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EXCLUSIVE: Voice of the Martyrs Whistleblowers Tell of Retaliation & Board’s Alleged Sham Investigation

By Rebecca Hopkins
VOM Cole Richards

In 2022, Voice of the Martyrs (VOM) Field Leader FP Vanveen began asking his supervisors why VOM had suddenly cancelled several of Vanveen’s projects to help Christians in Africa. (FP is an abbreviation used to protect this source’s identity since he ministers in an area hostile to the gospel.)

Vanveen said that just months earlier, VOM President Cole Richards (a pseudonym used for similar reasons) had announced that the organization was flush with money and had encouraged employees to suggest projects, which Vanveen did. VOM leadership approved the projects, but then mysteriously cancelled them.

Vanveen said he thought his questions about the cancellations were reasonable. But instead of answering Vanveen’s questions, VOM fired him.

But what especially concerned Vanveen and his wife, Kim, a former editor at VOM, was the reason VOM gave for why it fired Vanveen. In a printed explanation obtained by TRR, VOM claimed Vanveen was fired for an attempted “data breach,” following an “investigation.” VOM said Vanveen “was unable to provide a reasonable explanation for why he had broken policy and sought to use another staff member to obtain unauthorized information.”

But Vanveen told TRR that VOM never told him he was being investigated, nor did anyone interview him for any such investigation.

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voice martyrs
Headquarters of The Voice of the Martyrs in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. (Photo: Facebook)

Kim Vanveen added that as VOM’s communications person, “I was asking these people for that sort of information all the time,” but she was never told about the investigation either.

The Vanveens believe the investigation was a sham designed to get rid of an employee who was trying to uncover something Richards wanted to keep secret.

When asked about the  Vanveens’ dismissal, Richards wrote that he can’t comment on personnel issues about any former employees and that some information is “security-sensitive” due to the dangerous places in which VOM operates. Richards added that he doesn’t fire people for being disloyal.

But Vanveen’s allegation isn’t the only one we’ve received alleging retaliation or misconduct by VOM’s top leader.

In our first article, we reported whistleblowers’ allegations that Richards’ lied about his missions background, pushed out the former president, and retaliated against employees who voiced dissent. In our second article, we detailed instances in which whistleblowers say Richards prioritized VOM’s public image over care for persecuted Christians. And in this article, we report allegations by multiple employees that questioning a VOM budget crisis led to their dismissal.

Questions about budget precede firing

At the beginning of 2022, VOM projected a budget of $100 million, said former regional director Sean Paton. And in February, Richards told international ministry (IM) staff to open the floodgates on overseas projects, said FP Vanveen, and former field leaders Derrick Stewart and Jacob Freeman. (Paton and Freeman are using their VOM pseudonyms because they still work in countries hostile to Christianity.)

But in April, Richards told the leaders of VOM’s International Ministry Council (IMC) that due to sudden budget constraints, VOM was reneging on promised funds for projects, according to Paton.

At an all-staff meeting,  Richards “spun” the sudden budget shortfall, saying that VOM had “over-demonstrated” how it could spend $100 million, said Paton, who took notes of the meeting. Months later, Richards blamed the shortfall on unforeseen global forces like the Russia-Ukraine war, according to a recording of an International Ministry meeting obtained by TRR.

cole richards VOM martyrs
Cole Richards, president of The Voice of the Martyrs, poses at the Martyrs Memorial at the group’s headaquarters in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. (Photo: VOM)

In late May 2022, Jonathan Ekman, the pseudonym used by VOM’s vice president, told IM leaders in a recording obtained by TRR that only projects of “immediate need” could be funded because VOM’s giving was down.

But Ekman confirmed in the same recording that many VOM staff were getting bonuses and that VOM had added 20 staff in the previous six months. Ekman added that the board had approved a line of credit to “build a building” that could be paid over 18 years.

Later, Richards told staff that the correct terminology to use when talking about the building project must be “necessary extension to an already existing building,” said Freeman.

Richards told TRR that VOM’s growth “required us to expand both our operations center and office building.”

But FP Vanveen said Richards’ explanations didn’t add up.

Vanveen wondered why VOM couldn’t send a promised $600 to a persecuted Christian in Niger but reportedly allocated $6 million for Bibles in Iran.

VOM’s spokesperson Jon Wilke didn’t confirm the exact amount spent for Bibles in Iran in 2022. But according to VOM’s 2022 audit, the ministry spent $11.78 million on Bibles in restricted nations that year, similar to what it had spent in 2021. Wilke added, “Any increased project funding for Bibles distributed in Iran was offset by reductions in Bible distribution projects in other hostile areas and restricted nations.” 

But Vanveen said the amount spent for Bibles in Iran seemed too high, considering past Bible projects there. So, Vanveen asked an assistant who worked for VOM’s Middle East regional office how many Bibles VOM had funded in Iran for the past 15 years.

Both Vanveen and his wife, Kim, told TRR that Richards found out about FP Vanveen’s inquiry and asked Vanveen if he was a spy for Open Doors, a different ministry for persecuted Christians.

VOM voice martyrs
Graphic representing Voice of the Martyrs work overseas (Image: screengrab)

Richards then fired Vanveen. Kim said Richards threatened to fire her, too, if she didn’t resign on the spot.

Richards denied he ever said anything about FP Vanveen being a spy for Open Doors and said he wouldn’t publicly discuss FP Vanveen’s firing because he had promised Vanveen he would keep the matter private.

However, former VOM field leader Jacob Freeman told TRR that he confronted Richards about the spy claim and Richards admitted he asked if Vanveen was a spy but didn’t accuse him of being one.

Richards also told TRR that while contributions dropped from 2021 to 2022, VOM used donations from late 2021 to prioritize international ministry and persecution response.

“VOM executed the full, board-approved international ministry budget in 2022,” he wrote to TRR. “The 2022 budget was approved at our November 2021 board meeting, and there was not a mid-year 2022 decrease to the international ministry budget . . . By year-end, VOM had spent more funds on international ministry in 2022 than in any previous year in the organization’s 55-year history.”

Richards also said the Evangelical Council of Financial Accountability (ECFA) visited VOM following the accusations and said VOM is a member in good standing.

(ECFA similarly visited Harvest Bible Chapel in 2018, following allegations of financial misconduct there, and likewise said Harvest was a member in good standing. The next year, after firing disgraced Harvest Pastor James MacDonald, the church commissioned a financial review, which found MacDonald had misused millions.)

VOM has also published its recent independent audits on its website, which “were in accordance with accounting principles.”

Richards said staff “misunderstood things” and “didn’t seek information from the right sources because we have excellent financial management here.”

Board’s investigation questioned

The Vanveens said VOM Board Chairman Harvey Little asked to meet with them to discuss their concerns about the firing. The summer of 2022, Stewart and Paton also met with Little individually about their concerns regarding Richards’ leadership.

The board invited Paton to present his concerns, Paton said. However, Paton texted Little the next month, informing him that four VOM staff were afraid of losing their jobs. When one of them was then fired, Paton told Little. Little texted back, saying he wasn’t looking for “evidence” but was waiting on “God’s response.”

Meanwhile, in late September 2022, Stewart said he told Little that VOM wouldn’t approve even the small project of paying $300 for medical bills for a single mom facing persecution in Syria. Stewart said Little didn’t ask for more information.

So, in November, Stewart created a survey to send to both former and current employees to gather more data about concerns. The survey found that more than 90% of those who answered were concerned about organizational dysfunction; 82% were concerned about narcissistic leadership; and 74% were worried about financial mismanagement.

After receiving 35 responses, Stewart emailed the survey to all current board members with a request for a third-party investigation. In his email, Stewart told the board that a few days after he’d disseminated the survey in early November, Richards had threatened to fire anyone who shared the survey link, slowing responses. 

cole richards
Cole Richards, president of The Voice of the Martyrs, in a promotional image. (Screengrab)

Stewart told TRR that no board member responded to his email. A week later, Stewart emailed the board again, asking for some sort of acknowledgement. Still nothing, Stewart told TRR.

The board, however, told TRR that in 2022, it conducted a “lengthy and rigorous” review of attempts to “discredit VOM’s leadership.” But only four of the whistleblowers—Paton, the Vanveens, and Stewart—said they had conversations with board members in 2022, and these conversations took place prior to their request for an investigation.

Most of the current employees who responded to the whistleblower survey gave anonymous answers, Stewart said, but Stewart said he used his name. In December, Stewart said a director of the International Ministry Council warned him to lay low.

Richards told TRR that he doesn’t retaliate against dissenters.

But in late January 2023, Stewart said Blake Martin, the pseudonym used by VOM’s chief of training and member care, invited him out for coffee. Stewart said Martin told him that Stewart would no longer be field leader, but could take a temporary, six-month role to work from home to develop training curriculum.

A few months later, Martin met with Stewart again, a recording of which TRR obtained. Martin defended the board’s handling of recent allegations. Then he gave Stewart a choice.

“If you want to stay at VOM, you’ll need to come before the IMC . . . you’re going to need to acknowledge you now believe those accusations are false,” Martin said at about the 58-minute mark.

Stewart said he couldn’t do it, so he lost his job.

Martin didn’t respond to TRR’s request for comment.

Paton resigned from VOM in 2022. But before he left, he spoke at a VOM chapel and described how “smart persecution,” which uses social, legal, and economic pressure to control Christians, works. Paton told TRR he wasn’t only calling out persecution in other countries, but describing what VOM does.

“They lie about who they are, they lie about what they are doing, and they lie about the people they are persecuting,” Paton said during the chapel. “There is no neutrality. And living not by lies . . . is costly.”

The day after TRR published its first article on Richards’ leadership, the VOM board wrote a public statement saying they “fully” support Richards.

“We see (Richards) striving to learn, receive correction, change and grow in order to better lead VOM,” they wrote on May 17. “The board is very pleased with the work of Cole and our leadership team! We fully stand behind them and are grateful to God for each of them and the value they, both individually and collectively, bring to this mission.”

This article has been corrected to accurately state details regarding a 2022 investigation by the VOM board and subsequent related communication. 

Rebecca Hopkins is a journalist based in Colorado.

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5 Responses

  1. Cole’s real name, [redacted], isn’t a well-kept secret; it’s been posted on Glassdoor and a few other places online. It seems [redacted] has put considerable effort into unsuccessfully removing his online profile.

    [redacted], aged [redacted] , resides [redacted] Oklahoma, where his wife, [redacted] works as a nurse. Before moving to [redacted], they lived in [redacted].

    [redacted]‘s photo and write-up are on page 386 of his US Air Force 1999 yearbook, available at [redacted].

    Interesting Tulsa County Court records involving [redacted] can be found at https://unicourt.com/%5Bredacted%5D
    [redacted] filed a lawsuit against Ashley Yang in May 2022, indicating he hasn’t legally changed his name.

    Furthermore, the name [redacted] is listed in The Voice of the Martyrs’ older IRS 990 forms as an executive before he began using his alias in 2017. Every 990 filed since 2017 has listed “Cole Richards” instead of “[redacted]” VOM doesn’t share their 2016 Audited Financial Statement on their website as it lists “[redacted].” Prior to 2015, 990s listed the previous CEO, James Dau.

    Questions arise: Why does the leader and representative of such a large Christian organization as VOM need to use an alias? Surely, he uses a passport for travel. Is it not illegal to sign IRS documents using an alias? Where does Cliff travel that requires him to obscure his name?

    So many questions. We will continue to dig and find answers.

  2. “had announced that the organization was flush with money”
    This says it all. No organization needs 100 million dollars to play with.

    The best help persecuted believers receive comes from other believers in their own culture, not from money originating from abroad. My first hand experience with persecuted believers in restricted access nations over decades has shown that influxes of cash from abroad create unwanted attention to believers who are already persecuted, increases their harassment by local authorities and fuels the existing perception that Christianity is a foreigners religion.

    And this doesn’t even touch on the obfuscation and opaque management practices mentioned in this article. How pathetic that an org with a $100 budget can’t even allegedly send $300 to a persecution mother in Syria. Friends, if VOM’s own staff can’t confidently say what’s happening with the money you the donor certainly can’t know either.

    Have said it before, will say it again: I would never give a penny to VOM because their whole premise as an organization is to raise funds off the stories of suffering brothers and sisters around the world. I am beyond disgusted with how they used my friend’s name, face and voice to raise money for their org while my friend had to go into hiding.

  3. The reality is that VOM has not been any kind of charity for decades, it has been a full-on dumpster fire. It has done what is evil: giving Mammon to multiple child molesters. Then after Tom White killed himself and the Nigerian VOM President was exposed for what they are, they did absolutely NOTHING with the hundreds of millions to help their victims. And people still give to this! The only solution is to stop giving. The dumpster fire will burn itself out. VOM has done this to the least of these. Jesus said quite clearly that they have done this unto Him. There is going to be hell to pay at the judgment for these things. Did not Jesus say something about millstones for those that stumble the children?

    1. Yup, Jesus did say that. I remember writing the blog, which I was a contract writer, so I was never employed directly by VOM. I made $1400 a month for 15 blog posts a week. I never used a fake name and when I covered a VOM conference on my own dime, I remember another employee of VOM asking me what my fake name was. I told them I don’t use a fake name. I found it interesting that everyone else uses a fake name for “protection reasons” but no one had any issues with me using my real name. VOM is also the known big brother bully to all other persecution ministries. When I wrote the blog I cannot count the number of times I cited Open Doors and other ministries like Mission Network News, only to receive messages from VOM staff telling me to change the story. I am praying this organization goes the way of the dodo bird. It’s abhorrent to the core and makes me wonder why certain Christian talk show hosts continue to promote ministries. Oh, I know… follow the money.

      1. The hosts are malignant narcissists just like “Cole” and Dau. At least Dau used his real name. The only reason for most of these people to not use their real names is because it is a scam and most of the money does not go to either charity or persecuted peoples. Criminals use aliases all the time for obvious reasons. The one VP is a convicted embezzler so of course he does not want to use his real name. Proof enough that embezzlement is going on…

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