What is going on at UCCF?

Every year UCCF ensures that thousands of students at universities and colleges in the UK are given the opportunity to hear the gospel. In a recent 'Director's Update', Pete Dray, who at the time was Interim Director said, "I wonder whether, in the future, we might look back on this period as a kind of 'golden age' of student ministry."

Yet, recent reports suggest this golden fa├žade has been built on the back of unnumbered damaged lives.

According to the UCCF website, "On 20 December 2022 the UCCF Trust Board received a letter from a firm of solicitors representing individuals alleging multiple breaches of employment law by the charity, and misconduct on the part of some employees." Two senior members of staff, Director, Richard Cunningham, and Field Director, Tim Rudge, were suspended while an investigation was undertaken. Over fifty individuals contributed to the investigation on the basis that there would be strict anonymity.

Six months later the Board received the report. It has not been published but albeit that some of the allegations were not upheld, UCCF admitted at the time that serious questions had been raised about the lawfulness of their employment practices.

Buried in the initial 958-word statement were these words: "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."

The two senior employees returned to work, a new HR Director is about to start and UCCF returned to business, as if nothing had happened.

Yet, those watching carefully were raising questions about the stream of resignations from the Trustee Board of UCCF - including the Vice-Chair Jen Chateris, who said she couldn't give her reasons because of "significant legal constraints" - not to mention the lack of information about what had happened in the past or questions about their apology to those who had suffered.

Then stories started appearing in the press, first from those who felt complicit and wanted to apologise and then from those who had apparently been "pressured to resign" from their jobs "for the good of the ministry."

This week more claims have appeared in the public sphere. An alleged 2009 UCCF document entitled 'Legalities of Leavers' supposedly outlined a need for "leading" junior staff, known as Staff Workers, to hand in their resignation after three to four years in a way that would appear "mutual by consent" and protect the organisation from constructive dismissal claims.

Responding to these allegations, UCCF put out a confusing statement on Tuesday describing the 2009 document as "speaker notes for a talk by an employee for a leadership training session that month", and insisting that they were "not then, nor after, official policy".

If it had been official policy, it would suggest the view that these junior staff had a limited useful lifespan for the organisation and that, despite open-ended contracts, it was vital they did not overstay their allotted time.

The statement ended by saying, "We have fully accepted the findings of a recent independent investigation, specifically acknowledging the failings in relation to the termination of CU Staff Worker contracts of the kind described in this 2009 memo. We have apologised publicly to all concerned for past failings and have changed our employment practices."

If it wasn't policy, then why the need to change their employment practices?

Elsewhere in their statement, UCCF sought to distance themselves from any suggestion of wrongdoing.

"The culture and practices referred to in the memo are not what UCCF stands for. Today, UCCF has new trustees with senior HR, business, and governance backgrounds, and a new, highly experienced Director of People is commencing work in March," the organisation said.

New people may be coming on board but among many to whom I have spoken there are nagging worries that the culture has not changed.

Organisational culture is commonly defined as what an organisation celebrates and what it tolerates. In the past few weeks, UCCF has publicly celebrated the work of Cunningham. In this statement announcing his departure after 20 years, he is described as a visionary who "spearheaded" multiple initiatives and presided over "remarkable growth". Statistics abound in the statement as to the success of his ministry.

Cunningham then blames his decision to step down at the end of this academic year on the "huge strain on me and my family" as a result of the investigation. The impression it gives is that those who sought justice have brought a glorious ministry to a premature close.

There has been no similar celebration of those brave enough to tell their stories publicly and no personal apology to those who have identified themselves as survivors of this culture. Instead UCCF's recent messaging suggests that those who ask questions will be ignored or downplayed.

One ex-Staff Worker, who wishes to remain anonymous, told me, "I want student ministry to flourish but I really struggle to understand what is going on. If UCCF are saying they know what happened was wrong, why are they fighting so hard not to put things right?"

Susie Leafe is director of Anglican Futures, which supports orthodox Anglicans in the UK.