Hopefully this will be the last time I will have to devote space in this blog to discussing conflict between the board of Recovering From Religion and me. It seems the majority of people who have weighed in on this dispute up until this point are ready to be done with it. Maybe I’m wrong about that, but it seems to be the general vibe I’m getting.
The consensus seems to be, not that issues of transparency and fiduciary responsibility aren’t important matters in the secular community, but that blogs and social media aren’t really the best place to be hashing these issues out. I wholeheartedly agree, and am beyond ready to move on. But at this point JT Eberhard has accused me of deliberately deceiving the board of the organization as well as the donors who gave gifts in order for me to be brought on to work with them. I cannot just leave that alone without attempting to provide at least some explanation of what is currently missing from this picture.
The one thing that has been clear and unanimous in all of this is that at the end of my contract term with RFR, both sides were dissatisfied with the way things turned out. JT’s post this morning (which you can read here) paints a picture of willful avoidance of responsibility on my part and complete transparency and sincerity on the part of the board. As one of the largest donors to this campaign told me at one point in this saga, “In every divorce there are at least three sides: his side, her side, and the truth somewhere in between.” Spoken like a true skeptic. Or just a seasoned human being.
I will begin by summing up my own perspective of what happened here, then I will go into a bit more detail in order to offer an alternative perspective to the one that JT shared in his post this morning.
My Perspective in a Nutshell
I was brought on to do a job, the description of which changed at least twice over the course of my involvement with the organization. What I was capable of doing for them also changed dramatically upon the resignation of their previous executive director, and her departure at the beginning of my term with them got us all off on the wrong foot. It seems to me that both sides of this dispute distrusted the other, perhaps even unavoidably, due to the tumultuous nature of the changeover of leadership. We never were really able to get over that.
Furthermore, the disagreement between us failed to follow the proper channels due to an injudicious leakage of information through both official and unofficial channels on social media, creating a hot mess which neither party seems able to stop feeding. From RFR’s perspective, regardless of how their issues were first aired, those grievances are out there now so they feel they have to respond to them. From my perspective, in so doing they have overshared, and each time that they do, I am put in a position of publicly defending myself against ever-worsening charges. They of course feel the same way about each time that I have responded to them in turn.
Perhaps today’s two posts will be the end of the public airing of these issues. I certainly hope so. Because as I keep saying again and again, I believe in the mission of Recovering From Religion. And I’m not just saying that to sound like I’m on “the high road.” I really mean what I’m saying. Their goals are virtually identical to my goals, and the programs they operate are the only ones that I know of which provide the services they provide (Hotline Project, Support Groups, Secular Therapist Project, etc). The volunteers who dedicate their free time to helping others unpack their own religious baggage are friends of mine, and I want their numbers to increase. I want this org to survive and thrive beyond this dispute, and I am willing to do whatever I can to help see that happen.
Now then. Having said that, I do feel responsible for offering an explanation of what is missing from what JT has offered thus far. According to the board’s own disclosure, they asked him to write a piece making their case to the general public, and he has done that. But his presentation leaves out a number of key bits of information which either the board didn’t see a need to provide, or else JT left off because it would have reduced the impact of his piece.
The first and most important detail that you have to understand in order to make sense of this is that the current board of RFR is NOT the same board which originally invited me to work with them. They went through a significant organizational overhaul, and at least some of the conflicting reports that you are reading in all of this stems from that changeover of leadership structure.
Which Board Did You Mean?
In JT’s post, he speaks a great deal about what “the board of RFR” wanted at different stages, but he doesn’t make it sufficiently clear that throughout this ordeal there have been at least TWO boards with whom I have had dealings, made up of almost entirely different people, save one. Let’s call the first one Board 1.0 and the second Board 2.0.
When I first came on with the organization to be something more than just a volunteer, there were exactly three active and current board members with the organization, Board 1.0 if you will: Darrel Ray (chairman), Sarah Morehead (executive director), and Teresa MacBain. That’s it. Just three active board members. What’s more, they were organized primarily as an advisory body, not as a more standard executive board, and there is a significant difference between those two scenarios.** (see note at end of post for more on that)
There were two additional board members whose terms had been allowed to expire (I’m not sure when): AJ Johnson and Nate Phelps. AJ would soon officially leave the org as soon as the first dispute erupted between the executive director and the chairman in late September, and unless I am mistaken Nate was also reinstated at that time as part of an attempt to reorganize the board with Sarah no longer at the helm.
Darrel Ray (President/Chairman)
Sarah Morehead (Executive Director)
A.J. Johnson (expired)
Nate Phelps (expired)
The advisory/executive distinction is important because when the time came that the board did in fact have a dispute, I personally needed to know who had the authority to do what. I had given up a teaching job to work for them, and I needed to know who was in charge of which decisions, so I asked for a copy of the board’s current bylaws from that time (complete copy available here). What I found there was that negotiations with contractors were the purview of the executive director, not the board of directors.
18.104.22.168 The Executive Director is accountable, but not subordinate, to the Board of Directors and reports to the board on a quarterly, semiannual, and/or annual basis. The Board advises how to improve the organization’s structure, focus, direction, and vision, but the ED/CEO ultimately decides whether or not, and how, to implement these ideas.
22.214.171.124 The ED/CEO is the chief leadership role for Recovering from Religion and he/she is ultimately responsible for everything that goes on in the organization. This includes staff, membership, budget, company assets, and all other company resources, to help make the best use of them and raise the organization’s profitability and profile in pursuit of the organization’s mission and goals.
In essence, for at least five years of its history RFR had been run by the executive director with the support of a board whose leadership was fairly “hands off.” It seemed to me that most month-to-month decisions were left completely to the executive director’s discretion, leaving only a handful of structural decisions for the board to approve or disapprove whenever it was that they got around to meeting. It seemed to me that there was no consistent pattern to how or when that even happened.
For an organization of small beginnings, that really didn’t present a problem. But with the launch of the Hotline Project in early 2015, bigger decisions had to be made and pricier items had to be discussed (like server technology, hardware maintenance, software licenses, advertising, etc). When later in the year it was suggested that they start a fundraiser to get their groups better organized, more questions about compensation had to be settled and frankly at that point the chain-of-command gets a little murky. If a dispute between the three current board members hadn’t have erupted, the transition to a different kind of board might not have encountered any major hiccups. But this time none of us got off so lucky.
I think it’s worth noting that prior to at least the second day of Apostacon (Sept. 19), I had not heard a single negative word from anyone associated with the board about either my involvement with them or Sarah’s performance as their executive director. I mention that day because I distinctly recall Darrel throwing his arms around me at the conference, giving me a big bear hug and announcing in his characteristically loud, gregarious voice how proud and happy he was to have me coming on board with them. He practically gushed at how quickly the fundraiser had become a success, and we also discussed the naming of the new sexuality blog I was hoping to start on Patheos. I told him it was going to be called “Removing the Fig Leaf” and I’m certain his laughter could be heard three floors up from where we were standing. He said he loved it.
But then the conference lost money due to underselling tickets, and very quickly things between Sarah and the board turned south (you have to remember the leadership of Apostacon and RFR have significant overlap). Emergency meetings were held over the weeks that followed and in late September both Gayle Jordan and Eliott Canter were brought in as “mediators” to oversee the dispute between the members of the board. Soon I received word that the board was meeting to discuss the particulars of my contract. I thought those details had already been settled, but now I was being told that they were not.
What Exactly WAS My Job Description?
Back in late February of 2015 I was invited by two of the three then-active board members (still Board 1.0 at this point) to come out to the home of the third member (Darrel) to help with the official launch of the Hotline Project. We met pretty much all weekend long to bring together some of the final details for the Hotline launch, and it was during that weekend of meetings that Sarah and Teresa etched out a structural plan for getting RFR where they wanted it to be. Teresa would manage the Hotline Project and I would come on board to become the Group Development Director. Now we just needed to get the word out, and we needed a way to get everything funded. But how?
Because all three of us were already active on the conference speaker circuit, it didn’t take us long to figure out how to get the word out about what RFR was putting in motion. By my count, there were at least six or seven conferences we would each be already attending over the next seven months, so we decided to set up a table at each of those events to promote the organization while we were there. Cards were ordered with each of our job titles and our contact info on them so that we could pass them out to as many people as we could engage in conversation.
At NO point over the course of the four months that followed did anyone suggest that the responsibility for raising the money for either the Hotline Project or for Support Groups would fall to me. If anyone had suggested that, I would have laughed them out of the room. Why? Because frankly I suck at it.
If you’ll permit me a personal aside, anyone who knows me knows that I have always had a hang-up about asking for money. There are several reasons for that. For one thing, while my father has always made a good living as a dentist, he still grew up in poverty. And whether he meant to or not, I think he instilled in me the idea that “real work” requires making something of substance—working with your hands to produce something of real value to the economy. Writing and speaking in front of groups frankly didn’t fall into that category for him. I’ve always struggled with that, even at some level as a school teacher.
For another thing, I quickly learned that in the atheist community, anyone who attempts to raise his or her own financial support through either crowdfunding or direct-to-donor requests opens himself or herself to charge of opportunism and greediness. While the church has a precedent for its workers asking for financial support, many within the secular community seem to maintain a much harsher, unsupportive stance toward the idea. There will never be a shortage of critics ready to accuse you of taking advantage of other people simply for asking for their support to help you do what you do. I’ve always struggled with that as well.
None of that really mattered for the longest time because even into the late summer, no one had asked me to even think about taking over any fundraising responsibilities for RFR because that was the job of the executive director. There was just one major problem. She wasn’t really any better at it than I was. For all her strengths in connecting with people and identifying with their own struggles in dealing with the fallout of leaving their religion, Sarah wasn’t a fundraiser, either. She had spent five years building rapport and relationships with supporters and even donors of the organization, but she just wasn’t any better wired to ask people for money than I am.
This was the same woman who was willing to head up three organizations simultaneously for exactly zero compensation (Did you know she never got paid for any of those roles? Does that bother anyone besides me?). When I checked those same bylaws about the executive director’s compensation, I found this:
1.7.1 The Executive Director’s salary will be at least 25% (twenty-five percent) of the annual gross income of the previous fiscal year for Recovering From Religion. Additional compensation arrangements may be awarded pursuant to section 1.6.4 above and taking into account fair market value of the position and responsibilities.
I suppose that’s beside the point except to show that this wasn’t a person likely to initiate conversations about money. And somewhere around the end of July it began to dawn on each of us that we were going to have to find a way to try to spread that responsibility around.
Trying On a New Hat That Didn’t Fit
In all sincerity, I tried. I gave it my best shot. Over the next couple of trips I tried my hand at promoting the financial needs of the organization but I was flying blind, with zero previous experience with fundraising. Even now, I cringe at the memory of conversations I had with people—I’m pretty sure I spent the majority of one conversation with a potential donor just trying to convince him that I wasn’t capable of deliberately asking anyone for money. Good grief, this was a bad idea.
But RFR still had financial needs, and around the beginning of August it finally dawned on both Sarah and Shanon Nebo, who had increasingly begun to help RFR with promoting their program development, that regardless of how badly I suck at asking for financial gifts, I could still be used by the organization for fundraising purposes because of my relative popularity within the community. I may have been terrible at asking for money myself, but the org could ask for money on my behalf—to bring me on with them for a time—and anything over and above that could go back into the general budget.
Shanon wrote the bulk of the text for the fundraiser herself, including language about both group development and organizational development (read: fundraising) into what I would be doing for the organization. I was uneasy about that from the beginning, but at the same time I also had come to see that all of us were going to have to try our hand at that to some degree if RFR was ever going to have a permanent financial base upon which to build their programs, most urgently the Hotline Project itself, which requires the most money of all to maintain. At that point, I didn’t ask to change any of the language about fundraising because I always saw it as a secondary function added at the last minute—almost an afterthought added in for lack of an alternative way to get that accomplished.
I was certainly willing to try providing that function to the best of my abilities, but I was never okay with making that function somehow central to my job description as it appeared in the contract. I was fine with doing my best to build on those relationships with donors whom the org had developed over the years (mostly through Sarah’s work), but as a person with zero experience or skills in fundraising, I was not willing to sign any contract which made my performance on that task central to my evaluation upon completion of the contract.
If you were in my position, would you have agreed to that? That wasn’t the reason I was brought on to work for RFR to begin with, as anyone could tell you who interacted with me over the months leading up to the crowdfunder. And honestly, it doesn’t help my evaluation of our situation to learn at last that fundraising was the only thing the board really wanted from me (well, Board 2.0, that is). I recall later meetings with them in which I was being asked to cite specific amounts that I would commit to raise, something like $20,000 or $30,000 over a period of time, and frankly that scared the hell out of me.
Darrel Ray (President/Chairman)
Gayle Jordan (Executive Director)
Shanon Nebo (Treasurer)
Susi Bocks (Secretary)
RJ Redden (also notably President of Apostacon)
Whatever your perception of Sarah Morehead, you have to realize that for about five years Sarah herself was Recovering from Religion. She led that organization as its chief executive officer for all that time, and an overwhelming majority of us who were drawn to that organization were drawn to it because of her work. She was the face of the organization for so many years that the loss of her inevitably impacted what the rest of us were capable of accomplishing in her absence. She was the one who had built a rapport with so many of RFR’s supporters and volunteers, and without her around, many of us would have to start over again building new relationships, and probably with largely new people.
I suppose it shouldn’t surprise me to learn that revisions to my contract were being attempted even as late as October of last year. I can tell you for a fact that I myself wasn’t making any. To some degree, I had already expected that revision was necessary because the fundraiser itself wasn’t completed until early October, and we would have to eventually write in the final amount that was raised. But I would not have been willing to sign any contract that made fundraising a central part of my job evaluation, no matter what the newer board really wanted me for.
Nor did they demand that I sign a new contract, because that wasn’t in their job description. It was the job of the executive director. I realize they didn’t like that scenario, but the bottom line is that we all got stuck in a messy situation for which there was not an easy way forward. We all ended up having to accept terms which weren’t exactly what we came into this expecting.
And no, contrary to what JT insinuated in his post, I did not delete any original documents nor did I ask for any to be. In all of this there seems to be a rush to jump to conclusions, always assuming the worst of me. Given how one-sided his information has been, I suppose I can understand why his presentation has been so damning. But at no point in any part of this “investigation” have I seen a clear enough admission from him that his perspective has been significantly affected by his connection to the leadership within the org.
Now if you’ll forgive me for a second, I feel the need to address at least one piece of social media exposure which so far I haven’t addressed in this space. I feel it’s important since it answers one lingering question which the board has refused to clearly answer. When I’m done addressing that, I will take up a handful of smaller details that stuck out to me in JT’s post, then I hope that we can put the public discussion of these things to rest.
About That Dogma Debate Segment
Two weeks ago I was asked to call in to a pre-recorded segment of the Dogma Debate podcast (Episode #238) without being given much information about what direction the host intended to take the show. I had only been told by David Smalley that he wanted to verify that I did in fact have evidence for the claims I made in my longer post which I wrote in response to an earlier news release by RFR.
What I didn’t know going into it was that Smalley’s plan was to spend more than half an hour grilling me about my interpretation of a phone conversation and a separate email, asserting repeatedly that he knew better than I did how to interpret the language found therein. I also wasn’t told that after my pre-recorded segment aired, my two most publicly vocal critics were to be brought in for an hour-and-a-half long discussion during which one of them suggested I may be guilty of “criminal” activity (that’s not how contractual disputes are classified, btw). There were a number of factual inaccuracies aired during that last segment, and I was not invited to be present for that portion of the show so that I could correct any of the errors that were made.
After the podcast aired, a number of friends and readers wondered aloud why I even agreed to be on that show at all. As one of them pointed out, the chairman of the board currently seeking action against me hosts one of the podcasts in Smalley’s Secular Media Group, and it had been advertised for at least a couple of weeks prior to the show that the show would also include Joey Kirkman, who has offered by far the most untethered criticism of me and my relationship with RFR.
The honest answer is that I naively gave more credit to the host’s skepticism and objectivity than his coverage of our situation would merit. He feigned neutrality in communication toward me before the show, making it sound like he was only doing the segment reluctantly, out of a sense of obligation because of a demand from listeners (I’d post screenshots and the like but frankly I feel like there’s already been too much of that, and it all feels so violating somehow). What I didn’t know beforehand was that the details of the show had already begun to take shape weeks before when Joey agreed to be on the podcast in the first place.
Joey first began announcing that he had background information about my relationship with the board of RFR back on April 18th, at which time he also disclosed that he would be free to discuss those matters more openly in “a couple more months.” As it turns out, the opportunity came after only one month, by participating in this particular podcast episode, at which point he disclosed who his source of information was in the first place. According to Joey, Eliott Canter had approached him back in mid-April in order to enlist his financial services to audit RFR’s books.
The reason that detail is significant (besides the fact that every time someone has something publicly negative to say about me, this name always eventually turns up as their source) is that on May 2nd I asked Eliott point blank who went to Joey with information about our dispute. The board of RFR had continually tried to blame me for taking our dispute public rather than following the channels prescribed in our contract, but Joey disclosed on social media that he had been approached by a representative of RFR. When I asked Eliott who went to Joey, he responded: “We were not involved in any of that…When he posted about you, it didn’t come from us. I don’t know where it came from.” As it turns out, according to Joey, it was Eliott all along (see Episode #238, timestamp 161:13).
Incidentally, before I went onto his show, I forwarded Smalley a list of questions for the board of RFR, and he said they declined to comment on them. The very first question at the top of the list regarded the identity of the board representative who helped start this whole public fiasco in the first place, and it appears that we both got our answer right there during the show. I noticed that in Smalley’s defense of Eliott’s sincerity during the show, he failed to make note of that revelation.
That’s just been bugging me, so I felt like getting that off my chest. Now to turn to a list of things I saw in JT’s post which need to be corrected at some level, and then I’ll be through.
Miscellaneous Errors and Disagreements
“The people who were to become his supervisors didn’t even know a signed contract with him existed until the waning hours of October 10, 2015.”
Again, distasteful though it may have become to the future directors of RFR, at the time that contract was put together, I had only one supervisor, and all the details within the contract had to be settled upon between the two of us. Furthermore, I was told that the contract was eventually approved by the newer board, and all interactions with the board from that point forward were done based on that contract. Why is their story only changing now, so many months later?
“Based upon seemingly fraudulent donor solicitation, this contract is invalid. Since the initial funding plea for money to hire Neil as a development director invalidates this contract.”
That’s an unfair representation of our situation. Every attempt was made to include some fundraising element within what I agreed to do for the organization, but absent my primary inroad to the organization’s donors (the outgoing executive director), both I and the board eventually decided to focus my efforts on the group work. It was a mutual decision to make the best out of the situation we found ourselves in. I have documentation for that as well and will be able to provide it should it be required by an actual authority of any kind.
“Ok, not bad! But the board felt it lacked specifics. So, in an effort to provide guidance for Neil, they created a companion document in google docs and made it available to Neil.”
As JT pointed out, I mentioned that document spoke of Darrel in the third person. That’s because it wasn’t written by him. When JT says “they created a companion document” he may not be aware that Eliott himself created that document. He told me that himself in our conversation on May 2nd. I bring that up again because Eliott’s role with the org remains a question for me, despite the title of “consultant” which I keep hearing repeated. And if he has been performing functions ordinarily reserved for board members, the selection of his spouse for the executive director position then becomes problematic.
“The difference at point is that Gayle says she offered Neil the chance to work alongside Eliott for four weeks to complete the tasks laid out in the contract. Neil claims in a later email that this offer was never made.”
Not exactly. I requested an extension on the time frame needed to complete the tasks at hand and was first told that wasn’t going to happen. Later Gayle returned (in a phone call dated 2/24) with an offer to work with Eliott alone without any board support or contact, checking in with Eliott on a daily basis to report to him on tasks he would specify as my sole supervisor. This arrangement was quite similar to the one Eliott offered on April 28th, and I made it clear that I was uncomfortable seeing unilateral authority over my work being put in the hands of a person who was not an officer of the organization and who had no knowledge of how the programs, databases, or groups within the org actually work.
Throughout JT’s representation of our dispute this morning, I saw at least three more claims which I feel require a direct rebuttal, then I will wrap this up:
1.) We continue to be in strong disagreement about the amount of work I did in culling through outdated group information, contacting group leaders both current and expired, reaching out to prospective group leaders, and getting all of their contact information finally up to date. I did a considerable amount of interacting with each of them and I have my own documentation to provide as evidence for that (and no, a blog isn’t the place for that). I explained to the database administrator that the bulk of my work was done locally on my computer, and that I was compiling all of that for their benefit in order to include that in my final report. That transfer of information never completed because before the contract ended I was informed that the board had already decided to pursue arbitration against me using whatever details I included in the report in litigation against me (phone call, 2/24). This introduced an unnecessary threat that contributed to the breakdown of communication between us.
2.) JT reports that the board is somehow unaware that the map I created was in fact uploaded onto the main website on their small groups page even though I know for a fact that the previous website administrator (Teresa MacBain) made sure that it was up and functioning (see screencaps below from about three weeks into Gayle’s term as executive director). JT minimized the importance of the map by suggesting how quickly a database could be converted into a Google map (prior to a number of tweaks and edits required for that many groups) as if it didn’t take me several weeks of conversations and interactions to get the information updated in that database in order to have an accurate compilation of information to upload. IOW, that map represented a great deal more work than has been acknowledged, and its omission from the organizational website under the circumstances is problematic.
Both Gayle and the board know that I made sure to contact every single group leader before publishing any public information on RFR’s website, and out of dozens of contacts listed there I’ve been made aware of only one person whose name slipped through the cracks upon a later revision of the map. That issue was noted immediately and fixed within minutes of the map going back up. For what it’s worth, that individual reached out to me himself to assure me that he supported listing his group on the map, and he has no problem with my handling of his situation.
3.) JT keeps asserting that I didn’t provide evidence for the claims in my longer post but I count more than a dozen links to supporting documents. Does he overlook those because I used mostly inline hypertext links instead of posting images directly into the post? Is he reading this on a reader that doesn’t make the links themselves apparent?
I would have presented more documents here as well, if not for three considerations: a) I won’t post private names and conversations of volunteers without their permission, b) it seems to me the general public has already been dragged through the details of this enough, and lastly c) while JT has been working on this for nearly a month with the help of an entire crew of people, I have had to crank out the majority of this post within the space of an afternoon. I felt I needed to offer at least some kind of explanation for the things he said today, and for the moment this is as thorough as I can get.
You Keep Using That Word…
We seem to have vastly different views here about what constitutes “transparency.” Organizational transparency doesn’t mean handpicking one of your own volunteers to “investigate” a contractual dispute for public consumption. It doesn’t mean binding all of your volunteers with an overbroad nondisclosure agreement covering everything imaginable and then voting to release one specially chosen individual in order to air your grievances against a former associate on social media. It also doesn’t mean copying and pasting days worth of unedited private conversations to publish on a public forum without the other person’s permission, especially when that person has made no adversarial overtures against you whatsoever. That speaks more of an inability to distinguish between private and public communication at the most basic level.
Once again, I am willing to admit that communication broke down between me and the board as time went on. I felt at a number of turns that the way we were relating to each other was unnecessarily adversarial, and that broken trust made it very difficult to arrive at common understandings of a number of tasks we had to accomplish together. I don’t think it had to be that way, but that’s the way things unfolded between us. I will be able to furnish any evidence required by the arbitration process if and when that opportunity comes, but it seems to me that what the organization sought to do has already been done: A public appeal has been made on a blogging platform (and evidently on a podcast as well) which in my opinion should have never happened. I don’t believe this is how contractual disputes are to be resolved.
Now can we move on and learn from this how to better conduct ourselves as a movement in the future?
[Featured Image: Adobe Stock]
**After much discussion in the comments below, thanks to the weighing in of some folks with far more experience navigating the intricacies of board nomenclature than I will ever have, it seems to me that my original comments about Board 1.0 being an “advisory board only” weren’t exactly correct in that “advisory” and “executive” are not necessarily mutually exclusive terms. As they say, “Today I Learned.” I’ve since gone back to reword that paragraph to show that while the by-laws do call the board of directors an “advisory body,” that doesn’t mean they cannot also be called an “executive board,” even if those words never appear anywhere in the by-laws themselves.
What remains unchanged, however, is that the wording of the by-laws did in fact place the responsibility for things like hiring, firing, and the negotiation of contracts into the hands of the executive director. The centrality of that issue does not seem to be affected by my confusion of the terminology.