December 27, 2020 rzim ravi zacharias church abuse

What Should RZIM Do Next?

RZIM has said they expect their investigation to complete in January or February. They have pledged to release Miller & Martin’s report publicly. Good. It was always a minimum to release the report. What next?

When I worked in tech, we did an exercise called a “postmortem” after serious technical problems. A postmortem is always a no-blame debriefing—yes, even if the problem was caused by human error. The reason is simple: in our view, the system should have been designed to prevent operator error—failure is a failure of the system. One goal of this exercise is to identify where our system failed to catch a problem before it spread—and then to identify how we can change the system to do better. We asked the necessary follow-up questions, too: with this new perspective in mind, are there other, similar problems that also would have caught us flat-footed? How can we prevent those, too?

The first step of this exercise is putting together a timeline of what happened? and when? What were we thinking at the time? What did we try and why did we try that? What did we opt not to try and why not? What did we completely overlook? What went well? What went poorly?

Postmortems were usually written by the people who knew the problem best—often those who had made the errors in the first place. Obviously it was essential that they were honest, and I think we were. The culture was in place for it: everyone understood the purpose was not to assign blame or label some people bad engineers. The purpose was simple: something bad happened, and we want to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

I think the fear of blame—or its cousin, liability—often holds institutions back. Sometimes the fear is of moral culpability: who sinned? I know some people are calling for RZIM to disband; people are calling for folks to resign. Don’t get me wrong—I think that there are likely several individuals at RZIM who, if they took a sober, honest look at where the last few years have brought them, would agree: “The best thing for me (and for this organization) is for me to step away.” Whenever I think someone should resign, it’s always in this sense—it’s never out of some idea of punishment or blame. If you want to learn and grow and do better, you need to give yourself the time and space for it. There are no shortcuts to this.

But the moral culpability angle is a particularly thorny one, and frankly, I don’t believe it’s useful. Did so-and-so sin when he brushed aside his own misgivings and gave a full-throated defense of Ravi? I can’t answer that. I don’t know what was in anyone’s heart; even they themselves may struggle to be that self-aware. We understand that child victims of abuse did not sin or “allow” the abuse to happen—we understand that the abuser manipulated their vulnerability. Adults can be vulnerable too. This can be true for adult victims of abuse; and to some extent it’s true for many bystanders who failed to see what was happening.

I think the question of blame becomes a distraction. Inevitably when a pastor is unfaithful, the discourse devolves into who is at fault? Was it “abuse” or was it an “affair” and to what extent is each party culpable? I think this is usually unhelpful and in many cases becomes extremely cruel: the wife is blamed for not being “enough”; the victim is blamed for not saying “no”. One dynamic we should be aware of: often when a wrong is committed, the person who truly is culpable has a million excuses for why it was actually not that wrong, for him at least; meanwhile, the person who was wronged blames himself, stuck in unmerited guilt and shame.

All of this confusion over blame is orthogonal to the fact: the end result was a mess. People were hurt. And deflecting culpability doesn’t fix anything. If everyone at RZIM who enabled Ravi said, “He deceived me, so I wasn’t at fault,” would that be the end of the story? No, and the ones who have spoken out aren’t giving themselves a pass either. “I was deceived, but I should have asked more questions. I should have been able to see through it.”

I think it would serve the church well to disconnect the moral angle entirely from the work at hand, which is redesigning the system so this can’t happen again.

This means when we say “John should not have done X” or “John should have done Y instead” we are not making moral judgments about John; we are simply doing the necessary work to identify what went wrong and what we should have done differently. It’s not possible to prevent every bad thing from happening. We are human and obviously we will make new mistakes; but let’s at least stop repeating the old ones!

Retracing our steps to understand what happened and why is how we move forward into a better, healthier culture in the future. Once we know what went wrong, we can start designing better procedures that avoid those problems. We can’t simply say, “Everyone meant well,” and move on. Meaning well is not enough. Meaning well didn’t prevent the problem, and it won’t solve it either.

I think it is a good thing that RZIM is releasing the Miller & Martin report when it’s complete. However, the way they have described the investigation suggests it is not going to be the kind of postmortem I’m describing here. I think there are least two areas where a thorough retracing of steps would be useful, neither of which appear to be in scope for the Miller & Martin investigation:

  1. The initial evidence that Ravi Zacharias had routinely lied about his credentials—who was told about this? What happened? Why did they fail to respond appropriately? Why did Steve Baughman get blackholed instead of listened to?

  2. The Thompson case—who was told? How did they respond? Why was no investigation done; why was C&MA’s internal inquiry (which did not even speak to the Thompsons until after they were gagged under NDA) passed off as a thorough, independent investigation?

As you see, this kind of thing is only possible when the people most directly involved are willing to be honest and do it. It usually doesn’t happen. And then we repeat this game over and over again.

Bias is inevitable. When you love and respect someone personally and you are interconnected with an organization professionally, you will be biased. This is not a moral indictment—it’s simply a fact. This is why elder boards and boards in general must get outside parties involved as soon as possible, and no, that doesn’t mean hire a lawyer to advise you to keep quiet!

Those of us advocating for reform in abuse handling keep harping on independent investigations because this decision is so crucial. According to this letter, RZIM initially contracted for their 2020 investigation a law firm connected to Ravi Zacharias’s lawsuit against the Thompsons. After some time, and perhaps rightly thinking better of it, they switched to another law firm, Miller & Martin. This second firm was the one they announced in October.

I and others have criticized this decision, even with the second firm, because an investigation done under privilege by a law firm obligated to the organization as its client is not independent. I am not saying Lynsey Barron is a bad investigator or a bad person. Likely she is the opposite! I don’t know her. The point is that words have to mean something. RZIM has pledged to release Miller & Martin’s report as soon as they can. Great, but with an independent investigation they wouldn’t have to do that because they would not be the ones controlling the information. See the difference?

You know an attorney who in the course of his duties finds out his client has committed a crime, even a heinous one, is not allowed to report it to the police? That’s the nature of attorney-client privilege. As I understand it, attorneys can only break privilege to prevent imminent death or maiming, and even then it is only that they are allowed to break privilege—there is no expectation that they must. An attorney’s job is to act in her client’s interest. A good attorney will do her job well. There are reasons for this system and my point is not to argue about it—simply to say that it makes no sense to call an investigation done by an attorney for a client “independent”. It is not.

If you are so sure that an independent investigation will vindicate you, then why insist on controlling the process by hiring an attorney? A postmortem of this saga needs to go back and ask how and why these decisions were made. Who made them? What inputs did they take into account? Why was it so impossible to contract an actual independent investigator? What were you afraid of? What were you confused about?

It feels as if there is an enormous blind spot here. Do Christian leaders really believe that because they are Christian, because they pray, because they mean well, they are no longer biased? That is not how human nature works. The sooner we give up wishful thinking and design the system to work with people as they are, the better.