to rank the board for whom he works he better be very careful with what he does with said rankings. Having served three boards as a CEO I am of course well aware of the fact that CEO’s often have opinions about which board members are more or less effective, but ranking them the way Birdsall did, within months of taking over the leadership position, was foolish, particularly if he shared that ranking with anyone other than the board. Even if he did share it with the board, or board chair, only, how it was presented would make a tremendous difference in how it was received.
Earlier in the same issue of WORLD Marvin Olasky wrote that ABS and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities “chewed up and spat out presidents” during 2013. He said that ABS, the CCCU and other Christian ministries that closed in 2013, were “beakers containing more toxic chemicals” rather than “beacons of light.” Yet, he concludes that section of his essay claiming that WORLD is “not out to find scandals that finish off organizations with a loud bang. More often we’re called to report on small storm clouds that together create gloomy skies like those many of our readers see.” Perhaps Olasky, Smith and others at WORLD are not out to “finish off” the ABS, but the tenor of their reporting makes it clear that they feel Birdsall was right and the ABS board was wrong.
I wonder if WORLD CEO Kevin Martin would feel the same way if Olasky, WORLD Editor in Chief, tried something similar. It seems to me that Birsdall’s actions as CEO of ABS were out of order. It seems that WORLD‘s coverage of the situation is, too.