The new CEO of Habitat for Humanity International said he wants a “positive relationship” with his predecessor Millard Fuller, hoping to quell controversy that has divided the ministry’s donor base since Fuller was fired in January amid charges of sexual harassment and intimidation.
After being selected as Fuller’s replacement, 42-year-old Jonathan T.M. Reckford reportedly placed a call to the Habitat founder, who since leaving the non-profit homebuilding charity he started in 1976 has launched a similar organization called the Fuller Center for Housing.
According to the Ledger-Enquirer in Columbus, Ga., the two men met together for an hour last Friday. “I was not prepared to like the guy,” Fuller told the newspaper, “but he’s a very impressive man…. He wants to deal with me as an ally, as a friend. He clearly does not want to deal with me as an (enemy).”
Reckford, who officially takes over Habitat Sept. 12, told the newspaper that is true.
“It was important to me because I wanted to be respectful of the amazing legacy he created at Habitat, and it’s my desire to have a positive relationship with them,” he said. “I thought we had a good meeting.”
Habitat’s board of directors announced last Thursday their selection of Reckford, a successful businessman who for the last two years has served as executive pastor of the 4,300-member Christ Presbyterian Church in Edina, Minn., to head up the organization with a $200 million budget and 550 workers at its headquarters in Americus, Ga.
Before joining Christ Presbyterian, Reckford was president of stores for the Musicland division of Best Buy; senior vice president of corporate planning and communications for Circuit City; and director of strategic planning for Disney Design and Development.
“Henry Blackaby suggests we should take on God-sized tasks because then it is clear to everyone who deserves the credit,” Reckford said in a press release, quoting the Southern Baptist author of Experiencing God.
The Chronicle of Philanthropy characterized his move into full-time ministry two years ago as a decision to pursue a more “purpose-driven” career, a term popularized by best-selling author Rick Warren, also a Southern Baptist.
Reckford told EthicsDaily.com that Christian authors who have influenced his theology include Eugene Peterson, Dallas Willard and John Ortberg, who write about spirituality, along with Brian McLaren, whose 2004 book A Generous Orthodoxy is hailed as a manifesto of the “emerging church.”
But Reckford said most of his social-justice concern stems from his reading of the Gospels.
He said his motivation is best summed up by Micah 6:8, a call to “act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with your God.”
Reckford says he was a Christian in name only until 1987, when he spent a year in Seoul, Korea, on a Henry Luce Foundation Scholarship preparing for the 1988 Olympics. While there, he began meeting weekly with a friend, James Peterson, an ordained American Baptist minister also in Seoul as a Luce scholar, to explore issues of faith in depth.
Their experience of “walking through the Bible,” Reckford said, was the beginning of an exploration that led him to decide to begin a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Peterson, now a professor of theology and ethics at McMaster University Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario, said he is “delighted” for both Habitat and for Reckford.
“His evident gifts and experiences, head and heart, are a great fit for guiding Habitat,” Peterson told EthicsDaily.com. “He’s the right person at the right time to lead them. He will do well. Clearly the board prayed and did its homework.”
Reckford takes over the reins of Habitat at a critical time. In January the board fired Fuller, Habitat’s founder and chief executive, after an investigation into allegations that he inappropriately touched and made suggestive comments to a female employee during a ride to the Atlanta airport in 2003.
Fuller said the allegations were false and trumped up to get rid of him, because he wanted to expand Habitat’s overseas operations while the board wanted to retrench, the Washington Post reported in March. Board sources confirmed that the decision had less to do with the allegations than with a growing feeling that Habitat had grown beyond Fuller’s administrative ability and needed more skilled management.
While the Habitat board found evidence was insufficient to prove the sexual-misconduct claim, they fired Fuller anyway over a “pattern of public ongoing comments and communications” that were divisive and detrimental to the organization’s work.
Some Habitat supporters believed Fuller and campaigned to have him reinstated. After the board reaffirmed his dismissal in March, Fuller started a new organization to provide funding and technical support for local Habitat affiliates and other low-cost housing organizations. The new ministry, also based in Americus, Ga., was initially called Building Habitat, but Fuller changed it to The Fuller Center for Housing after Habitat filed a federal lawsuit alleging trademark infringement.
Several Habitat donors have contributed to the new ministry, which took in more than $2 million during its first four months.
The outpouring of support also prompted backlash, as a number of past Habitat employees came forward with charges of previous sexual harassment, intimidation and retaliation by Fuller. It was revealed that five women told the board in 1990 and 1991 that Fuller had made unwanted sexual advances toward them. The board came close to firing him them, before former President Jimmy Carter, Habitat’s most famous volunteer, intervened.
“Millard Fuller is a great man with great weaknesses, and a great capacity to hurt others,” former board president David Johnson Rowe wrote in the Summer 2005 Baptist Peacemaker.
“The same could be said about most people,” said Rowe, the former pastor of First Baptist Church in Pittsfield, Mass., who moved to Greenfield Hill Congregational Church in Fairfield, Conn., in 1997. “The problem is that from his days at Koinonia through the decades of Habitat to the very present, people have willingly covered up for those weaknesses and hurts. Now, at last, Habitat has said ‘enough is enough.'”
Hoping to put the past feuding behind, Reckford said the need for affordable housing is great enough that both groups can co-exist.
“The needs are so dramatic and so great that we really welcome every effort to bring more resources to bear on this huge goal of eradicating poverty,” he said in the New York Times.
Carter, who served as honorary chair of the committee that named Fuller’s successor, said his primary loyalty would remain to Habitat for Humanity, but he also would try to assist the Fuller Center and hoped the two groups could one day work in harmony.
One of the first big issues Reckford faces is whether the board will vote later this year to relocate Habitat from its roots in south Georgia to Atlanta.
Fuller told the Associated Press he thought moving is a bad idea. “You know, if you transplant a little bush or shrub it will live, but not a full-grown oak tree,” he said. Habitat for Humanity is like the oak tree, he said, and “there’s a good chance it will die” if it is moved.
Reckford will be paid $210,000 a year in salary to run Habitat. Fuller’s base salary was $79,000.
With 2,300 independent affiliates around the world, Habitat is the 17th-largest house building in the United States and the 18th-largest non-profit.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Managing editor at EthicsDaily.com from 2003-2009, Allen wrote more than 1,500 news stories during his tenure.