Habitat for Humanity’s Ethical Drama

Founder and former president of Habitat for Humanity Millard Fuller was recently fired after several past allegations of sexual harassment surfaced. Fuller has been pushing for his reinstatement, claiming that he was fired because of differences with the organization’s board over the future direction of the Christian organization. As strongly as Fuller feels about his position, if I was Fuller’s pastor, I would insist that he abandon any push for reinstatement for several reasons.

First, if indeed Habitat for Humanity is a Christian organization, then it ought to order the life of its activities and practices around Christ-centered biblical principles. Humble, servant leadership then becomes a necessity and not an option. Leadership ought to be above reproach and open an investigation into his or her affairs in order to determine if a wrong was committed. If that leader refuses to submit to scrutiny, then I personally consider this a red flag that something is not right with the situation.

Even more troubling to me is the supplanting of the vision and mission of the organization for the reputation of one man. My question for a Christian organization or church is this: is the mission bigger than the person whom God used to cast the vision and jumpstart the plan in the first place? If it is not, then the organization or church ceases to be a “God-thing? because God would NEVER allow the ego or reputation of one person to drown out the work that he is birthing. Fuller’s constant cries for reinstatement and the drum rolls of faithful followers doing the same only detract attention from what Habitat for Humanity is about and actually only continues to sully its reputation.

Perhaps even more troubling for me is the pattern of allegations over the last three decades that sound hauntingly familiar to what we are hearing now. Fuller has allegedly been accused of inappropriate behavior with other women before but the matters were hushed up. If true, this betrays an unethical pattern of deceit that simply has no place in the life of a Christian organization. While Fuller’s alleged behavior is inexcusable, so too is that of those persons who knew what was going on and yet did nothing to protect these women.

Such actions only feed the bad publicity machine against Christian enterprises, and frankly is a bad witness from a faith perspective. In addition, the very cohesiveness and unity necessary to make any organization or ministry work is threatened because the “house? has been divided over a leadership issue. Trull and Carter rightfully point out that ministers should “be aware of their professional boundaries and always seek to maintain those boundaries.? [i] I believe the same should apply to those in Christian organizations. Plenty of corporations have such safeguards in place to keep problems such as sexual harassment from becoming an issue for them. Why should non-Christian companies and organizations outstrip the Church in leading ethically?

Thirdly, very little is being said of the women making the allegations. How is this organization making Habitat a safe environment for the women specifically and the vulnerable in general? Are boundaries in place to protect both leaders and those in the organization under them? It appears as if an environment of silent complicity may have allowed this nonsense to go on unchecked. I am not trying to browbeat Fuller; I am only concerned with a refusal to deal with these issues head on. Furthermore, I would like more insight to how the board that removed Fuller could keep him there so long knowing what was allegedly taking place. They merit some of the blame in this matter as well. Justice is a two way street that needs to have all angles of a story examined for the benefit of all parties involved. Trull and Carter make it clear that justice is an important issue that cannot be sidestepped by churches:

Justice means just treatment of all persons involved.
Justice means no cover-up or whitewashing of evil.
Justice means giving a fair and impartial hearing to
the allegations of the congregant and to the response
of the accused. Justice means refusing to make
assumptions or reach conclusions before all the
evidence is heard. Justice means launching a formal
accountability process immediately. [ii]

What this really speaks to, of course, is an accountability issue. Nowhere in the article does Fuller speak of having a group of persons whom he can remain in contact with to deal with his baggage. Whether the allegations are true or not, he still needs some kind of counseling. Furthermore, he needs to surround himself with persons who will not cover for him or try to explain away the charges the women are making without even examining them. Fuller’s exit from Koinonia, not known historically as a bastion for fundamentalism, is all the more telling in that Fuller blames his exit on “the leadership structure? of the commune. [iii] However, such a reply in my lowly estimates reveals that Fuller is only making excuses to not deal with his issues and his repeated refusal to acknowledge that there is a problem with his relationships with women other than his wife.

Even if Habitat for Humanity was not a Christian organization I would still insist that Fuller not pursue reinstatement. When an organization’s reputation is sullied with innuendo from scandal, such attention can have devastating effects on the morale and the operation of that organization. In fact, a perusal of the employee handbooks of most Fortune 500 companies would reveal that they take the potential financial and public relations losses seriously enough to set guidelines and boundaries for all of its employees and leaders to ensure that all persons employed there do not find themselves in compromising positions. Issues of justice, safety, and honesty in professional relationships are not exclusively faith-based ideas.

Some persons are chemistry killers and at this point, Fuller is just that. This reminds me of what can happen in the athletic arena when the aging star player’s agenda does not match that of the team’s front office. Somebody has to go for the good of the team. That somebody is usually the aging player. Once a person becomes a liability to himself or herself as well as to those whom she or he works with, then a change is in order.

Like the star player in the aforementioned illustration, Fuller has to sit down and pray, asking himself whether his pursuit of his former position and all the attention it will certainly attract is more important than the actual organization or the people this organization ministers to. In addition, the organization’s board has some questions of their own to ask themselves about what kind of environment they are promoting that allows serious allegations and alleged behaviors such as the ones publicized to fester for so long without an remedy for the alleged victims. Frankly, the risk of Fuller trying to vindicate himself, especially as more alleged victims continue to surface, would only do more damage to the solid reputation that Habitat for Humanity and worse, to the witness of the Church in general.

However this plays out in the public arena, much ministry is in order for both the accused and alleged victims. As Trull and Carter note, justice is for ALL persons. Whatever resolution is reached once this drama plays out, it should order itself to the very Christian principles that the leader and the board who removed him claimed to adhere to the in the first place.

i Joe E. Trull and James E. Carter, Ministerial Ethics, 83.
ii Trull and Carter, 180.
iii Alan Cooperman, “Harassment Claims Roil for Humanity As Founder’s Supporters Rally, New Allegations.? The Washington Post, 3.9.05, pA1.

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