Earlier this year, World Vision U.S. announced a landmark policy change that would permit gay Christians in legal same-sex marriages to be employed by the Christian aid organization.
“I don’t want to predict the reaction we will get,” World Vision U.S. president Richard Stearns told Christianity Today magazine. “I think we’ve got a very persuasive series of reasons . . . and it’s my hope that all of our donors and partners will understand.”
Stearns said the decision was not an endorsement of same-sex marriage, nor an attempt to weigh in on that debate. Rather, it reflected a desire to create a tent big enough to include World Vision U.S.’s supporters from churches that accept same-sex marriage. He said the decision reflected a desire for Christian unity.
Stearns asked: “What do we do about someone who applies for a job at World Vision [U.S.] who is in a legal same-sex marriage that may have been sanctioned and performed by their church?”
But within two short blustery days, World Vision U.S. had back-pedalled unequivocally.
In a statement, Stearns and the organization’s board chair said the initial decision had been a “mistake,” and that they had “failed to be consistent” with the organization’s commitment to “the traditional understanding of the biblical marriage” and the World Vision Statement of Faith which expresses the belief that the Bible is the “infallible, authoritative Word of God.”
“We . . . humbly ask for your forgiveness,” the two wrote.
Stearns told reporters bluntly, “We feel pain and a broken heart for the confusion we caused for many friends who saw this policy change as a strong reversal of World Vision’s commitment to biblical authority, which it was not intended to be.”
The organization—which is the 10th largest charity in the U.S., with annual revenue of $1 billion—had suffered withering attacks on social media and drawn a storm of criticism from prominent evangelicals. Franklin Graham was among them, saying World Vision U.S. was not faithful to God’s Word. He asked, “What if a job applicant belonged to a church that sanctioned polygamy or incest?”
Stearns later told the New York Times that he and the board were originally “trying to create some space, some room for grace.” They had wanted to “avoid divisive debates.”
The attempt failed spectacularly. Much of their donor base rebuked them. The Times said Stearns sounded “chastened.”
The decision does not affect World Vision Canada, which operates in a different legal environment. On its website, it said it complies with provincial laws that “prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.”
“Matters of sexual orientation are not part of our interview process, and are not a factor in employment,” the statement reads. In an e-mail to Canadian Mennonite, the organization said, “We seek staff who are committed to and are in alignment with our core values.”
The whole U.S. fiasco prompted one former staff member of World Vision Canada to publish an article on the Huffington Post entitled “I was blocked from hiring a gay person at World Vision Canada.” As a senior manager, Kristy Woudstra needed to hire someone. She chose a candidate without knowing her sexual orientation, but when more senior staff found out the candidate was lesbian, they stepped in to block the hiring process.
Woudstra, who left World Vision Canada in 2010, was dismayed and angered. She wrote that former colleagues now tell her that “the board and senior staff are more accepting of gays and lesbians.”
How Mennonite organizations handle the issue
Mennonite organizations also have to deal with the tension arising from the wide range of views within their constituencies. When asked about its hiring policy in relation to sexual orientation, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Canada pointed to a set of “lifestyle expectations” on its website. The expectations include “sexual celibacy for personnel outside of a heterosexual marriage relationship.” Staff are asked to sign this code of conduct annually.
The policy says “persons of homosexual orientation” can work for MCC as long as they meet the other criteria, remain celibate and do not “use MCC as a platform from which to advocate for same-sex sexual relationships.”
Mennonite Economic Development Associates, Canadian Foodgrains Bank and Canadian Mennonite magazine follow an approach like World Vision Canada, with no explicit code of sexual conduct and no inclusion of sexual orientation in the hiring process.
No matter what policy Christian organizations adopt, most stand in the tension between a donor base largely opposed to same-sex marriage on one side, and on the other, an undeniable legal and societal trend in the other direction, as well as growing numbers of staff and prospective staff who would either not sign a code of sexual conduct or would do so with serious reservations.