In a video that quickly went viral, local Greenville pastor Ryan Ferguson shared his thoughts about BJU’s handling of the GRACE investigation and, specifically, the University’s communication regarding the decision. The video, and a transcript, are below. Let us know how you feel about this remarkable statement in the comments.
“To Stephen Jones, Larry Jackson, the Bob Jones University Board and Administration,
My name is Ryan Ferguson, and I’m a pastor in Greenville, South Carolina. I would like to draw your attention to the nature of your recent communication regarding your termination of GRACE. My hope is that my commentary will allow you to see the great harm you have done to survivors of abuse, who responded to your invitation to tell their story to a third-party investigator.
Proverbs 31: 8 and 9 says, “Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth. Judge righteously. Defend the rights of the poor and needy.”
I am personally aware of people both in my congregation, in the local area, and those abroad, who responded to share their story with GRACE. I am personally aware of the disappointment, confusion and hurt that your decision and subsequent communication caused to these people. They responded in good faith, believing that you were seeking their good. I am speaking for them, because I know that some are not able to speak for themselves. They lack the power and the platform.
I would like to draw your attention to Paul’s words in Ephesians 4:29. Paul writes, “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only that which is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to the hearers.” This is God’s blanket statement about the words that come out of the mouths of Christ-followers. “No corrupting talk.” No potentially rotten talk. No words that can poison the minds of the hearers. Only words that edify, words that build up, words that are appropriate, that is, words that are spoken in a timely fashion. This blanket command exists so that hearers may receive grace. I would like to attempt to show you that your communication reveals very little care for the survivors of abuse that you invited to speak to GRACE.
I would like to present to you six ways in which your communication might have been destructive.
First, you do not take responsibility in your communication about the past, or stated differently, you do not talk transparently. Allow me to illustrate. Stephen Jones, in his address to the University on February 7, said the following: “We initiated a project to look back on any instances in which it was alleged that some university [word obviously left out here] may have under served, who may have reported abuse at some point in their lives.” This comment is consistent with a comment on the BJU blog, dated February 6, that states “ The committee recommended some policy revisions and also that the university appoint an independent ombudsman to review past instances in which it was alleged that the university may have underserved a student who reported they had been abused at some point in their lives.”
My point is this: do you see how many qualifiers there are in these statements? Are we to understand that you don’t really believe anything happened in the past, when in fact you began this investigation to remedy what happened in the past? Why can’t you clearly state to people, “We have wronged people in the past – we are going to make it right”?
How do these qualifiers serve people? It sounds like legal-speak. It is my opinion that even your greatest critics would be stunned by a simple and forward statement of responsibility. I would even hypothesize that if you clearly communicated, the blogosphere would blow up with statements like “Can you believe that BJU said they were wrong?” Even more so, survivors of abuse, who reported to GRACE, would be greatly served by your admission.
Secondly, and flowing from the comments I already quoted, your repeated use of the word “underserved” is a poor use of euphemism and it is insulting to those who have been abused. You use the term “underserved” twice in the BJU magazine article, also in the letter that you sent to all former students dated January 2013. This term continues to be used in your termination letter, Stephen’s address to the university, and in a press release dated February 6.
I believe that it is a natural question for me and others to ask you to define this term. To my knowledge, I am unable to find on your web site, blog, the press releases, termination letter, or Stephen’s speech any instance where you define this term. Therefore, it is left for the audience to define this term. It seems to be an attempt to tell people what you have done to those who would choose or have now chosen to speak with GRACE. The term is easy to say. It doesn’t sound too bad. I describe your use of this term as “euphemistic.” “Euphemism” is defined in the Encarta dictionary as “the use of a word or phrase that is more neutral, vague, or indirect, to replace a direct, harsh, unpleasant or offensive term.”
In Stephen’s address, he states “And I just want to reiterate that we are committed and remain committed to identifying and reaching out to those individuals, and if we didn’t serve them as best we could, to ask their forgiveness and make it right.” For what are we asking forgiveness and what are we going to make right? “Underserving”? What does that mean? Forgiveness, as we will talk about later, is a biblical term. By definition, forgiveness involves wrong or sin. Therefore, how did you sin against or offend someone? Where is “underserving” defined as sin in the scriptures?
I have three kids. If, after dinner, I pulled out three bowls, pulled out ice cream and put three scoops of ice cream in two bowls, and one scoop of ice cream in another bowl, certainly my kids would look at me and let me know about someone being “underserved.” I do not see this as an appropriate term for speaking about your failures with victims of sexual abuse in the past. “Underserved” doesn’t give the listener or reader any sense of the severity of the events surrounding speaking to GRACE. So I would like to posit that “underserving” might be a euphemism for not reporting abuse to authorities, not helping the needy and the poor, or giving counsel to someone that caused harm rather than healing. That’s what you might mean by “underserved.”
I would appreciate any clarity you can give on this term, and I believe that survivors of abuse would appreciate it as well. At best, “underserved” is understatement. At its worst, it’s euphemistic evasion of truth.
Third, I believe your contradictory speech only reinforces the mistrust, confusion and pain in the victims of abuse who told their stories to GRACE. In Stephen’s address, he states as a goal of his speech to “fill you in a little more about the current situation so you have accurate information both for your own knowledge and so you can help correct any misperceptions that are abundant.” So, Stephen, you tell us that accuracy is a key, so that your constituency can be secure. You also call them to action, to take what you say and clear up any misperceptions that are abundant. You continue and tell your audience, “But over jus t the past months, the last several months, we grew concerned that in the process GRACE had begun going on beyond the originally outlined intentions and so we wanted to sit down and talk about them because it had gone askew. So we terminated our agreement with GRACE so that we could sit down and get it back on track.”
I can’t even make sense out of that last statement. Employers don’t typically fire employees so that they can sit down and work out their employment structure and performance.
The quote continues: “That was the entire intention in terminating the agreement. And if you look at GRACE’s web site or ours, that’s clear in my letter of termination.” So, if your audience followed your advice and went to the web site and looked at the letter of termination, they would read the following: “As you know, I recently announced my resignation as president of the university effective in early May. As you can imagine, this has redirected a significant amount of our focus and energy. While remaining resolute in our desire to achieve our stated objectives, in view of the ongoing challenges in leadership change, Bob Jones University notifies GRACE that we are terminating the November 16, 2012 engagement agreement for independent investigation. This termination is effective immediately.”
I have read the termination letter and see no mention at all about growing differences, changing objectives, or investigations gone askew. You plainly tell them, you resigned and that’s gonna be hard on the university, so you need to stop the investigation. The text does not seem to be unclear. You invited people to make this comparison, Stephen. In your speech, you make a statement and then direct me to find proof of that statement in your correspondence. Your contradictory communication is devastating to people who trusted you enough to, in your own words, “share the horrific personal stories of abuse with GRACE.”
Allow me to state that I understand you never meant for your termination letter to be public. However, that hardly seems to be a substantial argument against my point. You have stated two different reasons for the dismissal. For the sake of those who have responded to your invitation, speak clearly and transparently, and let them know why this has stopped.
Fourthly, the concept of “moving forward” seems to be your primary concern in your public address to the university. Nine times in your speech you talk about “moving forward.” Early in your speech you stated “We initiated a project to look back.” This is what the people who spoke with GRACE are concerned about. Your repeated message of “moving forward” might have been nervousness, or just a badly written or delivered speech. However, if you listen to what was said, the message is quite clear. “We’re moving forward with our objectives. With or without GRACE, we are moving forward.” The issue is you take little time to address what that means for people who are looking back and who desire you to look back.
Is this persistent message of moving forward timely for these people? Does it build them up? Is it speech that gives grace? Or do survivors of abuse, after sharing their story, feel as if the university is on a pathway and they just need to get over it, get on board and potentially get ready to go through it all again if you choose to use a different ombudsman.
Allow me a brief digression to speak about hiring another third party. I do not know a way to more effectively communicate this point but to ask you the question, “Are you crazy?” Are the issues really so bad that you would start all over? Really? Is this seriously a viable option for the people who responded to you? I want to admit that I’m operating on the assumption that it would be impossible for GRACE to just hand over all their data to another organization. I’m not a professional, but I don’t see how that could be wise, how data could be properly interpreted by another third party looking at GRACE’s material, even if that was legal.
Stephen, the fact that you had mentioned this idea of a third party twice in your speech seems so thoughtless. To be honest, it makes me question if any of you who are making this decision have actually sat down with a man or woman when they tell you their story of abuse. So I ask you, Stephen, Mr. Jackson, the BJU Board and Administration, have you ever sat in a room with a man or woman when they speak of sexual abuse? Have you seen someone triggered to remember their sexual abuse? Have you sat on the floor with a woman who has to rub the carpet as she speaks about her abuse so that she doesn’t disassociate? Do you know what disassociate means? Have you spoken with someone on the phone as they are dealing with memories and you try to get them to describe the room they’re in or what’s outside the window so that they can be calm enough to think?
If you have not experienced those things, then you should rethink even mentioning that people would have to tell their story again.
If you have been through those things, then you are even more foolish for thinking of having people tell their story again.
Please cease about speaking about moving forward without ensuring survivors that you will continue to look back. Give assurance to survivors by what you say and what you do that you will continue to look back.
Fifth, your communication speaks very little of people and focuses on “objectives,” “initiatives,” “projects,” and “reviews.” Stephen, you used these terms fourteen times in your speech. With your outlined objectives, do you realize they are all people? I recognize in your speech that you speak directly to survivors in two paragraphs, however, as one listens to this speech, it seems clear that the pertinent issues are the institutional objectives. This is only hypothesis, but what would happen if you spoke directly to the people who shared their stories? What if, instead of making sure everybody understood what was going on, you just addressed those people who spoke? What if the people that left that gathered meeting left with the weight and the feel of what it means for those people to share their stories and you spent time praying for them? What if your posture towards GRACE and your subsequent communication basically said, “We know we’ve screwed up. GRACE, do whatever you can so that we can reach out to these people for forgiveness. We don’t care about institutional objectives. We are recklessly pursuing hurting people.”
May I ask you to stop talking about your objectives and begin speaking about people?
Finally, in my opinion, your communication reveals a lack of pursuit of a biblical imperative. Stephen, in your speech, you speak of asking forgiveness and making things right. That is clearly biblical language. That’s confession, repentance and restoration. In Matthew 5:23 and 24, Jesus says, “So if you’re offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother and then come and offer your gift.”
Stephen, Mr. Jackson, Board and Administration, if at present, there are those out there who have something against you, is it not your responsibility to pursue it with all haste? I recognize I don’t know everything going on. I’m specifically commenting about your communication, the way you’re speaking to these people. It is not apparent to me you’re both communicating and doing everything you can to reach these people.
Jesus said this is a worship issue. Worshipping while at odds with a brother in Christ makes no sense. What would it look like for all of you to leave your gift at the altar and pursue those who spoke with GRACE?
My desire is that you see that your communication matters. I am hopeful that my perspective will cause you to review your own communication and choices and respond accordingly. Your words matter to the listening ears of survivors of abuse.
I purposely did this in video format. I wanted you to see my face, I wanted you to see my body language, I wanted you to hear my tone. I’m not just being a sniper from a distance and being critical. I’m passionate about serving survivors of abuse. I am open to any responses. Where I am wrong or inaccurate, I will make it right publicly. I am open to both critique and criticism. I am not afraid of negative feedback. To my knowledge, I am responding in faith to speak for those who have no voice. I am called to shepherd the flock of God and I will protect those under my care from harm.
Since this is public, it will be easy for you to find me, since I live in your town. You can find me through Facebook. I am open to hear from you and will make myself available both for confrontation if needed to correct me, or conversation that would lead to edifying words that build up and give grace to survivors of abuse.
To those of you who shared your story with GRACE, your courage is heroic. Many of you have been sinned against within the church. For that, the church as a whole should stand up for you and speak on your behalf. I know many others out there who have been on their knees praying that your efforts will not be in vain. The time for change in the Christian community regarding abuse is right now. We must change and we must speak. I hope my brief comments add to the collective voice of those crying out on your behalf.”