Ron and Beverly Nollner were International Missionaries in India for the Southern Baptist Convention, appointed in January 2009 to New Dehli, India. This week Ron and Beverly filed a $1.5 million dollar suit against the Southern Baptist Convention and the International Mission Board.
According to the lawsuit, the Nollners went to India to oversee the construction of a 15,000-square-foot office building. The Nollners claim they were fired in retaliation after discovering and then complaining to their IMB supervisors about illegal and unsafe building practices at the job site. Ron Nollner says the project’s architect and builder were paying bribes “in order to obtain necessary approvals and complete the project, including offering Mr. Nollner a luxury SUV," which the Southern Baptist missionary says he refused.
Ron Nollner says he reported his concerns about the bribes and construction practices to International Mission Board officials, but they “seemed unbothered, if not complicit.” Nollner was subsequently asked to resign, but when he refused, he was told that his position was “no longer necessary.” Nollner was fired, and the stated reason given by the International Mission Board was “false and merely a sham or pretext to hide the true reason.”
The Nollners were left "‘scrambling’ to make arrangements to return and live in the United States,” the lawsuit states, and “after some difficulty, they returned Stateside and remain in Nashville at this time.” Before the Nollners were appointed to the SBC International Mission Board they had to quit their jobs and sell their home and a car to move to India. Before his work as a missionary, Ron Nollner was in the construction business and served as a councilman for the city of Nashville from 1995 to 2003.
Ron Nollner's story reminds me of Brooksley Born's story. Born was the head of an obscure federal regulatory agency called the Commodity Futures Trading Commission [CFTC]. She warned of the potential for economic meltdown in the late 1990s, but also tried to convince the country's key economic powerbrokers to take actions that could have helped avert the crisis. Govenrment leaders, including the revered Alan Greenspan, not only ignored Born, but put the word out that she was argumentative, irascible, and not to be trusted. After the 2007 economic meltdown the former head of the SEC, who said he had initially believed those in authority regarding the character of Mrs. Born, said he realized the error of trusting those in authority--too late.
Some of the problems that arise when an organization gets so large it overruns any possible accountability include:
(1). Individuals padding their own pockets with huge sums of money of which nobody can give an accurate accounting.
(2). Secrecy at the highest levels of authority, a veritable "black box" of information that is obtainable only to those with a "need to know" position, and of course, those positions include only those who actually know what is in the black box. If you don't already know, you will never know.
(3). A shunning of all whistleblowers, including character assassinations, and ultimately the termination of those who ask too many questions.
(4). A desire to perpetuate a feeling among all people that the organization can be trusted, so rather than deal with problems publicly and openly, the whistleblower who points out the problems is the only thing dealt with publicly and openly.
(5). A hard landing for the organization when trust from the people begins to fail.
There are a few questions that Southern Baptists should be asking of the IMB leaders regarding this situation. Those questions might run along these lines:
(1). Is it a common practice to accept bribes or pay bribes to build "offices" for the International Mission Board overseas?
(2). Why, in 2009, is the IMB building a new office building when money for current missionaries, not to mention money for the appointment of new missionaries, is unavailable?
(3). Who ultimately is accountable for finances in overseas operations? Are the people in Richmond (or Nashville) knowledgeable of the way finances are handled in India?
(4). Is it common practice to carry suitcases of cash to places like Turkey or India, and to pay with cash for work among the locals? If so, where is the accounting for this money?
(5). Is there a file in Richmond that that tracks the number of complaints from field missionaries regarding possible financial misappropriation or embezzlement from superiors?
These are just some of the dozens of questions that should be asked by Ron Nollner and his attorneys. The Southern Baptist Convention is doing a good work, but when we crucify our whistleblowers rather than listen to what they are saying, our good work becomes corrupted very quickly. For those Southern Baptist Christians who think that we should not be asking these kinds of questions amongst ourselves, I say that we, above all people, should press for accountability, transparency and efficiency with our mission dollars.