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Former staffers loved Relevant’s mission, but a toxic culture tested their faith

A recent Relevant magazine cover. Screengrab

(RNS) — When Rebecca Marie Jo secured her job at Relevant magazine, she was elated.

Having already worked with media professionals in New York City, she was “really excited, really optimistic, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed” about the chance to work at the “perfect place” to continue her career — a trendy publication that targeted young evangelical Christians like herself.

It was a place where she could put her faith and her skills as a journalist to work to share “God’s movement in the world” with a new audience.  

“Imagine my disappointment when I realized that Cameron Strang would make that impossible,” she said.

Marie Jo, who worked as a managing editor at the magazine, is one of several former Relevant staffers who have come forward in recent days to detail harrowing accounts of working at the publication — specifically their interactions with its CEO, Strang, who founded Relevant Media Group in 2000 when he was 24.

Strang took a leave of absence this week after several former Relevant editors — Andre Henry, Marie Jo and Ryan Hamm — alleged in a series of posts and interviews that Strang made racially insensitive comments and committed “spiritual abuse” during their time there. He did not deny the allegations when he published an apology Monday (Sept. 23) for past behavior, announcing that he intended to step away from the magazine for “an extended period of time to engage a process of healing, growth and learning.”

Recent Relevant magazine tweets include an apology from founder Cameron Strang. Screengrab

But several former Relevant employees told Religion News Service this week that they were skeptical a sabbatical would be enough to change Strang, who they say operated largely without accountability in his role at Relevant.

They say the avalanche of accusations is part of a reckoning that follows a larger, yearslong pattern of Strang treating employees in ways they describe as erratic or toxic. Their concerns about their former boss are not limited to remarks about race or gender but include allegations of Strang berating staffers in front of colleagues, making insensitive comments, insisting employees work grueling hours and even firing a staffer he declared to be a curse — all at a place that presented itself as a Christian institution.

“(Strang was) extremely controlling and manipulative — the best word I can think for it is emotionally abusive,” David Barratt, who worked at Relevant as a web developer from 2010-2012, told RNS.

Relevant was supposed to be a different kind of Christian publication.

The magazine burst on the scene in the early 2000s with a mix of faith, pop culture and idealism aimed at reaching 20-something evangelical Christians. A 2003 profile of the site at EthicsDaily.com quoted the magazine’s editors as saying at the time, “We want to speak to an audience of independent thinkers, ones that were raised on pop culture, are hungry for God but don’t embrace dead religion.”

The current website for the magazine touts Relevant as a “catalyst for change.” 

“We are people who want to live well — outwardly, spiritually, creatively and intentionally. We are daily seeking to show how God is at work in the world and in our generation.”

Former staffers told RNS that while Relevant produced content they are proud of, internally it fell short of those ideals.

Several former employees expressed ambivalence about singling out Strang but insisted that more than a decade of internal strife at the organization could be traced back to him.

“The best thing to happen for Relevant is that Cameron would leave permanently,” Barratt said. “But he can’t do that, because Relevant and Cameron are the same thing. They are one and the same.”

RNS reached out to Strang and Relevant repeatedly for comment on the accounts of former staffers and their descriptions of the magazine’s organizational structure. Strang did not respond, and Jesse Carey, a current editor at the magazine, replied only by referring to statements published earlier this week by Relevant and Strang.

“Cameron Strang is currently taking a leave of absence, and we are respecting his privacy at this time,” Carey said in an email.

Relevant founder Cameron Strang in 2014. Video screengrab

Meanwhile, former employees say Strang’s erratic behavior dates back to at least 2008, when multiple sources allege that an employee was fired after being accused of having a negative spiritual impact on the office. 

“The smoking gun was an instance that happened where (Strang) fired an employee and told the employee that he thought they were a curse,” recalled Tim Dikun, who worked at Relevant in various capacities as a designer and manager from 2007-2010. “It wasn’t just about their job performance, it was about the effect they had spiritually on the office.”

Theresa Dobritch, who served as Strang’s assistant from 2008-2012, corroborated the “curse” incident. She said around the time of the firing, Strang’s father, Stephen Strang, the publisher of Charisma magazine, a publication aimed at Pentecostal and charismatic Christians, arrived in the office with a group of colleagues.  

They then appeared to “pray out the evil” from the location, she said.

“No one knew what to do,” Dobritch said. “It was so bizarre.”

A representative for Stephen Strang said he “has nothing to do with running Relevant and has never been involved in any firing,” adding that the elder Strang “cannot confirm the story” but has “huge doubts” about whether it is true. When told there were multiple sources who claim they observed the event, the representative said that while Stephen Strang sometimes “visited with various staff members when he came to meet Cameron,” he “has no recollection of this 11-12 years ago.”

Staffers alleged that even though Cameron Strang sometimes described their work as a ministry or invoked spiritual language, he regularly made inappropriate comments during editorial meetings and disparaged his subordinates.

Rebecca Marie Jo. Photo via @rebeccamariejo/Twitter

Marie Jo claimed that Strang once described a television character as a “whore” in a conversation with staffers and that she regularly felt “belittled” and “demeaned” by him when pitching story ideas. In response, Marie Jo said, she eventually stopped making suggestions during meetings out of fear that she would trigger one of Strang’s outbursts, which she said fluctuated wildly depending on his mood.

“It was black and white, Jekyll and Hyde,” she said.

When another staffer, who asked to remain anonymous, was asked to describe her experience working at Relevant, she said she often turned to God in prayer — not in praise, but out of desperation.

“I would drive into work every morning and start praying the Lord’s Prayer, because I had no idea if this was going to be a good Cameron day or a bad Cameron day,” she said.

Andre Henry. Photo via @andrehenry/Twitter

Andre Henry, a former Relevant editor who sparked the conversation about Relevant with a blog post last week, said he believes many alleged issues that plagued Strang’s leadership — including racial insensitivity — are endemic to white evangelical culture.

“Relevant has one guy who the business is built around — his personality and charisma — and wields absolute power,” he said. “I think evangelical churches are often built around the charisma of one personality, and that person holds a lot of power. They’re the gatekeeper of what content suits their brand, and shy away from some hard social justice subjects.”

Staffers repeatedly expressed frustration with what they viewed as Strang’s lack of accountability. They said the organization does not have a board of directors, and human resources duties were often handled by Strang’s former wife or assistants such as Dobritch.

Dobritch said her HR duties consisted primarily of fielding vacation requests.

“I had no training,” Dobritch said. “If someone had a problem, basically I would console them. … We just kind of mourned together.”

Dobritch noted that while she was never the victim of Strang’s alleged ire, she witnessed its impact on other people.

“I sat right outside of his door for years, and I saw some of the most brilliant, talented people turn into some of the most dejected, beaten down professionals I’ve ever seen,” she said.

She noted that turnover at the organization was high while she was there, including a span where “a person was fired every month.” Even so, she said she and others continued to work at Relevant out of dedication to the magazine’s Christian mission.

“I think I thought of us almost like martyrs,” she said.

A recent Relevant magazine cover. Screengrab

Former employees say the lack of a formal HR department created ripple effects throughout the workplace. Barratt said Strang’s work expectations at Relevant resembled the widely criticized “crunch culture” in the video game industry, where employees say they are forced to work intense hours near a deadline without overtime pay. 

Barratt said he once worked more than 120 hours of overtime over the course of a few weeks, including one 36-hour shift.

But according to an email Barratt provided to RNS, when he expressed a desire for compensation from Strang and sent him an email with a spreadsheet detailing his hours, the CEO repeatedly criticized Barratt’s choice to copy a colleague on his email and referenced another employee who he said “regularly works crazy hours and in 4 years has never submitted one comp time request.” (Relevant did not respond to requests to confirm the authenticity of the email.)

Barratt alleged that despite his request, he ultimately only received one “comp day.”

“Every job I’ve had since (Relevant), I have been treated better than the way Cameron treated me, and I think it should be the opposite,” Barratt said in a follow-up interview. “How can nonbelievers be treating me more like Jesus would than Cameron does?”

Steven Linn, another staffer who worked at Relevant in various capacities from 2012-2016, corroborated Barratt’s account of intense overtime work. But Linn noted that, unlike Barratt, he was a part-time hourly employee and was “paid for his hours.”

Former editor Hamm recalled an incident in 2012 when staffers noticed that their health insurance claims were being denied. Employees soon discovered that health insurance simply hadn’t been paid, but they found themselves unable to remedy the situation, as Strang was allegedly out of the country on a trip with his wife.

“Obviously, paying health care premiums isn’t something that just doesn’t happen,” Hamm told RNS. “It was one of those situations where nobody knew what was happening.”

But for many former staffers, the greatest impact of their time at Relevant was enduring what they described as emotional and spiritual abuse enacted by Strang.

Marie Jo said she sunk into a depression after her time at Relevant. Others sought therapy while working there or after they left the magazine. Still others eventually left evangelicalism, or questioned faith altogether.

“I was like, if this is what a Christian company looks like, I want nothing to do with Jesus,” said Barratt, who said his experience at Relevant bolstered a period of religious questioning and now identifies as an “ex-vangelical.” He eventually embraced a different kind of Christian faith he described as “based on the gospel,” which he explained “is even stronger than I had before — but that’s in spite of Relevant.”

Most former staffers who spoke to RNS said they hope that Strang can change his ways. In his formal apology, Strang expressed regret “for my toxicity and insensitivity in leadership,” adding, “I don’t want to be that person anymore.”

But many former Relevant employees mix their hope with skepticism. They noted that he has taken at least two sabbaticals to reassess his life in the past — primarily for personal reasons — only to return and repeat the same behavior as before.

“I do not think that this is a problem that goes away after a couple of months of counseling,” Dikun said. “Unless he really commits himself to a very extended period of time under accountability and counseling and change, he’s not going to be able to return.”

Henry, for his part, argued that Strang should consider a “restorative justice process” in which the CEO could hear from former employees directly, and that giving up power of the organization could be a step toward redemption.

“I think that it actually might be good for Cameron to consider that maybe, of all his wonderful and brilliant gifts, his gift is not (being) CEO,” Henry said. “It could be an opportunity. … I don’t think it has to be a bad thing.”

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