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The American Bible Society building in New York
Yoon Kim
The American Bible Society building in New York

Going public

Religion | When the American Bible Society fired Doug Birdsall, years of troubles suddenly came into the public spotlight. Will this great American institution thrive again?

Issue: "2013 News of the Year," Jan. 11, 2014

As the introductory essay for this issue points out, the American Bible Society (ABS) is one of American Christianity’s grand old institutions. Founded in 1816, it has helped finance hundreds of Bible translations and has a 45,000-volume collection of Bibles, the largest outside the Vatican. Those Bibles, numerous offices and meeting rooms, and the Museum of Biblical Art share space in the Society’s 12-story building at Columbus Circle by New York City’s Central Park.

Because of its good work, faithful men and women had given ABS enormous sums of money—so much that the organization had assets totaling $693 million in 2007. But signs of difficulty have emerged. From 2002 through 2011 ABS overspent its budget by $250 million. ABS has had four presidents in the past decade and is now looking for a fifth. The ABS building needs by 2016 at least $20 million to bring it up to New York building code standards.

Some of the problems trace their roots to the hiring of Paul Irwin as president in 2005. Irwin, a United Methodist minister, got the job despite evidence of misuse of funds while he was CEO of the Humane Society of the United States from 1975 to 2004. Some questioned his ABS spending, including $5 million paid a fundraising outfit, Exciting New Technologies (ENT), whose founder/leader had specialized in working with internet pornography and online gambling companies. (Irwin’s son was ENT’s director of business development.)

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The ABS board tried to fix that problem by firing Irwin in 2008. I recently met in the ABS building with Geoffrey Morin, the organization’s senior vice president, and Morin said ABS is an organization on its way back. He said during the Paul Irwin era “we were badly aligned” and acknowledged that the ABS board, which at one point had swelled to 72 members, had become unwieldy—but today the board has just 19 members and a different leadership structure.

The question ABS has to answer is similar to the one thrown at American Christians in 2013 generally: Have you lost your way, or—after going through a rough patch—are you on your way back? ABS shows new signs of life. It has taken a lead role in the Every Tribe Every Nation project, an ambitious project to bring new Bible translations to unreached people groups. Morin says ABS is fine-tuning its approach: “When I came to the Bible Society, one of the ways we measured our effectiveness was in how many tons of Bibles we shipped. Today we are much more focused on engagement and transformation.”

But large problems remain. The organization watchdog MinistryWatch.com found that in 2012, 30 percent of the ABS budget was spent on fundraising, “an amazing five times the average fundraising cost ratio of ministries covered in the MinistryWatch.com database.” Another watchdog, CharityNavigator, gives the ministry an overall three out of four stars, but only two out of four for financial efficiency, and MinistryWatch gives it only one star out of five.

Staff compensation also raises eyebrows, totaling $29 million for its 220 employees in 2011. That’s an average compensation of about $130,000 per employee, with at least 10 senior staffers making more than $200,000 per year. By contrast, grants to other organizations such as foreign Bible societies—a primary way the ABS facilitates Bible distribution—came to less than $8 million. Some of the outsized compensation packages can be blamed on ABS’s New York City location, but certainly not all: Only about 85 of the organization’s 220 employees work from New York. About 75 work from a facility in Valley Forge, Pa., and the rest work remotely from locations around the country.

The ABS board’s attempt to find new leadership for 2013 misfired. Early in the year, new CEO Doug Birdsall brought impeccable evangelical credentials and a reputation for moving fast and for revitalizing large organizations. He began his career as a missionary to Japan in 1980, became a ministry president in 1991, and in 2004 became executive chairman of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization, responsible for a series of global evangelism conferences that began in 1974. Birdsall’s work culminated in a 2010 conference in Cape Town, South Africa, that helped to revitalize the Lausanne Movement.

Birdsall at ABS quickly examined the decaying ABS building and decided he wanted more than added fire escapes and exits: In April he told a meeting of influential leaders about his plans for a $300 million center for Manhattan’s growing evangelical church. Those present included New York City pastors Tim Keller and Jason Harris, best-selling author Eric Metaxas, and billionaire Dallas developer Bob Rowling, whose TRT Holdings owns the Omni Hotel chain. On a speaker phone were Redeemer Seminary Chancellor Skip Ryan and financial strategists Bob Doll and David Young.

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