Nona Jones: Facebook's head of faith-based partnerships on overcoming trauma

Nona Jones was riding high in her career when God told her to quit her job. Minutes after handing in her notice, Facebook called. Today she’s the company’s head of faith-based partnerships and on first-name terms with Mark Zuckerberg. She spoke with Sam Hailes about overcoming childhood trauma, how untamed ambition can be dangerous and why she’s resisting letting her kids own mobile phones

For better or worse, I’m one of the 2.37 billion people who regularly log on to Facebook. A mind-blowing 72 per cent of internet users are on Facebook, meaning the chances are, you’re probably as addicted to the world’s biggest social network as I am.

Facebook may look shiny and successful on the outside (the company is worth more than $600bn) but its reputation has taken a hit in recent times. There have been ongoing privacy concerns, most notably the Cambridge Analytica scandal. When the evangelist Franklin Graham had his account deactivated in December 2018, there were claims the company was policing speech. Some were even suspicious that Facebook was harbouring anti-Christian sentiments.

Hiring the outgoing, personable and relatable Nona Jones was a smart move by Facebook, an organisation that has recently come to understand the importance of its Christian constituency. The story of how this 37-year-old businesswoman and pastor with no previous tech experience became Facebook’s global director of faith-based partnerships is compelling. In April 2017, Jones was four years into a job she loved at a large charity in Florida. While praying one day, she felt God say to her: “This assignment is over.” Taken aback, she prayed again a few days later, but heard the same message. “I met with my boss and gave her my letter of resignation. Afterwards, I got in the car with my husband and we were driving home when my cell phone rang. The lady said: ‘Is this Nona Jones?’ and I said: ‘Yeah.’ And she said: ‘I’m calling from Facebook.’”

As Jones continued the story and explained that someone had passed her name onto “Mark”, it took me a moment to realise she meant Mark Zuckerberg – Facebook’s billionaire founder. Apparently “Mark” had experienced something of an epiphany, and changed the company’s mission to focus on building community. In doing this, he’d realised “one of the largest, most meaningful communities on earth” had been overlooked. Religious communities.

Enter Nona Jones: the liaison between the tech giant and faith groups. Her role is both internal (helping Facebook develop new products) and external (she was straight on the phone to Franklin Graham when his account was suspended, apologising for the error and promising to get him back online).

She defines technology as “that which enables you to accomplish something”, adding: “So if you’re using a pamphlet to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ, that’s technology.” Unsurprisingly, given her role, she’s urging the Church not to shy away from all things digital, because it’s “how we can witness to the world”.

In theory her work is interfaith, in reality it’s “vastly Christian”. Apparently Jewish and Muslim leaders have been “a bit hesitant” about working with Facebook, with Muslims reluctant to use a platform where they say abuse is commonplace, while Jewish leaders bemoan the narcissism they say the site encourages. The Christian community, meanwhile, has been “really receptive”.

Jones is a first-class communicator who exudes confidence and professionalism. Glancing through her CV which, on top of being a Facebook executive, also includes leading a church, parenting two young children, writing a book, travelling extensively and running half-marathons, I wondered if she ever takes a day off. “Not really,” she replies. But she does switch off both her mobile phones when she’s at home. Perhaps working in tech has made her even more aware of the possible pitfalls (she certainly isn’t keen on her children having their own mobiles).

If one were to make a judgement based on worldly standards, Jones is probably one of the most successful and high-achieving people I’ve met. But when I asked: “What’s been the best day of your career?”, Jones gave a much more personal and spiritual answer than I was expecting. “Earlier this year, I was in a meeting with our chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg. We had finished the meeting, and I was about to walk out, and she turned to me and said: ‘I’ve never been to church before. I would love to go. Can I go with you? Will you take me?’ That was the best day of my career.”

What are your memories of early life?

My mum grew up in a very violent home and never wanted to have children, but 13 years into her marriage she got pregnant. My father was so excited to finally be a dad, but halfway through her pregnancy, he was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer and they gave him six months to live. He went from the high of “finally going to be a dad” to the low of “I’m never going to see my daughter graduate or walk her down the aisle.”

Mum had some mental illness – she dealt with a lot of anger, potentially some bipolar disorder. Dad was aware his daughter may not grow up in a stable household if he wasn’t around. He actually lived until two months shy of my second birthday. But after that, a parade of men came in and out of Mum’s life for the next two years, until she met a guy who became her live-in boyfriend.

I knew pretty early on that something wasn’t right about him, because whenever she wasn’t around, he would hold me too tight to his body for too long. I started to feel very anxious around him, very fearful.

When I was five, Mum said that her sister had passed away and she had to go back home. I begged her to take me with her, but she didn’t have enough money to afford a plane ticket for me. That night, I locked my bedroom door, but he used a wire hanger to pick the lock, and at the age of five, I was sexually violated by him. I didn’t tell Mum because he said: “If you say anything, she’s going to get rid of you, because she never wanted you anyway.”

From a very early age, seeds of worthlessness were planted in my heart and I felt like I didn’t matter. I eventually told Mum what happened when I was about seven. She had him locked up, and I was so grateful he was gone. But on the day of his release, she took me with her to get him from jail and brought him back home. And so the abuse continued. At the ages of nine and eleven I tried to take my life because I didn’t feel like I had any reason to live.

Not long after my second suicide attempt, my classmate invited me to church with her. I’ll never forget walking in and how people who didn’t even know who I was immediately loved me and accepted me, and spoke life into me. In the very first sermon I ever heard, the pastor said: “God is a father to the fatherless.” And I was like: “That’s me. Who is this God? Because I need to know who my father is.” There were many nights I literally cried myself to sleep, asking: “Where are you, Daddy? Why did you leave me, Daddy? Why is this happening?” Hearing that God was a father to the fatherless immediately piqued my interest. I believe that became the turning point for me, discovering my identity in Jesus.

Years later, you were enjoying a very successful career, but some of this trauma caught up with you, didn’t it?

It did, yeah. At 23 I was an executive at a Fortune 100 company. I was fuelled by an ambition to be successful, but it was because I was trying to run from my past. I was trying to chase away the shadows of trauma that were telling me I wasn’t good enough, so I used my ambition as a proxy for my value.

I know a lot of people who are perfectionists, and the reason that they are perfectionists is because of trauma. They adopt this idea that: if I work hard enough, perhaps people will see my worth. I was pursuing success so that the external affirmation of my value could somehow fill the emptiness inside of me. But it didn’t.

The higher you go on the organisational chart, you realise there’s always somebody making more money. There’s always somebody who has a bigger house, more followers. I really believe that if you don’t understand contentment, and who God has created you to be, you will experience success but it won’t fulfil. You will be empty.

How did you come to realise this?

It happened in a very specific moment. At one point in my career I was at the White House every other week. One evening I was at a reception, hosted by President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama. I remember looking around the room at all these incredibly powerful people. And I felt like I didn’t belong. I went back to my hotel that night and I just cried and prayed: “Lord, something is broken within me, help me discover what that is.” And God told me: “You will never achieve enough to fill the void within you because it’s the size of me.”

That’s when I began to study contentment. But I also had to study forgiveness, because I still held onto bitterness from what my mum did, and what her boyfriend did. So I was chasing success because I was actually trying to erase the pain of the past. God spoke to me so clearly in that hotel room, and I think that became the turning point.

What’s your response to Christians who think Facebook, and social media more generally, is a negative influence because, far from reminding us Jesus is enough, it actually encourages narcissism, an obsession with getting more followers and promoting a ‘branded’ image of ourselves to the world?

I think there’s a lot of truth to that. We’re meant to be conduits of the gospel and if we’re building followings to ourselves, and to our own domains and brands, then we’ve missed the mark.

I think we should always use our lives as a vessel through which Jesus can be glorified. I would challenge Christians: when you’re thinking of posting something, ask yourself, “Does this glorify God?” What I would say is, I’ve noticed this trend of posting a selfie with a scripture underneath and I laugh every time I see it, because it’s basically like: “Hey, look at me! But I don’t want you to think I’m self-absorbed, so I’m going to put this scripture on here.” Listen, if you want to post a picture of yourself, if you’re looking good, then do it. You don’t have to add a scripture to somehow make it less about you!

Dr Jerry Johnson, the president of the National Religious Broadcasters in the US, has claimed Facebook has blocked Christian content. Franklin Graham, the well-known preacher, said that he’d been suspended by Facebook in the past. What’s your response?

It is mind-boggling how much content is posted on Facebook. We’re taking down 1 million fake accounts every single day. So there are times when content is removed erroneously, and when that happens, it’s put back up.

In the case of Franklin Graham, specifically, I actually talked to him when that happened. I found out about it and was like: “Oh, no!” So we got on the phone and we talked about it, and his account was restored. But mistakes are going to happen just because of the volume of posts, and I know that when that happens, people say: “Oh, gosh, there’s something concerted happening there.” I can absolutely say that is not the case.

What I will say, and this is where it becomes a challenge, is there are a lot of people who are attacking groups of people on Facebook under the name of Jesus Christ. And it’s really unfortunate, because that’s not what the faith is about.

Is part of your job to help your colleagues at Facebook understand the difference between, for example, someone quoting a Bible verse (which may be controversial, but should be allowed) and other kinds of posts from Christians that should not be allowed on Facebook’s platform, because they are hateful?

Absolutely. I’m in conversations regularly about the difference between offensive content and hate speech. If there’s a post that a person may not agree with that’s considered offensive, then that’s allowed within the marketplace of ideas and freedom of expression covers that. But the community standards say hate speech will not be tolerated. That’s speech which is directed towards a person or group of people with the intent of incentivising or causing harm. That’s where the line gets drawn.

Tell me more about family life. What are the spiritual practices or disciplines you do together as a family?

Church is huge, and my boys are actually a part of our ministry. We don’t just segregate them off to the side. My boys go to a Christian school, which is an added blessing because we can have spiritual conversations. I took my boys to the movies one day – I think we were going to see Transformers or something. The lead character kissed his girlfriend and my eldest son shouts at the top of his lungs in the cinema: “She’s not his wife! That’s fornication!” [Laughs] I almost passed out. But my nine-year-old child has a concept of right and wrong and we encourage them to ask questions about God. When my father-in-law turned 74, my youngest son, who is six years old, said: “Oh my gosh, that’s older than God!”

What’s next for you?

I have resigned myself to whatever God has decided. I’ve gotten to a point where I don’t even pray for specific things. There are things that I would like to do, and God knows that’s in my heart, but I literally just pray: “God, your will be done.”

Nona Jones was the keynote speaker at last year’s Premier Digital Conference. To watch her speech and to book your tickets for this year, visit premierdigital.info

To hear the full interview listen to Premier Christian Radio at 4pm on Saturday 15 February or download The Profile podcast premierchristianradio.com/theprofile

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