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Going public

When the American Bible Society fired Doug Birdsall, years of troubles suddenly came into the public spotlight. Will this great American institution thrive again?


The American Bible Society building in New York Yoon Kim

Going public
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As the introductory essay for this issue points out, the American Bible Society (ABS) is one of American Christianity’s grand old institutions. Founded in 1816, it has helped finance hundreds of Bible translations and has a 45,000-volume collection of Bibles, the largest outside the Vatican. Those Bibles, numerous offices and meeting rooms, and the Museum of Biblical Art share space in the Society’s 12-story building at Columbus Circle by New York City’s Central Park.

Because of its good work, faithful men and women had given ABS enormous sums of money—so much that the organization had assets totaling $693 million in 2007. But signs of difficulty have emerged. From 2002 through 2011 ABS overspent its budget by $250 million. ABS has had four presidents in the past decade and is now looking for a fifth. The ABS building needs by 2016 at least $20 million to bring it up to New York building code standards.

Some of the problems trace their roots to the hiring of Paul Irwin as president in 2005. Irwin, a United Methodist minister, got the job despite evidence of misuse of funds while he was CEO of the Humane Society of the United States from 1975 to 2004. Some questioned his ABS spending, including $5 million paid a fundraising outfit, Exciting New Technologies (ENT), whose founder/leader had specialized in working with internet pornography and online gambling companies. (Irwin’s son was ENT’s director of business development.)

The ABS board tried to fix that problem by firing Irwin in 2008. I recently met in the ABS building with Geoffrey Morin, the organization’s senior vice president, and Morin said ABS is an organization on its way back. He said during the Paul Irwin era “we were badly aligned” and acknowledged that the ABS board, which at one point had swelled to 72 members, had become unwieldy—but today the board has just 19 members and a different leadership structure.

The question ABS has to answer is similar to the one thrown at American Christians in 2013 generally: Have you lost your way, or—after going through a rough patch—are you on your way back? ABS shows new signs of life. It has taken a lead role in the Every Tribe Every Nation project, an ambitious project to bring new Bible translations to unreached people groups. Morin says ABS is fine-tuning its approach: “When I came to the Bible Society, one of the ways we measured our effectiveness was in how many tons of Bibles we shipped. Today we are much more focused on engagement and transformation.”

But large problems remain. The organization watchdog MinistryWatch.com found that in 2012, 30 percent of the ABS budget was spent on fundraising, “an amazing five times the average fundraising cost ratio of ministries covered in the MinistryWatch.com database.” Another watchdog, CharityNavigator, gives the ministry an overall three out of four stars, but only two out of four for financial efficiency, and MinistryWatch gives it only one star out of five.

Staff compensation also raises eyebrows, totaling $29 million for its 220 employees in 2011. That’s an average compensation of about $130,000 per employee, with at least 10 senior staffers making more than $200,000 per year. By contrast, grants to other organizations such as foreign Bible societies—a primary way the ABS facilitates Bible distribution—came to less than $8 million. Some of the outsized compensation packages can be blamed on ABS’s New York City location, but certainly not all: Only about 85 of the organization’s 220 employees work from New York. About 75 work from a facility in Valley Forge, Pa., and the rest work remotely from locations around the country.

The ABS board’s attempt to find new leadership for 2013 misfired. Early in the year, new CEO Doug Birdsall brought impeccable evangelical credentials and a reputation for moving fast and for revitalizing large organizations. He began his career as a missionary to Japan in 1980, became a ministry president in 1991, and in 2004 became executive chairman of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, responsible for a series of global evangelism conferences that began in 1974. Birdsall’s work culminated in a 2010 conference in Cape Town, South Africa, that helped to revitalize the Lausanne Movement.

Birdsall at ABS quickly examined the decaying ABS building and decided he wanted more than added fire escapes and exits: In April he told a meeting of influential leaders about his plans for a $300 million center for Manhattan’s growing evangelical church. Those present included New York City pastors Tim Keller and Jason Harris, best-selling author Eric Metaxas, and billionaire Dallas developer Bob Rowling, whose TRT Holdings owns the Omni Hotel chain. On a speaker phone were Redeemer Seminary Chancellor Skip Ryan and financial strategists Bob Doll and David Young.

Birdsall proposed replacing the 12-story ABS building with a 30-story one that would include an Omni Hotel, ABS expansion space, and room for special events and other ministries to work. Rowling, a long-time Birdsall friend, soon committed to finance the deal, and Metaxas loved the idea. He is a long-time New Yorker and admits that the project was “very close to my heart … because of the influence New York has in the world.”

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.

When board chairman Pieter Dearolf learned of Birdsall’s assessment process and his plans for the building, he saw it as insubordination. The board fired Birdsall in October. On Nov. 5, 11 prominent Christian leaders, including Keller and others who had been at the April meeting, signed an unusual letter saying the firing left them “perplexed and grieved.” Metaxas told me it was “gigantically disheartening.”

ABS leaders visited their critics, including MinistryWatch.com head Rusty Leonard, and told them, according to Leonard, that Birdsall “was not a good fit with the ABS culture.” Leonard said, “Perhaps Doug was not the right guy” for ABS, but “when you hire and fire a guy within a [short] period, there’s a good chance something is wrong with your decision-making process.” Morin told me ABS would have to “earn back the trust” of many evangelicals who did not understand the Birdsall firing.

The clock is ticking. If ABS does not get an extension from the city of New York, it must plan and execute more than $20 million in renovations in the next 24 months. It has to hire a new president. It’s not clear whether the plan to create a $300 million ministry center is dead. Rowling, the Omni owner who could finance Birdsall’s plan, would not tell me whether he’s still in the picture. Morin said, “We have been carefully exploring how to best leverage our New York City location for a number of years.”

Part of the culture clash between Birdsall and the board may have come because ABS, largely by design, is not evangelical per se, but broadly ecumenical. Since Birdsall’s firing, board chair Dearolf has had to step aside because of health concerns, and the acting board chair, Nick Athens, is Roman Catholic. “We have Catholics, mainline Protestants, and evangelicals on our board,” Morin said. “That’s always been a part of who we are.” But former board member Wellington Chui said such diversity often made it hard to make decisions: “We did not all have the same mindset.”

Chui, who also serves on the board of Taylor University, is rooting for ABS: “It has taken steps to reinvigorate itself. The board is a more manageable size. My prayer is for healing so the work of the gospel can go on.”


Warren Cole Smith

Warren is the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. He previously served as WORLD’s vice president and associate publisher. He currently serves as president of MinistryWatch and has written or co-written several books, including Restoring All Things: God's Audacious Plan To Change the World Through Everyday People. Warren resides in Charlotte, N.C.

@WarrenColeSmith

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