Can Christians learn anything from the smoking ruins of RZIM?

Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM) has released a report that details the findings of an independent investigation into the organisation. The 80-page report lays bare RZIM’s failures. These include making false public statements, funding Zacharias’ legal battles with ministry funds, and failing to hold him to account when allegations of misconduct were made.

What is this report and why is it being released now?

It is important to note that the report, by Guidepost Solutions, does not outline the findings of a criminal investigation and its authors are careful to define the limitations of their scope.

“Significantly, while Guidepost has been asked to look at how RZIM responded to previous allegations against Zacharias, we are not examining the truth of those prior allegations,” the report says.

“Guidepost was not engaged to evaluate or prove the truth of the [Lori] Thompson allegations or any other prior allegations. We were hired to evaluate how RZIM responded to prior allegations against Zacharias and to assess how the ministry’s culture, leadership, corporate governance, and policies and procedures shaped that response in the past and impacts its ability going forward to properly handle any allegations of abuse and harassment that might arise in the future. Accordingly, we focused not on the actions of Zacharias, but on the actions of RZIM’s leadership and its directors, looking for common patterns of behavior and thinking to identify what the ministry needs to change.” (page 7)

The report was posted on RZIM’s website yesterday, Wednesday, 23 February. RZIM has not detailed its reasons for the sudden release of a report it received last August. However, an article released by Christianity Today (CT) just an hour after its release may provide a hint, with CT stating the magazine was mailed an earlier draft of the report from an anonymous source sometime this month.

An accompanying letter from RZIM’s Board of Directors reiterates their sincere apologies for “the enormous pain caused by Ravi Zacharias’ sin and our failure to uncover it sooner”.

It also states the Board’s concerns.

“Although we are releasing this report, we do not agree with everything in it. We believe there are inaccurate accounts or pieces of information that were either overlooked or omitted by Guidepost and we disagree with some characterizations therein. Regardless, we believe this report provides an important assessment of our organization’s actions to investigate Zacharias and the steps we sadly failed to take.”

“In its conclusion, the report provides a series of recommendations to improve accountability, transparency, and cross-functional operations. By the time the report was received, RZIM had already begun addressing many of these recommendations.”

Can Christians learn anything from the smoking ruins of RZIM?

While many of Eternity’s readers – and indeed some of Eternity’s writers – feel weary at the thought of yet another article exposing a Christian leader’s failures, there is value in looking closely at this Guidepost report.

In much the same way as did The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, last year’s hit podcast produced by Christianity Today, this report provides behind-the-scenes detail of what went wrong at RZIM and how it unfolded.

Consequently, if approached with humility, openness, and prayer, this report could well provide ministry teams and pastors with the opportunity to reflect on their own culture and processes and make any changes that are needed.

Three key lessons:

Lesson 1: The importance of senior leaders and a board who are not compromised by relationships with the leaders they are responsible for holding to account

One of the most devastating sections in the report is found on pages 2-3, in its Executive Summary. It deals with the conflict of interests found among RZIM’s decision-makers. Given how churches and organisations so often form and develop relationally, this section highlights a significant challenge for many churches.

“Ultimately, we believe that RZIM’s leadership and cultural weaknesses stem from the devotion and loyalty to Zacharias shown by the ministry’s leaders, directors, employees, and followers. RZIM leaders, directors, and employees consistently told us that in his role as the ministry’s leader, Zacharias was personally loved and revered, especially by RZIM members in the United States and India and by its Board of Directors.

“Many of the individuals whom we interviewed have a different view of Zacharias as a result of the revelations in the Miller & Martin Report [which unearthed credible evidence of sexual misconduct by Ravi Zacharias]. On the other hand, even now, many interviewees still expressed their fond affection for Zacharias, based on their personal interactions with him over many years, citing his gentle nature, his convincing manner, and his genuine care and concern for people. Regrettably, this blind affection led to individual and organizational blindness about the negative qualities of Zacharias’s character and his harmful actions, which impacted the underlying credibility of RZIM as a whole.

“The role of RZIM organizational leaders and the Board of Directors is to proactively recognize and confront risks to protect the organization. In this case, RZIM’s senior leaders and its board members were unable to fulfill this role because their personal affection and admiration for Zacharias caused them to act out of loyalty to him rather than duty to the ministry – to protect him rather than RZIM and its followers, donors, personnel, and other supporters.

“RZIM’s leaders and directors asserted to us that they did not know the truth about Zacharias’s abusive and inappropriate conduct, and we have seen no evidence at this point to conclude otherwise. However, their veneration (bordering on devotion) for Zacharias and his family contributed to a culture that discouraged honest and open discussion of questions about Zacharias’s conduct and valued loyalty to Zacharias above almost all else. The failure of RZIM leadership to communicate transparently and the succession of crises caused by Zacharias’s personal and professional failings decimated the trust that RZIM staff had in its organizational leadership and its Board of Directors.” (pages 2-3)

Lesson 2: The need for an independent process to consider concerns and complaints against leaders and to protect the person voicing them from negative repercussions

There are several examples of this outlined in the report. One worth looking at outlines the experiences of Michael Ramsden, who was RZIM’s European Director in 2009 and is the current President of RZIM.

Ramsden told the report’s investigators about a conflict he had with Zacharias in 2009 about a massage therapist – an incident that was complicated by the involvement of Zacharias’ family members.

While this is a specific case, there are underlying behaviours on display that all can learn to recognise. Zacharias is alleged to have not only resented being held to account by Ramsden, but apparently made his feelings so clear that other RZIM staff learned not to make the same mistake.

“In January 2009, Zacharias called Ramsden, who was RZIM’s European Director at the time, to inform him that Zacharias had found a person who could effectively treat his back pain through massage therapy. Zacharias told Ramsden that this massage therapist would be traveling with him, but he did not tell Ramsden at the time that the therapist was a woman.

“The following day, a member of the Zacharias family contacted Ramsden and told him that he/she was uncomfortable with the appearance of Zacharias traveling with a female massage therapist. The family member asked Ramsden to intervene and discuss the issue directly with Zacharias. Shortly thereafter, Ramsden sent a letter to Zacharias in which he explained that the appearance of Zacharias traveling with the female massage therapist could make Zacharias vulnerable to attacks on his credibility.

“Three days after Zacharias received this letter, the same Zacharias family member contacted Ramsden and reported that Zacharias was very angry about the letter. At some point, both Zacharias and his family member told Ramsden that the arrangements with the traveling massage therapist had been approved by the Board of Directors.

“In the summer of 2009, Ramsden and Zacharias attended a mutual speaking engagement, and Zacharias verbally rebuked Ramsden for confronting him about the traveling massage therapist. By this time, a Zacharias family member was traveling more with Zacharias, so he was not alone with the massage therapist as often. [Sarah] Davis, Zacharias’s daughter and the current CEO of RZIM [at the time of writing], told us in interviews that the family had voiced concern about Zacharias traveling with the therapist. She said that the family did not suspect that there was anything untoward about the relationship between Zacharias and the massage therapist; rather, they were concerned about the appearance of the relationship and its potential impact on the ministry.

“Later in 2009, Ramsden and Zacharias had another confrontation about the traveling massage therapist. Specifically, at an event during RZIM’s Founders’ Weekend (an annual meeting of donors and board members), Ramsden was approached by Zacharias’s traveling massage therapist. She apparently offered similar massage therapy services to him in a short conversation. After this conversation, Ramsden’s wife immediately approached Ramsden to express her concern, telling him that she had a bad feeling about the therapist.

“After this Founders’ Weekend event, Zacharias and Ramsden had a heated telephone conversation in which Ramsden again pressed his concerns about the female massage therapist traveling with Zacharias. Ramsden told Zacharias about his conversation with the massage therapist at the recent event, including the therapist’s offer to provide similar services to him. Ramsden told us that Zacharias became upset and the call ended abruptly. Approximately an hour later, Zacharias recontacted Ramsden after apparently speaking with his massage therapist; he told Ramsden that the therapist had no idea who Ramsden was and that they had never conversed. This conversation between Zacharias and Ramsden became more and more heated.

“According to Ramsden, this conflict irrevocably impacted the relationship between Ramsden and Zacharias. Even though the tension between them eased as the years passed, their relationship never fully recovered. Eventually, in 2019, Zacharias agreed to the promotion of Ramsden as President of RZIM. The foregoing events were described to us generally several times by RZIM staff who typically used some variation of the phrase ‘sent to Siberia’ when describing what happened to Ramsden after he confronted Zacharias. Many RZIM employees expressed concerns to us about retaliation if they spoke up or disagreed with any action taken by Zacharias, his family, or RZIM leadership. They repeatedly used the story of Ramsden’s exclusion from Zacharias’s good graces as an example of what happens at RZIM if you take on Zacharias or a member of the Zacharias family – you may be ‘sent to Siberia.'” (page 17-18)

Lesson 3: Be financially transparent – within your team and with others

The details around Zacharias’ legal case with Lori Thompson are shocking and complicated in several ways. They can not be covered here but are worth a close reading (see page 20ff).

One lesson that any Christian ministry team or organisation can take up is simply the value of financial transparency within a team and by a team as a safeguard that exposes, and may thereby prevent, misconduct.

The Guidepost team’s summary reads like this:

“RZIM’s Executive Committee of its Board of Directors approved the use of almost $1,000,000 of ministry money to pay for Zacharias’s legal battle with Thompson, even to the point of paying for the tax liability on the money Zacharias used to settle the litigation with the Thompsons, thus ensuring that Zacharias himself did not pay a single penny, even though RZIM was not a party to the legal action. Zacharias and RZIM falsely represented to the public and the ministry itself that ‘no ministry funds were used’ in the Thompson litigation. Indeed, even within the top levels of RZIM, certain members of the Board of Directors and senior RZIM leaders were unaware that the Executive Committee of the board had approved the use of ministry money to fight Zacharias’s legal battle.” (page 2)

Thoughts in closing
Each of these 3 key lessons might seem obvious, but looking back at various small and big church and parachurch leadership failures, unquestioning trust and our willingness to place charismatic leaders on pedestals have been a common theme. That is why good governance processes are essential for all organisations, both for-profit and not-for-profit, and why it is important Christians do not avoid engaging with the devastation of RZIM.