Rocked by allegations of abuse by its former pastor, Andy Wood, and a petition calling for San Jose-based Echo Church to release past employees from non-disclosure and non-disparagement agreements (NDAs), the church today defended the practice.
“Some of our separation or termination agreements in the past asked employees to agree ‘to not to disparage or slander the reputation of the church, its directors, pastors and staff, or any church members/attendees’ and also stated that the church ‘agrees to abide by this same condition’ toward the staff member,” Echo stated on its website.
“The heart of this was to serve as a reminder for the church and the Christian employee to act in a Christ-like manner, avoiding gossip and destructive slandering that causes division, rather than unity.”
However, a group called “Echo Survivors” say the church is using the NDAs to silence victims of abuse. And on Monday, the group launched a petition calling for Echo “to release all former employees from any non-disclosure or non-disparagement agreements that prevent former employees from telling their stories.”
The petition has nearly 700 signatures. Echo is a multi-site megachurch with an average attendance around 3,000.
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An investigation commissioned by Saddleback after hiring Wood cleared Wood of the allegations. However, some former staff allege victims’ voices were minimized to protect Wood and that many victims were silenced by NDAs.
Several former high-level employees at Echo confirmed with El Informe Roys (TRR) that they signed NDAs when they left Echo. Only one of the former employees under an NDA was willing to tell his story to TRR. Others said they could not, citing the NDAs.
In the newly released statement, Echo denied using NDAs to silence employees.
“No, Echo does not use NDA’s (sic) in this manner,” the website states. “In fact, Echo puts a lot of emphasis on staff safety, care, transparency, and professionalism.”
Echo noted that employees have access to passwords and personal information of church members. And it claimed the NDAs “are not intended to prevent anyone from sharing their experience at Echo, whether positive or negative” but deal “specifically with information.”
At the same time, the church conceded that some separation agreements go beyond this purpose and deal with disparagement.
Echo did not address the petition’s request to release former employees from NDAs. However, Echo said it is having the agreements, which “were designed by a third-party HR company and is standard for many churches in America,” reviewed by another company.
Though NDAs can be legitimately used to protect intellectual property or personal data, abuse survivor advocates say NDAs are rarely needed in churches.
“Too often, these tools are used to silence people following abuse or whistleblowing” in churches, according to #NDAfree.org.
Diane Langberg, a Christian psychologist and advocate for abuse survivors, says the NDAs she’s encountered have “always been an agreement to exercise power over and hide sin.”
“In my experience, such a requirement is demanded for the sake of a system – usually a ministry of some sort,” Langberg wrote in a entrada en el blog. “So a Christian is asked to agree to cover-up wrongdoing for the sake of the system – or worse, for the sake of God’s reputation.”
In addition to addressing its NDAs, Echo’s website also includes instructions for its attenders on how to respond if people ask them about “accusations being made.”
Echo urges its people to “seek unity” by listening to the people with concerns, but warns, “Do everything in your power to avoid amplifying the problem, rather, seek solutions.” These include sharing one’s own experience with Echo and then encouraging the person with concerns to speak directly with a campus pastor.
Also featured on Echo’s website is a YouTube video by Echo School of Leadership Director Queen Quiocho, responding to concerns people have about the culture of Echo.
“In our time that we’ve been here, we haven’t had any reason to be worried, or even any sign of unhealthy,” Quiocho says.
“As a matter of fact, we’ve had a lot of people on our team who are really very transparent in sharing how they’re feeling, or maybe even asking questions about certain things they’re concerned about.
“And so, we love that Echo has a really great culture of transparency, and just openness and allowing people to come in and ask questions. . . . So ask us what you need to ask and we’ll do our best to get those answers to you.”
Video statement by Echo School of Leadership Director Queen Quiocho: