The Rift That Could Tear Apart the Post-Mormon Community
There is a storm brewing among the de facto leadership of the ever growing post-Mormon community. For the uninitiated, it started with a hiccup last November and it has crescendoed to an acid reflux induced vomit fest that likely won’t stop until the last little bit of bile is ejected from those involved. It is the classic situation where no one is innocent and everyone is probably overreacting just a teeny bit. The stakes are undoubtedly high, there are literal livelihoods at stake in this battle of egos. But livelihoods can be replaced, people can adapt and adjust to meet their financial needs. Where there is real risk for damage is in reputation. Not just for the individuals involved, but for the post-Mormon community as a whole. Those that care, Mormon and post-Mormon alike, are watching. So, here’s to hoping we can set an example of how disputes like this are handled.
In November 2016 Kate Kelly, a Utah based attorney and activists (who also happens to have been excommunicated from the Mormon Church for publically advocating for gender equality for the faith she grew up in and dedicated more than 30 years of her life to), made a public post on Facebook calling out fellow excommunicant John Dehlin for allegedly mistreating one of the female podcasters that was working at the time for Open Stories Foundation (OSF), a non-profit organization whose self-proclaimed mission is ‘[t]o promote understanding, healing, growth, and community for people experiencing or impacted by religious transition’.
OSF was founded by Dehlin (who has a Ph.D in Clinical and Counseling Psychology from Utah State University) on the back of his wildly successful podcast by the name of Mormon Stories. The basic concept of OSF is to provide a platform for a variety of Mormon related podcast that are meant to provide comfort and entertainment to people with an interest in Mormonism and/or who are going through the painful experience of a transitioning out of the religion.
OSF actively petitions listeners to donate to the 501(c)(3) in order to keep the podcast running. A cursory review of the financial statements through 2015 shows a steadily growing stream of donations accompanied by a steadily growing stream of expenses. The biggest single expense of the organization is the compensation received by its founder, John Dehlin, who saw his pay for services go from 37k in 2011 to 91k in 2015. Little is known about how compensation is determined for Dehlin or the other podcasters outside of public statements made by Dehlin himself. He says that there is a Board of Directors (of which he is a part of) who determines how all contractors are paid and that the amount of money is tied to the number of downloads a particular podcast gets. This is an interesting model because not being tied to a revenue stream could theoretically cause a successful (in terms of downloads) podcast to financially ruin OSF. But I digress.
Back to the Kate Kelly Facebook post from November of 2016. Kelly made the claim that not only had Dr. Kristy Money, a licensed psychologist, not been compensated for her work on the Mormon Transitions Podcast (part of the OSF family) but that her lack of compensation was due to discriminatory actions on the part of John Dehlin, up to and including gender discrimination. The post and the ensuing comments were so full of hyperbolic rhetoric and salacious accusations that any legitimate points brought up by the original complaint began to get lost in the shuffle. Two camps quickly began to form, those that thought John Dehlin was the bee’s knees and that Kate Kelly was a whiney brat* and those that felt Dehlin was systematically mistreating women.
*I regret using this word as it has connotations that I did not intend to convey, but I recognize them and I could have used a better word
One interesting thing that came to light during this squabble in November was how John Dehlin faces his detractors. The general consensus is that he simply blocks and ignores those that don’t toe the line. Apparently he has been doing this for a long time, but the tactic gained widespread attention when he took it against Kate Kelly as opposed to facing the charges head on. He made a mediocre response to her accusations, blocked her, and moved on as if she never existed. It seems Dehlin hasn’t realized that with a public profile comes a duty and responsibility to address the critics, especially if you are the founder and primary beneficiary of a non-profit organization. Of course, he can block and ignore all he wants to, but there will be pushback to those kinds of tactics and they will be justified.
The conversation raged for a couple of days and then seemed to die down. There was some indication that Dehlin and Money were working out their differences behind the scenes and that seemed to satisfy most, at least publically. Before the end of 2016 Kristy Money quietly exited OSF and went on to start her own independent podcast. This was done with little to no fanfare and whatever beefs there were between her and OSF seemed to have been smoothed over at least to the point where there could be an amicable breakup.
Cue May 20, 2017. Kristy Money makes a public post on her Facebook page responding to what she says are lots of people asking her what happened with her departure from OSF. In her post she lays bare several claims of injustices that she witnessed while working for OSF. One of those claims was, of course, an unfair compensation plan for the podcasters. But it was some of the other claims that really caught people’s attention. While acknowledging that OSF has been a force for good in many people’s lives, she made the claim that Dehlin and OSF are not being fully transparent about their finances, specifically about John’s compensation. The accusations are not specific, but that is a component of the complaint, that there is no transparency as to where excess funds are going and what all of the fringe benefits there are for Dehlin.
Kate Kelly was already a controversial figure prior to her November 2016 post, even among Exmormons, but Kristy Money, by and large, enjoys a very positive reputation and is generally well received by most in the Mormon and post-Mormon community. When she made this post, many ears perked up. Many loyal supporters of John and OSF took a step back and reflected for a moment. Many of them had summarily dismissed Kelly’s November post simply based on the way it was worded and who it was coming from. But Kristy got their attention. Even some of John’s own volunteers chimed in expressing that, at a minimum, OSF had legitimate questions to answer. Of course this was followed by another round of John blocking people, including Alyson Draper, an attorney who also happened to be one of the administrators of the popular Mormon Stories Podcast Community Facebook Page.
Within a day Kate Kelly threw her hat in the ring once again with a scathing Facebook post which outlined her call to action against John Dehlin and OSF. Again, the vitriol and hyperbolic rhetoric reared its ugly head and quite possibly turned off some of the Dehlin supporters who were started to feel that there were some legitimate questions to be asked.
But what should not get lost in this shuffle is the fact that there are legitimate concerns with OSF and transparency. What should also not get lost (Kate, I am talking to you) is that just because there are questions does not mean that OSF should be reported to every regulating body that would possibly have an interest in them. Now, maybe the answers to the concerns, or lack thereof, could lead to that being the course of action, but right now, we have no evidence of wrongdoing and even if wrongdoing is uncovered, that does not automatically meant OSF needs to be anally probed by every government agency. The wrongdoing could simply be in the form of poor management and OSF would have to address that or face a deserved dip in donations.
John, you are not off the hook either. Even if a number of people can agree that the tactics employed by Kate (and possibly condoned by Kristy) are over the top, there are legitimate concerns that must be addressed. You cannot throw out the baby with the bath water. You cannot solve this problem by blocking those that disagree with you (please don’t block me!!!).
For better or for worse you chose to operate OSF as a non-profit. With that comes accountability. You can’t not have released your 2016 financial at the end of May and expect people to just keep quiet. An organization of the size of OSF should have their financials ready within a matter of days, maybe even hours of the year having ended. Not having that could be a result of poor accounting practices throughout the year that requires cleanup, it could be laziness and procrastination or it could be a test to see how long you can go without releasing them. I suppose it could be a combination of any or all of those options as well. But the idea that there was some need to extend the tax reporting deadline just does not have the ring of truth. What possible reason could an operation the size of OSF have for needing to extend their IRS filing?Whatever the reason is, it is unacceptable to not have released your financials by now. This does not mean that something nefarious was going on, but stop the excuses and admit it is unacceptable. I can think of no legitimate reason why the financials have not been released yet (being busy is not a legitimate reason). Billion dollar corporations don’t take this long without a legitimate reason. I personally have prepared the financials of a non-profit with $2 million-plus in annual revenue and it took me a matter of hours (super clean books).
There are also legitimate questions as to compensation. Now, I don’t care how much you actually make or how much or little your podcasters actually make. I care about the disclosure of those figures. When I hear that you have a base salary with insurance paid for on top of that, that is a huge red flag for me. You have now adopted the language of the organization that has caused so much damage that brought about the very existence of OSF! OSF is not a private employer. You don’t have the luxury of not fully disclosing all financial gain for every individual involved. So, what are the things that OSF pays for? Cell phone bill? Meals? Travel? Utilities? Anything else? Again, there is nothing saying that OSF can’t pay for these thing and more. But the people you are claiming to serve deserve to know. They deserve to know what they are donating to.
There is also the issue of your wife receiving compensation from OSF. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. But you must answer the questions surrounding it. There is no privacy in this matter. So, is she on payroll? How much does she make? How is her compensation calculated?
How about your private practice? You offer sessions as a life coach at $200 an hour. I have no doubt that people benefit from these sessions. I even have a friend who credits your coaching sessions with saving his marriage. But this practice is inextricably tied to OSF. In fact, your bio on the OSF website links directly to your private practice page. Much of your rhetoric on your podcasts and during your retreats is geared towards steering people to that service. So, should you be more transparent about that? I am not saying you have to open the books on that business, but you have to at least acknowledge that OSF drives clients there. Do you see how saying that you make less than 100k per year from OSF sounds a little icky?
The most sensitive issue out there is the one dealing with a former female employee of OSF who filed some sort of complaint against you or OSF or both. Rumors seems to indicate that some sort of settlement was reached. Now, there are rumors surrounding this woman and what the nature of her complaint was, but I really don’t care. Where I think there has been a disservice is in an apparent cover-up of the situation. Was there a complaint? Was there a settlement? How was that settlement paid? Would a tithe payer not legitimately ask the same question of the Mormon Church?
How does this all play out in the end? John has control over his destiny on this matter. He claims he will be recording a podcast tonight in response to this whole situation and that it will be released at some point after the recording. He should think long and hard about what questions he answers and how he answers them. If he is open and honest with everything and there were some mistakes that were made, people will eventually forgive him. He may have some rebuilding to do, but he will survive. If it even appears like he is avoiding questions or being deceptive in his answers, we may very well be witnessing the beginning of the end of the most influential Mormon-related podcast to date.
Everyone loses if that happens.
Ryan McKnight has a Master’s Degree in Accounting from UNLV. He is a regulatory auditor for the government, an Adjunct Professor at the local Community College and the founder of MormonLeaks.io.