PHILADELPHIA — On Dec. 5, 2017, the CEO of the American Bible Society (ABS) announced a new employee policy, which was also an ultimatum: sign the company’s new “Affirmation of Biblical Community,” promising to not lie, abuse drugs, or have sex before marriage, which it defined as between a man and a woman. If any of the more than 200 employees didn’t sign, they would have to resign. They had the next year to decide.
“We did this because we believe a staff made up of people with a deep and personal connection to the Bible will bring unity and clarity as we continue our third century of ministry,” CEO Roy Peterson said in a May statement.
With 10 days to go before employees must sign or quit, 36 workers, or just under 20 percent, have left, Peterson said through a spokesperson. At the nonprofit, which translates and distributes Bibles across the globe, that number is only slightly higher than the usual turnover in past years, he said: 30 workers left in 2017, 27 in 2016.
‘Everyone could coexist’
For those unfamiliar with ABS, one of the biggest religion-related nonprofits in the country, news that a religious organization was essentially pushing out LGBT employees didn’t sound like news at all.
But to some who worked there, the policy was shocking and painful — one, they say, that couldn’t have been further from its culture of inclusiveness.
There were religious elements to the workplace, like the daily, staff-wide morning prayer. But ABS was welcoming of all manners of spiritual expression, said four current and former staffers. Morning prayer was optional. Some prayed, some meditated, and others sat quietly, scrolling on their phones.
In an impressive office near Philadelphia’s Independence Mall filled with reclaimed wood and gazebo-shaped meeting pods that looked more in line with a high-tech startup than a 200-year-old nonprofit, conservative Christians worked alongside lapsed Christians, queer folks, and progressives, they said.
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“That was the magic of the place,” said digital marketing specialist Brian Durkin. “Everyone could coexist.”
Historian John Fea, whose “The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society” was published in 2016, said the policy represented the culmination of the organization’s 20-year shift toward evangelicalism. The nonprofit’s original mission was to publish the Bible “without note or comment,” but in 2001, it dropped that phrase.
Peterson said ABS “serves the whole of the Christian church.”
A fraught decision
Durkin, 33, started looking for a new job as soon as he heard the news. He knew he wouldn’t sign the affirmation — he lived with his girlfriend, he wasn’t a virgin, and he wasn’t going to pretend otherwise, but he also felt morally opposed to what the affirmation stated, especially how it defined marriage.
For others, it was a more complicated decision.
Doug Black, a software engineer who’s a pastor and an evangelical Christian, agreed with much of the religious aspect of the affirmation. But he was disturbed by the nonprofit’s making it a requirement.
“ABS was never a place that required folks to live a certain way in order to share the message of the Bible,” said Black, 37. He said he admired how it had given Bibles to both sides during the Civil War.
He said he also was concerned that the affirmation would become part of his performance assessment and that the culture would turn into one of secrecy, with staffers watching their backs. ABS said it would not police the affirmation or use it for performance evaluations.
Nonetheless, Black believed ABS’s mission was too important to just leave. He started discussing with a coworker how best to move forward in the wake of several on their team quitting.
But last January, during a town hall in which Peterson was answering anonymous questions staffers had about the affirmation, Black was dismayed to hear Peterson dismiss the questions he had submitted. Black said he had felt that much of the wording in the affirmation was vague, and asked about defining certain terms, like “unresolved conflict,” in concrete, measurable ways. Peterson’s response, Black said, was, “I think that person is really sad.” Peterson declined to comment on this account.
Black started looking for jobs that day and found one quickly, leaving a few weeks later.
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Some who left in 2018 signed up for a “transition program,” offered in September, that paid employee salaries for the rest of the year. “While much of your feedback has been positive, there have also been expressions of pain and sorrow,” the letter from Peterson about the transition program read. “We respect all of these experiences and reactions, and remain supportive of each of you as you no matter what as you consider your own individual situation.” An ABS spokesperson declined to share numbers.
(The program, announced months after the leadership said it would not extend any kind of benefit to those who intended to leave, left some employees bitter, especially those who hurried to take the first offer they could. “As the year drew to a close, we realized additional assistance could help,” Peterson said.)
The most painful departures, according to those interviewed, were by the gay staffers — those who felt the affirmation was directly targeting them. In a Medium post published last month, Jeremy Gimbel, a 10-year veteran of ABS who ran the web team that included Black and Durkin, said he felt as though he had been fired for being gay. There was also another staffer who had introduced his husband to coworkers not long before the affirmation was announced.
The City of Philadelphia bars discrimination against sexual orientation but it exempts religious institutions. The city’s Commission on Human Relations, which enforces the law, has not received any complaints, a spokesperson said.
Several people who were interviewed for this article said there are staffers who agree with the affirmation and are happy about the change. But there are also those who feel trapped: They have a family, they have a mortgage, they’ve worked at ABS for years and can’t risk leaving. Some, they said, will sign the affirmation and hope to find a new job. Others will sign and keep chugging along, even if they disagree.