Leadership, Vision

Telling The Truth

We would all agree that it is unethical to keep to separate sets of financial reports, targeted to get better receptions from certain people. We know that presenting ourselves as one thing on a first date that is really not true is a recipe for eventual trouble. And yet, in many situations the resolution of how we present ourselves is not so simple. Often the real difficulty is in how much truth we tell in each given context. It is usually appropriate to put our “best foot forward” whenever possible. For some Christian organizations this poses particular problems. A Christian ministry working in public schools in Vancouver, BC has found itself gaining some potentially damaging media attention this year, in part because of some confusion in what they communicate about their purpose and motivation. There is additional coverage here. In short; these young adults, who are identified in missionaries in some of their own materials, have been volunteering in schools as helpers for academic and extracurricular activities. As they do so, they are building relationships with students, caring for them and looking for opportunities to share with them the love of Jesus Christ. That’s the tricky bit. BC schools are governed by an act that prohibits religious activities in the school, and some argue that these young people are essentially involved in a “bait and switch” in which they help at the school only to identify students who might be susceptible to their evangelism. Others counter that their school service is simply a desire to help overworked staff provide what students need; and that the spiritual conversations which occur off campus are in no way a violation of policy or trust. This could have happened in many communities across Canada where a variety of longstanding Christian organizations use similar strategies to minister to young people. As our communities, and particularly our schools, become increasingly suspicious of some forms of faith expression the sensitivity required for those who want to be involved in any kind of proselytizing is becoming exceedingly difficult. It is made all the more challenging because the typically young staff who are working in and around the schools are very rarely experienced and wise enough to navigate the political and social complexity of the situation. Their sincere zeal make it easy for them to step blindly into controversy. A big part of the problem is the tendency for people and organizations to offer distinctly different messages to different audiences. Many Christian charities who want to connect with people outside the faith promote their work with little or no mention of the spiritual content or motivation involved. Then they present their Christian supporters with a contrary story in which spiritual transformation is front and centre. This is ethically questionably and potentially a public relations nightmare. In a world of websites, blogs, and social media it is nearly impossible to prevent the eventual exposure of this kind of mixed messaging. When it comes out it looks suspicious, raising questions that can completely undermine credibility and ultimately sink the organization. Inconsistency in these areas always looks sinister to some people, often to the very people you hope to reach. My suggestion; unless there are explicit security concerns necessitating some level of secrecy (which I don’t recall ever hearing of in Canada); it is best to be up front and direct about mission, vision, and values. To do otherwise is to invite suspicion. There is nothing wrong with wanting to share something life-changing you’ve come to believe with others. In fact, to not do so is probably unloving. However, it is important to do so in a way that is both sincere and open. What I’ve read suggests that Pais has been lacking in this quality. Dr. John Stackhouse offered insightful commentary directed to people with various perspectives on the Pais situation, including these words to the young missionaries that should be considered by many Christian organizations:

You can’t have it both ways: telling supporters that you’re “missionaries making missionaries” and telling school principals and journalists that you’re there only to provide public service.
I can think of a number of other organizations that should listen closely to those words.