Preemptive Love Coalition Founders Ousted After Abuse Investigation
Toxic environments in humanitarian organizations put staff and those they serve at risk.
Jamie Aten & Kent Annan
Just as the church has not been immune in recent years to scandalous accusations—from the Roman Catholic Church to the Southern Baptist Convention—humanitarian organizations doing important work are not exempt.
Several former employees have accused humanitarian organization Preemptive Love Coalition of staff abuse by its founders. The end result: The board has decided its founders, Jeremy and Jessica Courtney, should step aside from all involvement with the organization.
Sojourners magazine reports the full timeline of events. Preemptive Love Coalition quickly gained trust within the evangelical community after its founding in 2008, and while the organization presently describes itself as a “faith-oriented community,” it claims no religious affiliation.
On Twitter, former employee Ben Irwin announced that the couple had “abused, gaslit, threatened, and mistreated dozens of staff over the years.” Irwin has also shared an August 2021 letter that 31 former Preemptive Love staff signed and submitted to the board about the abuse and misconduct they witnessed and experienced at Preemptive Love Coalition. The allegations related to race, gender, and power dynamics within the organization.
The board of the Preemptive Love Coalition has taken several steps to address the allegations of misconduct. The board’s timeline corroborates Ben Irwin’s original report and underscored their commitment to acting immediately on the information. The board also acknowledged the letter it received from the group of former staff and says that it has hired Guidepost Solutions to conduct an investigation—the same organization hired to investigate sex abuse allegations within the Southern Baptist denomination.
Other former staff came forward to express their concerns. In an individual open letter to the organization, and namely the Courtneys, former Preemptive Love staffer Courtney Christenson cites particular instances of the couple’s offenses. Asking the Courtneys to step down—or be removed by the board—Christenson appeals to the core values of both the couple and the organization, peace and justice, to guide whatever happens next. “It’s not too late to choose peace, wholeness, and healing,” Christenson exhorts.
In addition to the internal accusations, those inside and outside the organization have expressed concern in the past for the way in which Preemptive Love Coalition has solicited and used donations.
In an online article posted December 3, 2019, and updated January 2, 2021, Mindy Belz reports in World magazine that members of a local committee of nongovernmental organizations coordinating aid on the ground in Syria had not seen evidence of a Preemptive Love team on the ground distributing food or other items. When the organization posted a swift online response to the story, calling it “false,” the outlet contacted local officials. Khalid Ibrahim, the director of the Office of Humanitarian Affairs in Hasakah, confirmed that Preemptive Love Coalition’s claims about rations distributed were inflated.
Relevant reports on more of Irwin’s claims, including that Courtney “wanted people to think Preemptive Love was personally on the ground, even when we weren’t.” Irwin even accuses Courtney of editing video to make it seem as though he were in more danger, in the moment, than he was.
In our opinion, there’s a communal lesson here to be learned by the aid community: We need more humble leaders—not heroes. We need to cultivate trauma-informed organizational cultures, listen to and follow up on whistleblowers, and follow up with meaningful investigations.
Of course, once they’re out in the open, it’s easy to trust that errors in judgment are being addressed by people we respect. [Jeremy Courtney was a guest on the Better Samaritan podcast this spring, after the World magazine revelations but before public accusations by former staff.] This has reinforced for us personally that if we do not push for transparency when there’s “smoke,” we end up becoming complicit. For us, this means go deeper with our guests in the future. And even if you aren’t a leader or have a podcast, we all need to do better at seeking justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly.
We can’t keep relying on charismatic leaders to be enough to guide organizations. We’ve seen this play out time and time again in the local church from scandals like Mark Driscoll to Bill Hybels. And with last night’s announcement about the Courtneys, we are now seeing it play out with NGO leaders whose stated mission was to bring peace to some of the most vulnerable places in the world being torn apart by war.
If we, as Christians, don’t learn from what we’ve seen unfold, we risk not just allowing such organizational misconduct from happening again—but endangering the populations they serve.
Jamie Aten and Kent Annan direct the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College, the first faith-based, academic disaster research center in the country.