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Confusion, Strategy Shifts, Layoffs: What’s Happening at the American Bible Society?

The historic and well-funded organization has seen two years of turmoil: five CEOs, money fumbles, and a pullback from global work. It is searching for a fresh start.
Confusion, Strategy Shifts, Layoffs: What’s Happening at the American Bible Society?
Image: Wikimedia Commons, Google Street View / Edits by CT
The American Bible Society’s New York building in 1893, left, and current Philadelphia headquarters, right.

The 208-year-old American Bible Society (ABS) used to have a simple mission: print and distribute Bibles in the US. At its peak in 1979, it was giving away 108 million a year.

Once Americans had access to Bibles, ABS’s challenge became getting people to read them. In the early 2000s, the organization shifted to a mission of “Scripture engagement.” That is not as clear-cut as the number of Bibles printed, and in the years since, people in ABS circles have disagreed on what to do with a large legacy organization’s resources. A new Bible museum? A Bible app for military members? Curriculum on trauma healing through Scripture?

And how much should an organization that partners with Bible societies around the globe focus on the “American” part of its mission?

This 21st-century identity crisis has sharpened in the last two years with the quick turnover of five executives in a row, tens of millions of dollars in financial shortfalls, and the loss of a major donor. Sources said that about 30 staff were laid off late last year, which amounts to about 20 percent of employees.

Amid all the issues, ABS is changing its priorities. But it’s not clear whether the organizational messes are driving those decisions or if the messes are part of the pains of changing strategy. CT heard from ABS staff, former staff, donors, and other stakeholders, all with different ideas of what is causing the problems at ABS.

The stakes are high because ABS has a roughly $100 million-a-year budget and a $600 million endowment, which puts it in the top 1 percent of Christian organizations in Ministry Watch’s database by assets. Bible societies around the world rely on its support. Over the last two years of turmoil, staff and other ABS supporters say they haven’t had a clear sense of who is running the organization.

Of the five CEOs who have led ABS since 2022, two were board members serving as interim leaders, an unusual practice. One of them, Jeff Brown, lasted just a month. Neither board member turned CEO remains on the board.

ABS “didn’t want to deal with the issues,” said Ellen Strohm, an ABS director who left in January 2023 after 18 years there. Over her career there, she oversaw fundraising and project management.

Strohm said there was a culture of “magical thinking” that everything would get better without addressing systemic problems.

ABS has been moving to operate more like a foundation, overseeing more grants over the years instead of direct ministry. But the organization hasn’t had the systems in place to make that work, according to Strohm and other former employees, which has created cascading problems.

In the US, the organization focuses on various “Scripture engagement” projects as well as annually reaching hundreds of thousands in the military through its armed services ministry; promoting its State of the Bible research; and operating a new museum in Philadelphia on the Bible in American life called the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center.

Historically the organization has funded Bible translations around the world with a goal of translating the Bible into every living language by 2033. In recent years it has focused resources on its Bible-based trauma healing initiative to help faith communities address community trauma.

Starting in February, the new CEO of the American Bible Society Jennifer Holloran—its first female CEO and a former executive at Wycliffe Bible Translators USA—was walking into several layers of challenges, despite ABS having a comfortable endowment and historic reputation. The executive search firm seeking a CEO for ABS back in August noted that it was seeking someone who could “lead an organizational transformation.”

“While the specific challenges ABS has faced in recent years happened before I assumed the role of president and CEO, I know that the board and senior leaders have made great progress in refocusing the organization around its historic vision and mission,” Holloran said in a statement to CT. She said ABS would “develop new ways to support churches and partner organizations in creating opportunities for all people to experience Scripture’s life-changing message.”

After the layoffs late last year, the board sent an email to staff stating that ABS’s operating model required “fundamental change” and that the organization would be operating “fewer distinct, individual ministry programs—especially on its own. Instead we will focus on programs that … build on our strengths in partnership, convening, and thought leadership.”

It appears ABS will move more to grantmaking, like awarding funds for scholarly work on the Bible to groups like Scriptura.

In a statement responding to a number of questions from CT, board chair Katherine Barnhart reiterated that shift in strategy.

“For approximately two years, the board of directors of American Bible Society has been strategically aligning its planning and work in a way that is focusing ABS on finding, fostering, and furthering innovations in Bible access and engagement,” she wrote.

“As we move forward, ABS is leveraging its core strengths—including convening partners, provisioning resources, and developing and sharing insights—to play a significant role in creating and scaling programs that can broadly engage US culture and the world in the Scriptures. This refocusing means, in part, that ABS now operates fewer distinct, individual ministry programs—especially on its own.”

The organization’s tax filings show how it has been shifting to operate more like a foundation: Its head count has been shrinking over the years as it has moved from direct ministry to providing grants to partners doing projects on Bible engagement. The largest slice of its budget (roughly $40 million of its $103 million in expenses in the 2022 fiscal year) goes to grants to US and international organizations, according to its latest public tax filings. In 2013, it was only giving $11 million in grants of its $92 million budget.

Board chair Barnhart has a background in foundation work, having served on the board of the National Christian Foundation (NCF), to which she and her husband donated their family’s business more than a decade ago. The vice chair of ABS, David Wills, was the longtime president of NCF.

Despite that move toward more grantmaking, ABS was still spending a sizable portion of its budget on salaries and benefits—$28.8 million in fiscal year 2022.

The board has also experienced a turnover since 2022. Only 10 of the 19 board members from 2022 remain on the board, though the two most recent board chairs remain.

The organization had intentionally shrunk an unwieldy board in the last two decades: In the early 1990s it had 72 board members, then 30 in 2013, when the bylaws were changed to limit the board to 18–24 members. It now has 13 members, according to the ABS website.

The way the organization has handled these changes has hurt morale, according to multiple current and former staff.

Over the years, other Christian nonprofits have shifted direction and suffered “death by minnow nibbles” due to lack of mission clarity, board members not fulfilling their proper role, bad company culture, lack of good metrics, and donors pulling the organization away from its mission, Peter Greer and Chris Horst write in Mission Drift.

Financial and operational problems

In 2019, Strohm was working on major gifts at ABS. She remembered feeling like she was having a heart attack from all the pressure at work, and she drove herself to the hospital where she discovered her lung had collapsed.

That year the organization discovered it unexpectedly went over budget by $17 million. The overspend has not been previously reported. That spurred a number of changes: the departure of the CEO at the time, Roy Peterson; layoffs; and a reevaluation of partner programs the organization was funding. The organization was able to cover the deficit partly by drawing from ABS’s roughly $600 million endowment. There is no evidence of malfeasance on ABS’s part, and it had recently gone through multiple audits.

Strohm said the organizational response to audits showing inadequate systems “was healing the organization lightly.”

The $17 million shortfall appears to be related to confusion between partner organizations overseas and ABS, sources say. Partners were spending project budgets that ABS hadn’t yet raised.

ABS had been a rock-solid financial partner for so many decades that program leads reportedly assumed the pledged budgets would come through. Bible society partners having fiscal years falling at different times than ABS also contributed to the confusion.

Even with these systemic failures, the organization was shrinking its division-monitoring programs, according to current and former staff. In 2020, ABS disbanded Global Scripture Impact, the in-house accountability unit evaluating programs that ABS was funding. Then it created a new team called Reporting and Metrics, which also dwindled in the years following. Now it has a new team, called Ministry Insights, for independent monitoring of the programs it is supporting.

Deficits have been a regular feature: ABS tax filings show it has operated with a total deficit of $56 million from fiscal year 2016 to 2022. ABS had an additional $11 million deficit in fiscal year 2023, according to its stewardship report.

Despite the deficits, ABS had financial cushion. It had boosted its endowment in 2015 when it sold its Manhattan headquarters for $300 million and moved to Philadelphia.

Losing a translation partner

Another set of problems emerged with project reporting, as the organization shifted from a large base of small donors to major donors. In general, small gifts typically go to unrestricted revenue. Major donors typically want their money spent in certain ways and want more detailed reporting, which Strohm said ABS was unable to deliver.

The shift from small donors to major donors “broke the systems,” Strohm told CT. Sources said that American donors also tend to want more “impact” metrics, which the organization’s partners overseas might not historically emphasize. Overseas translation partners might send a quarterly report that consisted of saying they had finished translating the Book of Mark, for example, which is not “industry standard” reporting in the US, according to sources.

There was no “enterprise system that can follow a dollar in to a dollar out,” Strohm said. “When you have to connect a donor dollar to a project, that’s where the complication comes in, and you have to have really good systems. … ABS had very little idea of how the money they were receiving or giving was spent.”

As a result, she said the organization would create strategies that were “so broad that no matter what a donor wanted to do you could fit it in.”

One of those major donors was Every Tribe Every Nation (ETEN), which multiple sources said was contributing millions to ABS primarily for Bible translation work. In 2018 the organization—whose major backers include Mart Green of the Hobby Lobby family—began demanding more reporting, according to Strohm and other sources, or it would reduce funding.

ETEN was giving ABS around $11 million in 2019 and began decreasing its giving in 2020 as reporting did not improve. According to Strohm, an audit of the ETEN funds showed ABS was below 40 percent compliance, meaning less than 40 percent of funds were complying with donor intent.

By 2022, ETEN had completely withdrawn its funding for translations and then later that year withdrew all its funding to ABS, which sources said was at least in part based on ABS’s inability to provide sufficient reporting. ETEN redirected some funding through the United Bible Societies Association (UBS-A), according to ABS sources. United Bible Societies is the consortium of global Bible societies, many of which oversee translation projects.

According to a 2021 year-end report from UBS-A, “the association has obtained increasing levels of funding from organizations with similar objectives such as ETEN (Every Tribe Every Nation) and YouVersion.”

That withdrawal contributed to more problems with budgeting and was a major factor in the fiscal year 2021 shortfall, Strohm said. ABS’s tax filings show a $16 million deficit in fiscal year 2021. But fiscal year 2022 bounced back with a $9 million surplus.

“In the UBS fellowship, when you start a Bible translation project, you’re in it for the duration,” she said. “It’s the assumption that you’ll fund the whole project. ABS was between a rock and a hard place. There was no money to continue these commitments, and the donor was committed to more accurate reporting.”

Global cuts

In the past about half of ABS’s grant money has gone overseas and half has gone to domestic organizations. Now ABS has been making cuts to its global funding, according to several sources, and shifting its focus to be more domestic. ABS used to contribute about 40 percent of a fund that supplements the budgets of global Bible societies, and reportedly has reduced that to 25 percent.

Meanwhile, it has invested tens of millions in the Faith and Liberty Discovery Center in Philadelphia, which “explores the relationship between faith and liberty in America from its founding to today.” One source noted that ABS is reflecting a trend in the US church broadly, where money is focusing more on domestic ministry than global missions work.

Bible Society Lebanon has a five-year trauma healing program it launched with ABS support in 2021. Last year ABS pulled out of the program, according to the longtime head of the Bible Society of Lebanon, Mike Bassous.

Bassous said Bible Society Lebanon was about halfway through the program, having trained about 300 Bible teachers. He said ABS would still allow them to raise money for the program from major US donors through ABS, but with a 28.5 percent “administrative fee” that applies to all major donor gifts for trauma healing programs.

“I speak American English. I can understand corporate America,” Bassous said. “But you didn’t know who you could talk to at ABS. … Something is wrong.”

And on global Bible translations, one ABS donor received contradictory messages on ABS plans. An email he received from an ABS staffer late last year said that the organization would “divest translation work by December 1, 2023.” Then, in a January press release about the new CEO, board chair Katherine Barnhart said, “While we are continuing to support the essential work of Scripture translation, ABS must also develop new ways to make the Bible available.”

“I’m a longtime supporter, but I as a donor am confused,” said Nick Athens, a former ABS board member and donor.

Barnhart, in her statement to CT, did not directly respond to questions about the translation shift but said, “Where the refocusing is affecting our partnerships with other organizations, we’re working with those partners to explore alternative sources of funding and leadership. We are continuing to support Scripture translation in partnership with UBS as we recommit to developing new ways to make God’s Word accessible to all.”

Inside ABS, staff remain confused about whether or how the organization plans to address the recent turmoil. ABS had commissioned an internal investigation, conducted by the law firm Simms Showers and shared with the board last year, but the staff still doesn’t know what the focus of the investigation was or what recommendations came from it.

Even basic communication, they say, has dwindled; the organization’s annual stewardship report for 2023 was nine pages, when in past years it was quadruple that size.

Hopes for change

From Strohm’s perspective, the problems are systemic and cultural. They can’t be blamed on a single leader at any point.

“ABS has a way of breaking your heart,” Strohm said. “The staff generally work in good faith. … They’ve gotten rid of almost all of the leadership since I was a part of the organization, and the same things continued.”

Several sources said that greater openness from the organization to discuss problems—instead of a culture of “success theater,” as one stated—would help lead the organization to health.

Multiple people did express optimism about the choice of new CEO, Holloran.

“The hiring of Jennifer Holloran is, in my opinion, a much-needed down payment by the current ABS board on the debt it owes the organization’s legacy mission, donors, recent and current staff, and concerned friends of ABS,” J. David Schmidt, who consulted with ABS senior leaders on strategy between 2012 and 2022, told CT. “Her experience at Wycliffe and willingness to serve in this critical season is a much-needed, hope-filled balm, especially given the recent years of governance struggles.”

At the very least, Holloran is tasked with overseeing a major shift in ABS’s identity. In John Fea’s history of ABS, The Bible Cause, he notes that the organization for most of its history considered itself a “service organization” that published Bibles and produced Bible translations. Now ABS will see if it can find a clear path in more grantmaking than direct service.

Eugene Habecker, who was the CEO of ABS from 1991 to 2005, said, “The world needs a healthy and functioning ABS.”

Editor’s note: CT’s chief impact officer Nicole Massie Martin, who was recently among leadership at ABS, was not a source for the reporting of this story.

[ This article is also available in Français. ]

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