An Open Letter to the President of UBF
By Joe S. on Mar 2, 2015
The following is an open letter to Dr. Augustine Sohn, President of University Bible Fellowship, from Joseph L. S., dated March 2, 2015.
Thank you for contacting me yesterday about my status in University Bible Fellowship.
For approximately two years now, the only messages I have received from your organization were requests to attend various meetings and reminders to submit annual chapter reports. I decided to ignore those requests because, for more than five years now, leaders of UBF have been unresponsive to my repeated pleas for dialogue about important matters that affect the health of the organization and the credibility of its gospel witness. My nonresponse was not retaliation. It was an indication that I had no clue how to proceed in our relationship, because my pleas went unheeded and sometimes were not even acknowledged. Perhaps you have heard the humorous saying: “Oh, I’m sorry. I forgot that I only exist when you need something.” I am sorry to say this, but that line accurately conveys my feelings toward UBF and its leaders right now.
By your message, I am once again being asked for something that UBF needs to continue its work, and nothing is being offered to me in return. We cannot continue in this fashion. The time has come to define our relationship.
You asked me to answer two questions:
1. Do you still regard yourself a member of UBF and an International Advisory Member?
2. If so, would you like to participate in voting for the next General Director?
Before I am able to answer these questions, I need you to clarify what you are asking, and I need to know the organization’s stance on several important matters. Therefore I now ask you, in your capacity as President, to answer four questions in an honest and straightforward manner. These answers may be as brief or as long as you wish, but I need to receive them in a timely fashion.
This letter to you is an open letter. I am publishing it on a public website, because I want it to be part of the public record. Many others been asking similar questions, and your answers will be of great interest to them. To promote honesty, openness and transparency, I will accept your response as an official statement by UBF and it will become part of the public record. As soon as I receive it, I will publish it in full, without editing, on the same public website.
The meaning of a question depends heavily on its context. For each of my four questions, I will explain the context so that you will know precisely what I mean.
Context for Question 1. Augustine, you asked if I regard myself as a member of UBF. The organization has a body called Members, a group of approximately 70 persons who meet annually in Chicago. I declined invitations to join that group, so I have never been a Member of UBF in that sense, and I assume you already know that. In my 30+ years of interacting with the organization, I never applied for membership or signed a membership pledge. In most organizations, the meaning of membership is explicit. It is a social contract between the individual and the group in which the person pledges to abide by certain rules and perform certain duties (for example, by paying annual dues). In return, the organization’s leaders grant him rights of membership, providing him with meaningful resources and services, representing his interests and becoming responsive to his concerns. Augustine, because you used the term member, you must have in mind some category of person or some condition of good standing with respect to the organization. I am not being coy when I say, I honestly do not know what you mean by member.
Question 1: What does it mean to be a member of UBF? If there is such a thing as being a member, please explain the duties, responsibilities, and rules of conduct expected of members, and describe what the organization and its leaders provide in return. Also explain whether leaders are obligated to make good-faith efforts to respond to members’ serious concerns in a timely fashion.
Context for Question 2. Before someone can rationally decide whether or not to join an organization, he needs to know whether the organization’s interests align with his own. This requires the organization to state its positions on important matters within its spheres of activity. UBF presents itself as an organization dedicated to making disciples of Jesus, so the methods by which it teaches and trains disciples should be clarified. When I first became involved in UBF more that thirty years ago, I experienced the leadership of the late Samuel Lee, the organization’s founder and General Secretary. Lee was described as an exemplary disciplemaker, a role model for others to follow, and his influence on organizational culture was profound. Here are some of Lee’s activities that I observed firsthand or heard about through the testimony of credible witnesses.
- Lee reserved the right to change the name of anyone at any time. He reserved the right to name your children.
- Lee reserved the right to tell you to quit your job at a moment’s notice.
- Lee reserved the right to tell you at any time to change your clothing or hairstyle.
- No one could marry without his specific approval. He chose whom you could marry, and the wedding would be at a time and place of his choosing.
- In some cases, the length of time between when Lee introduced people to each other and the actual wedding was less than one week.
- When Lee married couples, he made up the wedding vows himself, frequently inserting promises that had nothing to do with marriage (e.g. promises by the couple that they would to go as missionaries to Russia). These vows were not agreed upon by the couple ahead of time.
- If you turned down a marriage candidate that Lee chose for you, you could be severely rebuked and trained for it.
- No one could miss a Monday night meeting or a Friday night meeting or Sunday worship service. If you missed a meeting without what Lee considered to be a valid excuse, you would get rebuked and trained.
- Lee would impose quotas on fellowship leaders to bring a certain number of people to weekly services and to conferences. Those who failed to do so would be shamed or punished in various ways.
- If Lee thought you did not offer enough money at the annual Christmas worship service, he might rebuke you in front of everyone.
- Sometimes Lee told missionaries and shepherds whose families were well off to ask their parents to give large sums of money to the organization.
- When Lee denounced or rebuked people, he often did so harshly, without warning, standing before the congregation. During these denunciations, some of the things that Lee said had little or no basis in fact.
- No one in Chicago who was considered a shepherd or missionary could travel outside the Chicago area for any reason without Lee’s approval. If you did travel, it was understood that you needed to be back in town for the next Sunday worship service, otherwise you could be rebuked and trained.
- If you lived outside of Chicago and you were selected to go on a “journey team” to Korea or elsewhere, you were told to buy an airline ticket to Chicago with an open return date, which could be very expensive. The reason for the open return date was that, once you were in Chicago, Lee reserved the right to keep you there indefinitely for training activities of his own choosing.
- Lee prescribe unorthodox diets and medical treatments and, in some cases, surgical procedures, and the doctors and nurses in Chicago would carry them out.
- If you objected to any of Lee’s practices, missionaries and shepherds would immediately counsel you to obey Lee because he was God’s servant. Failure to obey even in a small matter could result in training, monetary fines, public shaming and shunning.
- Lee sometimes urged missionaries to send their infant children back to Korea to be cared for by relatives so that the missionaries could focus on their ministry activities. In at least one case, he told a missionary couple to give one of their children to another couple who were childless.
Question 2. Do you confirm or deny that Samuel Lee, the founder of UBF, engaged in practices similar to those I listed above? If you confirm, does UBF regard these as appropriate methods of Christian discipleship? If UBF does not consider them appropriate, will the organization issue a mea culpa, apologizing to everyone who received this kind of treatment from Lee and from other UBF leaders who did similar things, and will UBF take publicly visible, measurable and determined steps to root these practices out from its organizational culture? If so, give a timeline for these measures.
Background for Question 3. In recent years, I have heard multiple allegations of UBF members (however that is defined), shepherds and missionaries becoming aware of or being involved in the following: domestic violence against women and children, sexual molestation, inappropriate physical contact between staff and disciples, and regrettably (in one prominent example) incest. In cases where laws may have been broken, no one made reports to law enforcement officials even when minors were involved. Training and policies on abuse, with mandatory reporting of allegations involving minors, are commonplace in American churches and campus ministries. As far as I can tell, UBF has no policies and does not train its staff on how to handle incidents like these, and the organization appears ill equipped to develop them on their own.
Question 3. Does UBF have any official policies or training on violence and sexual abuse? If not, what will the organization plan to do about this? Do your plans involve external consultants, and when will this be carried out? Give a timeline.
Background for Question 4. Augustine, you asked whether I consider myself to be an Intenational Advisory Member (IAM) and whether I will be voting for the next General Director. In most organizations, elections are a process by which voters select leaders from a pool of multiple candidates. To help voters make rational and informed choices, candidates will state their qualifications and accomplishments, describe their beliefs and lay out a vision for what they intend to do if they are elected. However, it is my understanding that, in the election of the next General Director, IAMs will be given one preselected candidate and will be asked to vote “Yes” or “No.” I find this confusing. I do not know what “Yes” or “No” means in an election with one candidate. Does the organization want my input to help it make a choice, or does it merely want my vote to lend an appearance of choice to a decision that has already been made? And whatever it means to vote “Yes” or “No,” I have no clue how to make an informed decision without knowing what the candidate stands for, what his beliefs are, and what he plans to do if he becomes General Director. I have heard through the grapevine that the preselection committee is now deciding between two candidates. I know one of these candidates well; I understand his values and his leadership style. But I have many questions about the other candidate; although we have been acquainted for many years, I lack an overall sense of what he believes and how he leads. One week ago, on February 25, I was surprised when this man used social media (his personal blog and his Facebook timeline) to promote an article from the website of an organization named The Berean Call (http://www.thebereancall.org/). I applaud this man’s use of social media; I have no qualms about that whatsoever. But I had never heard of this organization, and so I decided to poke around their website to see what they are about. What I found was astonishing: pages and pages filled with extreme views that bear no resemblance to my beliefs or those I heard preached in my 30+ years of involvement with UBF. That organization, which claims to promote discernment, declares that the Roman Catholic Church is a cult; the theory of evolution is demonic; the field of psychology is evil; so-called Christian psychology is godless humanism; the Alpha Course is unbiblical; World Vision and Rick Warren are helping to build the kingdom of the Antichrist; and The Message paraphrase of the Bible is wicked. I am not exaggerating one iota here; if you doubt me, visit the website and see for yourself. This set off sirens of alarm. Do the views of this candidate for General Director resemble the views I read on this website? The link from his personal blog and his Facebook timeline suggest there is some agreement and tacit endorsement going on. I bring this to your attention not only because it is disturbing, but to illustrate how uncomfortable it is for me to be asked to vote in an election with no understanding of what I might be voting for or against.
Question 4: In the upcoming election for General Director, what does it mean to vote “Yes” or “No” when there is one candidate who has been preselected? And what information am I expected to use to make a rational choice in this matter?
Thank you for contacting me and asking these timely questions. I will send you my answers soon after I receive yours. If you cannot respond within one week, please explain why, and tell me when the answers will come.
Joseph L. S.
P.S. I have copied this response to members of the Ethics Committee, so that they may be aware of this open conversation.