A former team leader at the Christian charity UCCF apologises for her part in developing an “unhealthy” culture that “damaged” employees 

Screenshot 2024-01-31 105857

During the past year, the body which oversees Christian Unions in the UK, UCCF have faced an internal investigation linked to two of their Directors and possible breaches of employment law. 

In October 2023, the organisation released a statement explaining the outcome of the investigation. It read: “The Trustees and Directors apologise unreservedly to those employees whose experiences fell short of what they were entitled to expect from UCCF, and for the hurt caused”

Around the time of the statement’s release, a large number of trustees all resigned their positions. 

My story

I worked for UCCF for nearly 18 years in various roles. It has taken me a long time to realise that a proper apology is desperately needed.

What is a real apology? The author and researcher Wade Mullen says: “sometimes apologies are merely concessions, statements made to avoid a scandal, rather than a genuine apology that is intended to heal and restore.” He continues: “There are several kinds of concessions. Concessions that; condemn, appease, excuse, justify, self promote and ask for sympathy.” But what is an apology? Simply put, apologies are action specific, responsibility-taking words.

I absolutely loved UCCF. I was a leader in my Christian Union at University, on their student council, a volunteer Relay worker and then started as a staff worker. I was passionate about the vision and this was all I wanted to do.

Fast forward a few years to 2006 and I started as the South East Team Leader. My main role was to lead and care for the team of staff and volunteer workers in the region. I’m ashamed to say I didn’t do this very well.

By now, I was totally convinced of the importance of UCCF for the University, Britain and the world. I knew the history of UCCF, the role it had in British evangelicalism, I knew that CUs were instrumental in strengthening Bible believing churches and I knew that our summer teams were of utmost importance in encouraging mission beyond the UK.  

I see now the urgency of our mission and the significance of our role led to an arrogance in my heart. I’d lost my humility. I was firmly convinced that UCCF was the place to do ministry and nothing else came close. The University needed UCCF, British evangelicalism needed UCCF, the world needed UCCF, and I was ready. 

So when I started to notice that things weren’t quite right, I was in so deep. I felt I couldn’t - and so didn’t - ask questions.  

Staying silent

Shortly after starting as a Team Leader, I was asked about a staff member that had recently resigned.

“Why didn’t you ask me why they left?” they said. “It’s none of my business” I replied.

Back came an approving nod. I knew that was the right response. This was where I learnt to keep silent.

I’d love to tell you that was the only time I heard of someone being moved on, managed out, put on gardening leave, ultimately sacked, yet not sacked. But it wasn’t.

There were rumours of staff that left unhappy. These were the kind of people who weren’t afraid to ask hard questions. Each time someone left like this it was often shrouded in mystery. If I did ask why, the response was to blame the individual - they weren’t doing their job, they’d got distracted by other things and for the good of the fellowship it was right they left. Over time we didn’t discuss these people, you just knew not to. 

Leaving was the only option

Up until then it was always someone else, not someone on my team. But then it happened to my staff and not just that, I made it happen. More than once.

A staff worker would be struggling in their role. I would normally start with discussing how to help them in their job, but pretty quickly it turned into how and when they should leave. 

Our desire for excellence took over how we treated others

I would be asked, “how is X getting on?”. I’d respond openly, talking about the good things that were happening, but also raising areas of development needed and seeking advice on how to help the staff worker. Over time, I realised this was a mistake, as the speed of escalation was frightening. Especially if a note or a phone call from an influential donor or church leader put the efficacy of the staff worker in question. 

You see, a staff worker had to do a good job. We had to have good staff workers. The mission of UCCF was so very important that if we didn’t have good staff workers, the CUs would fold and if the CUs folded, how would students hear the gospel?

Our desire for excellence took over how we treated others. Our incredible history was something to be proud of but our reputation became more important than how we treated our staff. So, it would quickly go from me asking for ideas on how to help a staff worker to they need to leave and the prospect of a disciplinary process would be floated. 

I couldn’t work out how to do right

At the time, emails were flying, seeking advice from the Trust Board. I always felt very unsure at the speed of the process, but reassured myself, “these are Christians and professionals, this can’t be wrong”. I tried to make my hesitations clear, but was afraid to disagree. I asked if the staff workers really had to leave, but was reassured. It was right for the fellowship, right for the gospel and ultimately right for this person. They’re never going to flourish if they can’t do the job. Being praised for my sharp insight in recognising a problem early on was particularly effective at quieting my concerns. 

After traumatising meetings and email exchanges with the threat of a disciplinary or dismissal, staff decided to resign and some were immediately put on “gardening leave” as they were deemed too “risky”. A potential cause of reputational damage for the fellowship. This meant they missed their final Team Training and a chance to process and say goodbye. I’m devastated to say that, in my opinion, we ruined good people. They were humiliated and shoved out the back door. 

The decision was rarely their own

In my opinion HR procedures were flirted with just enough to look genuine, but we abused the very practices that were meant to help staff. ACAS says… “The [disciplinary] procedure should be used primarily to help and encourage employees to improve rather than just as a way of imposing punishment.” Yet during my time, I don’t remember any staff staying once this kind of disciplinary procedure was in place.

I saw staff managed out in my team, and in many others. But it wasn’t just those who endured a painful disciplinary. As acknowledged in the UCCF statement “it has been consistent practice that staff left after three years”. In a subsequent article it was stated that “the decision on whether and when they want to leave employment with UCCF sits with the employee alone”, but from my experience this was often not the case. The decision whether staff would stay three, four or five years was usually decided ahead of the conversation with them. The reasoning used left many feeling they weren’t worthy of being one of the essential workers of UCCF.

The sheer volume of staff and the depth of the pain caused in my opinion is far from the small numbers that have been acknowledged to have been “caused considerable upset”. I know because I experienced this too and large numbers have since spoken to me to share similar experiences. I’m ashamed to say that it only really hit me, when it happened to me. The confusing thing is that I suffered, but I was complicit too. 

Saying sorry

As the internal investigation began in January 2023, I was determined to reach out to each of the staff I’d worked with*. I had deep regret that it had taken me so many years to do this. I knew what I had done was wrong and I wanted to say sorry. I asked them to share their experience working with me as their manager. I asked if and how I had hurt them and then I apologised. 

The process terrified me, I fought against it as I defended my actions to myself. At points I was overwhelmed with shame. Yet I came to see that if I wanted to live as a light in the darkness, this was the only way. One thing I didn’t expect was that their grace to me led to a sense of lightness and freedom that I hadn’t felt in years; for that I am truly grateful. 

I want to apologise publicly for my part in a culture that I now see as unhealthy and damaging to individuals. In my opinion we forced resignations when staff no longer fitted, used HR practises to manage people out rather than help them grow and improve. What I did was wrong.

I’m convinced that how we treat people says everything about the God we believe in. As I look back over the last 20 years I am increasingly having to unlearn what I thought was leadership - excellence over dignity, image over goodness.

Over the last two decades, I kept quiet out of fear, I didn’t fight for those in my care, I didn’t confront wrongs that happened and even worse I enabled them to happen. I treated people as commodities to further the image of the charity rather than human beings that deserved dignity. For this I am truly sorry.  

UCCF declined to comment on the issues raised in this article

*Correction: I previously stated that “I was determined to reach out to each of the staff I’d worked with”. After writing the article I realised there were still two South East staff members who had joined in the last three months before I went on maternity leave that I hadn’t yet reached out to. I have now sought contact with each of these staff and am grateful to one of them for rightly requesting I issue this correction.