Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Bribes, Corruption, and a Lack of Accountability: Whistleblowers Not Welcome

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.


Rick said...

This sounds eerily similar to Dr. David Cathy's story. said...

Yes, Rick, it does.

John H said...

And, when it's all said and done, we will have less money for missions, still no clear answers, and more and more churches that will go elsewhere and support other things.

The need to talk about protecting whistleblowers shows how badly we've failed. There should be nothing on which to blow the whistle.

Sadly, the whole story doesn't even surprise this young but lifelong Southern Baptist. It lines up with what I've heard from retiring missionaries from the prior generation and what I know from peers with the IMB---or that left it in a hurry. When will we realize that "Whatever it takes!" cannot include certain things?

John H said...

To be clear: I have no problem with Nollner's actions. I have a huge problem with needing them and no hope that his lawsuit will accomplish anything. IMB will find a theological/spiritual point to sustain dismissing him---even a vague "we prayerfully determined to shift directions" and tell the court that it's a 1st Amendment thing and they can't get involved.

At which point, no information will come forth and the fraud and bribery will be continuing.

Anonymous said...

Wade you think this is bad check out the over 75,000 travel monies spent by the president of Mid Western to 3 or 4 different countries and the dysfunction at the seminary due to his leadership. Just check into it and see. The trustees nearly fired him but then were not able to at their most recent meetings. Another SBC fiasco and good ole boy networking.

Anonymous said...

Your first link is not working.

If only more people would do what they are doing, it would clean up the SBC faster...if that is possible. It is a mindset to ignore the warnings or the processes we have in in 'we know best', you don't.

I will say it again as I said about going around the messengers for the name change: HOW we do things is as important as what we do.

It is important in the little things as it is in the big things. Cut corners here and there justifying the ends...that thinking adds up over time and intergrity is lost.

Lydia said...

Lydia, thanks for the heads up on the link problem. Repaired it.

Anonymous said...

Sadly, the SBC continues to be run by a handful of backroom powerbrokers who seem to care very little about missions. The only thing they are concerned with is having things their way. The politics of the SBC have stunk for a long time. Finally, with the help of bloggers, that stinch seems to be reaching the pews of the local church where members are voting with their dollars. Thankfully, the SBC is not the only vehicle for funding missions.

Anonymous said...

It's time for a public accounting and complete transparency. Members of the church that I pastor expect it and rightly so. However when we as pastors expect it we are informed that we are not "friends" of the organization or that we are only looking to stir up trouble.

Ray Earley

Kit K said...

I find it interesting that everyone, including you Mr. Burleson, automatically assume that Mr. Nollner's account of what happened is the complete truth (if any truth at all). It disappoints me when people who call themselves Southern Baptists can so quickly criticize their own. said...


It bothers me more when Southern Baptist missionaries are fired for whistleblowing and other Southern Baptists like us say nothing about it.

Kit K said...

There again, you assume that's what he was fired for.

We're going to trust a guy that's suing the IMB for $1.5 million? Are you kidding me, $1.5 million? I seem to recall reading something in the Bible that addresses taking our disputes before unbelievers. But let's make Mr. Nollner out to be a martyr.

Anonymous said...

In the late 1920’s on his first assignment to China, my uncle, Rex Ray, was a whistleblower on his missionary boss. Ray smelt a rat when he was told:

“We don’t waste the Lord’s money paying to check the books—we’re Christians!”

Ray hired a Pinkerton detective that found a warehouse with enough equipment to start a hospital which was the plan of his boss who was retiring that year. The guy had ordered ‘two’ of everything—one for the Baptist hospital and one for him.

Long story short, Baptists recovered the equipment but to protect the Baptist image and a ‘good ole boy system’, the man retired with full honors without so much as a reprimand.

In those days, there was not ‘blogs’ to get my uncle in trouble—huh Wade? :)

BTW, after 30 years, Ray was run out of China by the Communists. He supervised the building of the Bill Wallace Memorial Hospital in Korea.

With today’s IMB thinking, no longer is caring for the sick important for spreading the Gospel—only planting churches. Duh I guess Jesus had it all wrong.
Rex Ray

Anonymous said...

Wonder why I get the impression that your attitude reflects Paige Patterson saying that anyone suing a fellow Christian is not saved.

(He had clearly broken the law by firing a person just because she was a woman.)

Patterson’s case being thrown out of court on the basis of separation of church and state makes me wonder what chance Nollners’ suit has.

I believe all the fired missionaries should sue—not the SBC, but the C/R gang.

Rex Ray

Anonymous said...

Somehow I figure that there are two sides to this story but I doubt that one of them will be printed on this blog. Maybe one should get both sides of the story before printing a post with so many accusations. said...

Rex Ray,

An incredible story, Rex.

Your anecdote is a reminder, again, that no matter the organization, no matter the year, accountablity is always needed.

Bob Cleveland said...

First, Nollner's story is completely consistent with what I've seen in SBC life, and with what I know from other reliable sources. The evidence is there.

Second, I think the SBC needs to wake up to the fact that even the smallest church can have worldwide impact, these days. I have a good friend with a Mission Organization that plants churches and disciples leaders; Christians from anywhere are eligible to go on one of their trips (subject to certain training, of course) to any of their fields.

We can have worldwide evangelistic outreach without the SBC.

Similarly, there's plenty of good material for Sunday School, Discipleship Training, etc, being published now, other than by Lifeway. And it's easy to get.

I've said it before .. the SBC had best wake up before it paints itself into a corner of irrelevancy.

Anonymous said...

Bob Cleveland; And guys like you will hand them the brush.

Kit said...

Rex Ray,

As true (and sad) as the story involving your uncle may have been, I don't really see the relevance to the current situation.

To address your comment to me, I would never say someone is unsaved because they sue a fellow Christian. But I would turn your attention to the 1 Cor 6:7-8, "To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!"

So lets say that the IMB was in the wrong. Does Mr. Nollner have any biblical warrant for such a lawsuit?

Bob Cleveland said...

Anonymous @1:41PM: I have no idea what that means, but you can ask Rev. Burleson whether I have done what I can to either A) contribute to that, or B) try to see that it doesn't happen.

Anonymous said...

I'm always a little amused when someone confuses the IMB with the local church.

My understanding of the prohibition not to sue a fellow believer in 1 Corinthians 6 is for members of the same local church. They would share common leaders/pastors/elders who have an official responsibility for oversight. Therefore, the Lord expects them to resolve their conflict biblically within the privacy of their own congregation.

Who's the pastor of the IMB? Who are the elders and/or deacons of the IMB?

I submit that there aren't any. It's not a church.

Those are my $.02 on why the IMB should not expect to be sheltered from litigation by confessing Christians who they might have possibly wronged.


Trevor Davis
Olive Branch, MS

P.S. Long live Bob Cleveland - the best commenter on this blog 5 years running!

Kit said...


I didn't confuse the IMB with the local church. To be honest, I think you're reading something extra into the text. While Paul's letter is written to the Corinthian church, it appears that the main thrust of 1 Cor 6:1-8 is that believers should not take their disputes before unbelievers. It brings shame on the Christian Church as a whole when believers air their dirty laundry before unbelievers.

Anonymous said...

"It brings shame on the Christian Church as a whole when believers air their dirty laundry before unbelievers."

It is better to hide evil, unethical practices? It was ok to fire the guy and leave him and his wife in India to make his way home? paying bribes? That is Christian?

Better to hide the evil? Amazing!

Sometimes a lawsuit is the only way to get "believers" to face up to wrong doing or even get the story out to those paying hard earned money for such doings. I hope the supremes say yes.

Anonymous said...

I believe to understand the truth of the Scripture you quoted; the whole chapter should be studied. (1 Corinthians 6)

Instead of secular courts, Paul said to have the dispute resolved by the church.

“Isn’t there anyone in all the church who is wise enough to decide these issues?” (v.5 NLT)

(Kit, ask Wade how wise overall has the IMB been in handled issues.)

“Why go to outside judges WHO ARE NOT RESPECTED BY THE CHURCH?” (v. 4)

Did Paul ‘judge’ most courts in his time/culture to be bad? If so, then he might have agreed to have honest/respected courts which America has to settle issues.

I believe “70 times 7” is not the same as accepting being “defrauded” etc.

If God practiced the way you see Paul’s advice, there would be no God-appointed judges for his people.

I believe to let ‘wrong’ rule is sin. The Bible teaches not to report crime makes you just as guilty.

Mr. Nollner not only had a biblical warrant for a lawsuit, he had an obligation.

Rex Ray said...

Anonymous 1:41,

Bob Cleveland has been more involved, said more intelligent and helpful things from the floor microphones of the national Southern Baptist Conventions, written more brilliantly on the hundreds of issues we face, and contributed more to missions around the world than any poster I've ever met on the Internt.

Your comment is off base completely. Maybe that is the source of your desire to hide behind the anonymous tag, because you know you are off, but comment just to zing someone else. In my experience, that is the reason most people go anonymous. There's a word for that in the dictionary -

Anonymous said...

Why is it that the "whistleblowers" are made out to be the bad guys? The IMB needs to address this. If this were any of us, I would hope that we would do whatever it took to clarify our "good names".

Ray Earley

Author Dee Ann Miller said...

I stumbled on this blog 4 years after someone last posted. So not sure anyone will even see what I'm writing. Four things:

1. Wade, I appreciate your voice through the years to call people to accountability.

2. Rex Ray and his wife are among the heroes of our family. As a little girl, at age 10, the same year I "surrendered my life to be a foreign missionary," I went with my grandparents to Ray's furlough residence to ask if they could help me get a little sister. Then, surprised my parents a few days later, when they came to pick me up at my grandparents' home, with a picture of the baby temporarily assigned to our family. Lydia is now 60 years old, a wonderful product of their ministry. Yet I did not know until just now that the Ray's had something in common with my husband and I:

3. We were also whistle-blowers, calling into accountability the long-term "benevolent forgiveness" that seems to have been commonly accepted practice with sexual predators until we called them out on this. We have been told privately that our persistence, which eventually cost us our own careers in 1988, changed how they handle child predators. So far, I've not seen much about the more common problem of sexual harassment of female colleagues. (Our case involved both.)

For much more on our story of thirty years ago and how God has blessed us in spite of Southern Baptists and the good old boy system that remains alive and well, see

Diana Garland, founder of the School of Social Work at Baylor, has been one of my long-time friends in this work. She passed away in September. I'll be happy to share what she discovered through research and much more with anyone who contacts me via email from my web site.

4. Currently, my husband Ron and I are working on a new writing project, doing research, addressing Sunday morning silence in the pulpits with gender-based violence and child abuse. If any male pastors have preached to this topic, we would love to know. Ron can tell you from experience of some amazingly positive outcomes because he has taken this topic on, as a pastor.

Vierte said...

How glorious it would be if America got rid of 501(c)3 altogether. At least then these criminals would be beholden to exhibit business acumen, and, their negligences or abuses be assigned to the full weight (such as it is) of law's Justice, seeing they've rejected (if they ever had it in the first place) God's grace concepts in their souls.