NEW YORK—Eleven prominent Christian leaders, including Redeemer Presbyterian Church Pastor Tim Keller, penned a letter expressing dismay over the New York-based American Bible Society’s decision to fire Douglas Birdsall just weeks before his inauguration as the group’s new president.
“As Christian leaders who have known Doug over the entire course of his ministry, we are perplexed and grieved by this action,” they wrote.
Eric Metaxas, another Christian leader in New York and best-selling author of biographies like Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, added his voice to the others on Wednesday.
“Birdsall’s vision for reaching the world with the gospel—and specifically using the influence of ABS’s location in tremendously influential Manhattan—seemed a God-send to all with whom he shared it,” Metaxas wrote me in an email. “It was clearly the Holy Spirit, and a large number of NYC Christian leaders including Tim Keller and me bore witness to that and rejoiced to hear it, feeling it was an answer to decades of prayer. So to say we are wondering what was at work in his dismissal is an understatement.”
Birdsall, who previously led the Lausanne Movement, was on the job at American Bible Society (ABS) for six months before the board dismissed him a month ago. The ABS board chairman said the board and Birdsall had “significant differences” on their approach to spreading the Bible around the world. In his own statement, Birdsall said, “There are times when the vision and style of a new leader does not mesh satisfactorily with the culture of an established organization or with the expectations of a board.”
The letter from Birdsall’s friends alleges that ABS dismissed Birdsall without a severance package, and asked for help to support the couple.
“As they will not be receiving severance from ABS, we are also taking initiative to ensure that they will be well cared for during this season,” the leaders wrote. “Senior executives at Asian Access, the National Christian Foundation and the Lausanne Movement are providing leadership in this area.”
On Tuesday, ABS board Chairman Pieter Dearolf responded to the letter with a letter of his own, saying ABS offered Birdsall a severance package which he declined.
“We join you in affirming [the Birdsalls’] talents and commitment to kingdom service,” Dearolf wrote. “We likewise underscore the importance of Doug and Jeanie’s wellbeing in this time of transition. This is why we were disappointed when Doug declined our offers of severance as well as other direct support.”
The American Bible Society, according to its latest 990s, was $20 million in the red in 2011, and $12 million in the red the year before that. The organization has assets in the hundreds of millions, so that kind of deficit might not be as serious for ABS as for other organizations. The explanation for Birdsall’s departure made no reference to any financial issues at the organization.
On Wednesday, an ABS spokesman responded to the question about the organization’s financial position by saying that the deficits were investments the organization had made.
“American Bible Society remains in a good position for ongoing mission and ministry,” spokesman Geoffrey Morin said. “Especially as the steep challenges facing God’s Word have arisen, we have intentionally invested more in current year mission than current year donor revenues. We are able to do this thanks to reserve funding from the generous gifts from our 197-year history, helping to endow critical mission.”