WASHINGTON-Since South Carolina governor Mark Sanford announced his infidelity in a June press conference, mentioning the counsel he received from the "C Street group," the spotlight-shunning organization behind C Street-the Fellowship Foundation-has felt the glare of the media spotlight.
The news of Sanford's affair was followed by revelations of infidelity surrounding two onetime C Street residents: Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., and former Rep. Chip Pickering, a Mississippi Republican. The organization came under criticism not just for its possible role in congressional philandering, but for its obsession with privacy, its unclear theology, and its distance from the established church ("All in the family," Aug. 29, 2009).
Six months later, little has changed at the Fellowship, an organization based in Washington, D.C., that seeks to build relationships with political leaders while funding aid, mentoring, and networking efforts around the world.
Doug Coe, the organization's 81-year-old leader, has been described as "the godfather . . . but for good." Despite recent press, insiders say he will continue to lead the group as long as he is physically able.
This year Coe's sons David and Tim for the first time began working to organize the National Prayer Breakfast, the Fellowship's most public and widely known event, as well as its primary tool for networking with international ministries and political leaders. The 2010 prayer breakfast will take place in early February.
It's widely believed that Coe's sons will take up leadership of the organization when their father passes away. In October the elder Coe and his two sons called a meeting at the Fellowship's palatial residence in Arlington, Va., the Cedars, to discuss recent media coverage and to outline the organization's mission, moving forward. The Coe sons along with another Fellowship right-hand man, Marty Sherman, apologized to more than 50 in attendance for the damage that revelations about the C Street home and its residents has caused the entire organization. The Coes criticized press treatment of the organization, but their conclusion: Stand firm.
Not everyone connected to the organization wants to continue its behind-closed-doors operating policy. "I think we can be more public," said former Democratic congressman and UN ambassador Tony Hall, a longtime prominent figure in the Fellowship. "We can have a website. We can be more transparent. . . . It's something we talk about all the time."
Others agree with Hall that the organization should change, including A. Larry Ross, public-relations consultant for evangelical leaders like Rick Warren and Billy Graham. Ross has volunteered with the Fellowship for several years, traveled abroad on some of its international missions, and said he is helping in an "unofficial capacity" with the organization's communications.
"I'm a friend of the court," Ross said. "Doug's personal style has been to stay below the media radar. I think there is an opportunity for more of the friends of the Fellowship to be involved."
Others have contended that publicity about the organization will repel public figures who seek privacy. "This is not C-SPAN," Hall said, but he added, "I'm more for speaking out. . . . Perception becomes reality. If you don't speak out, then people are going to think [all media reports are] true."
Hall believes the critiques of the organization have been overblown and that news coverage has neglected to mention all the good work the Fellowship has done-like supporting Hall's family after his son died of cancer about 12 years ago, providing housing in a village in India, or mentoring inner-city kids.
"We need to be positive, not negative," Marlene Zerbe said by way of criticizing press coverage. Zerbe is the granddaughter of the Fellowship's founder, Abraham Vereide, and has been involved in the organization most of her life. When I asked her whether the organization had wandered from its Christian commitments, she responded: "It's very easy in any organization after a couple generations . . . look at the children of Israel. People are human. If its season's ended, God will take it out in His way."
The season doesn't seem to be over for the organization, which pulled in $16 million in tax deductible contributions as of its last tax return. But few can imagine the Fellowship without the charismatic leadership of Doug Coe. The organization's international work-run by other organizations that it funds and oversees-is relatively autonomous. But Coe's unique network of relationships and donors would be hard to replace, and he has about half a dozen ministries directly under his oversight.
Currently the Fellowship has no protocol for succession. The organization is at once loose-knit and meticulously structured to be that way. "It's not this person or that person or my son or my cousin," Hall said. "That oftentimes doesn't work very well. It has to be of God." When the time comes, Hall thinks the Fellowship's "lay people" will form a committee to decide who will take over its leadership.
All of the names floating for potential leadership are men-and historically the organization has been male-dominated. "We can do better as far as some of our leadership teams," Hall conceded. But he denied that the organization is chauvinistic, mentioning the prominent role of women like Grace Nelson, wife of Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Marilyn Dimock, who oversees a Fellowship inner-city ministry in southeast Washington with her husband Scott.
Anne Ryun, wife of former congressman Jim Ryun, disagrees. She thinks the organization's attitude toward women is a serious issue in regard to the C Street house, which is just blocks from the Ryun home on Capitol Hill. The Ryuns have friends in the Fellowship but have kept a distance from the organization themselves. Jim decided not to join its accountability group for congressmen when he took office in 1996. Anne moved to Washington shortly after. "We're accountable to one another," she said. The Ryuns sought church oversight by meeting with their pastor in Kansas every six to eight weeks, she said. "It appears that the Fellowship discourages congressmen to move their families to D.C. for the express purpose of keeping the wives out of the loop," she said. "It's a very, very separated world."
Ryun said that C Street house "Bible studies" often have consisted of going out to dinner or a movie. Others have pointed out that when the congressmen moved in, the grand piano was replaced with a widescreen television. The hosts and other volunteers do lawmakers' laundry and make meals.
"It's not supposed to be a frat house. If it is, and I don't think it is, it ought to be gone," Hall said.
When Hall came to Washington from Ohio, he moved his family with him: "I wanted to see them." Aside from needing the money to own two homes, lawmakers have a difficult time moving their families to the capital, he said, because the job description essentially requires that members of Congress remain connected to their home states.
Hall's Presbyterian pastor for a decade in Virginia, Jim Hutchens, worried about the families of all the lawmakers he had in his congregation at the time, before he retired several years ago. "The closer the man and the wife are together during the week-that's a built-in safety net," he said. "They need this up here. Too easily they believe their own press reports."
The Capitol Hill home on C Street, the spark of this year's controversy, continues to host lawmakers, though Sen. Ensign moved out in October because of the negative attention he was bringing the house. That might not save it.
As a former congressman, Hall understands the public-relations stink bomb the C Street house has become for lawmakers living there. "Because of the publicity, I think a lot of people will stay away from it," he said. There aren't any plans right now to close the house, he added, but if no one will move in, "it's going to be a problem."
Gov. Mark Sanford is less worried about C Street than Gervais Street: the Columbia, S.C., lane where South Carolina's legislature meets and a committee began debate in November over whether the governor's five-day, out-of-country disappearance to visit his Argentine mistress warrants impeachment.
That requires proof of "serious crimes or serious misconduct in office," and State Rep. Greg Delleney, a Republican and chief sponsor of a resolution to impeach Sanford, believes the governor's actions qualify. "He left his post, he left his state. He left his country without notifying anyone in authority," said Delleney. "He was AWOL as commander in chief of the organized and unorganized militia of this state." If the resolution passes by a majority in committee, it would head to the House for a floor debate in January. Meanwhile, Sanford faces 37 civil charges that he used his office for personal gain, and a State Ethics Commission found he may have violated ethics laws for travel and campaign finances.