Going public

"Going public" Continued...

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

Doug Birdsall
Doug Birdsall

Birdsall proposed replacing the 12-story ABS building with a 30-story one that would include an Omni Hotel, ABS expansion space, and room for special events and other ministries to work. Rowling, a long-time Birdsall friend, soon committed to finance the deal, and Metaxas loved the idea. He is a long-time New Yorker and admits that the project was “very close to my heart … because of the influence New York has in the world.”

Birdsall moved forward on other fronts. He went through an informal process of grading ABS board members with an A, B, or C. Board members who received an A were, in Birdsall’s opinion, in a position to lead and mentor others. Board members with a B were those who could be excellent contributors but who had areas in need of development. Those with a C should not have their terms renewed. Birdsall placed about a third of the board members in each category.

When board chairman Pieter Dearolf learned of Birdsall’s assessment process and his plans for the building, he saw it as insubordination. The board fired Birdsall in October. On Nov. 5, 11 prominent Christian leaders, including Keller and others who had been at the April meeting, signed an unusual letter saying the firing left them “perplexed and grieved.” Metaxas told me it was “gigantically disheartening.”

ABS leaders visited their critics, including MinistryWatch.com head Rusty Leonard, and told them, according to Leonard, that Birdsall “was not a good fit with the ABS culture.” Leonard said, “Perhaps Doug was not the right guy” for ABS, but “when you hire and fire a guy within a [short] period, there’s a good chance something is wrong with your decision-making process.” Morin told me ABS would have to “earn back the trust” of many evangelicals who did not understand the Birdsall firing.

The clock is ticking. If ABS does not get an extension from the city of New York, it must plan and execute more than $20 million in renovations in the next 24 months. It has to hire a new president. It’s not clear whether the plan to create a $300 million ministry center is dead. Rowling, the Omni owner who could finance Birdsall’s plan, would not tell me whether he’s still in the picture. Morin said, “We have been carefully exploring how to best leverage our New York City location for a number of years.”

Part of the culture clash between Birdsall and the board may have come because ABS, largely by design, is not evangelical per se, but broadly ecumenical. Since Birdsall’s firing, board chair Dearolf has had to step aside because of health concerns, and the acting board chair, Nick Athens, is Roman Catholic. “We have Catholics, mainline Protestants, and evangelicals on our board,” Morin said. “That’s always been a part of who we are.” But former board member Wellington Chui said such diversity often made it hard to make decisions: “We did not all have the same mindset.”

Chui, who also serves on the board of Taylor University, is rooting for ABS: “It has taken steps to reinvigorate itself. The board is a more manageable size. My prayer is for healing so the work of the gospel can go on.”

Warren Cole Smith
Warren Cole Smith

Warren is vice president of mission advancement for The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and the host of WORLD Radio’s Listening In. Follow Warren on Twitter @WarrenColeSmith.


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