What Faith Leaders Need to Know
Working with whistleblowers is complex. Security and safety, vetting and legal support, staying private versus going public, psychological, emotional and spiritual health and more need taken into careful account. Bearing Witness offers free and reliable resources to clergy, faith leaders and faith communities so they can responsibly support those who witness immoral, unethical and illegal acts in government-associated workplaces and connect potential whistleblowers with experts.
Who Are Whistleblowers
A whistleblower might be any member of your congregation who has seen or experienced wrongdoing in their workplace and found the courage to disclose: (1) a violation of law, rule, or regulation; (2) gross mismanagement, gross waste of funds, or abuse of authority; or (3) a substantial and specific danger to public health or safety.
Whistleblowers play a valuable accountability role when officials feel they can flout the rule of law, ethical norms, and our nation’s balance of powers; increase political interference into the justice system; tamper with elections; unravel health, safety and environmental policies; censor information; misuse the military; improperly deal with foreign powers; and other abuses of authority and violations of law.
The Truth About Whistleblowers: Tackling Misperceptions
Despite the important role whistleblowers have played in bearing witness to and exposing abuses of power, historically the term “whistleblower” has had negative connotations, although that is changing. In a recent Marist poll, 86% of respondents strongly believe that whistleblowers who report corporate or government fraud deserve protection from harm. Still, misperceptions about whistleblowers and whistleblowing persist. Here are some additional truths you need to know to share with your congregations and organizations:
TRUTH #1: Almost all whistleblowers report concerns internally first. Most employees who witness wrongdoing in the workplace stay silent. The first reason for silence is cynicism, or the belief that disclosure will not make a difference. The second reason is fear of retaliation. Of those who do decide to speak up, over 95% of them try to solve the problem internally first.
TRUTH #2: Most employees are legally considered “whistleblowers” when they first raise concerns internally, such as to a manager or supervisor. While some whistleblower protection laws require employees to report concerns to specific government entities to be protected from retaliation, the majority protect disclosures made internally first, which is consistent with how most employees first report misconduct. It is a misperception that whistleblowers are only employees who make disclosures to the press.
TRUTH #3: Whistleblowers are typically motivated by a sense of moral or civic duty influenced by their faith as well as the seriousness of the misconduct or degree of harm. Contrary to popular belief, it’s not about the money. Some corporate-specific whistleblower laws offer whistleblowers a percentage of the portion of money recovered as an incentive for reporting. Yet it’s rare that a whistleblower receives a monetary reward, and most non-financial whistleblower protection laws — those that cover government employees and the many others — do not have award provisions.
TRUTH #4: Disclosing evidence of wrongdoing is not a crime. It is a legally protected right. That is true for virtually every whistleblower. One exception; Intelligence Community (IC) whistleblowers are unique, as they have very few legal protections and immense vulnerabilities. In these cases, the whistleblowers often must choose to commit a crime—revealing classified information—in order to report more significant crimes. This ethical catch-22 may leave whistleblowers feeling even more conflicted and in need of spiritual guidance.
The Importance of Faith Leaders
Pews are filled with employees across the spectrum of federal, state and municipal agencies, law enforcement, scientists and essential workers, political parties, government contractors and more who may find themselves in the unenviable position of bearing witness to, or being compelled to engage in or cover up, what they believe is wrong.
Whistleblowers may feel conflicted about speaking out in the face of witnessing wrongdoing, knowing that doing so can invite retaliation and harm to one’s profession, family, privacy, and relationships in their workplace and even their faith communities. In need of spiritual, emotional and expert support, potential whistleblowers will often seek guidance from those they trust and can speak to in confidence.
Many will turn to clergy. Clergy, bound by strict legal and moral confidentiality, are important confidants for their communities, filled with employees from across the spectrum of federal, state and municipal agencies, law enforcement, scientists and essential workers, political parties, and government contractors.
Clergy must be well-prepared to counsel these friends, neighbors and congregants in precarious and compromised work situations to help them navigate these complex situations. Likewise, whistleblowers need their faith communities to understand and affirm the essential role truth-tellers play as catalysts for accountability and justice. This call to bear witness is nonpartisan and multi-faith.
Clergy Privilege and Ethical Norms
Legally, in most U.S. states, private communications between clergy and whistleblowers are privileged, meaning they can remain protected from disclosure even during litigation, with some exceptions. This is often referred to as the clergy-penitent or priest-penitent privilege; it is also known as the clergy privilege, the confessional privilege, the clergy–communicant privilege, the ecclesiastical privilege, confidentiality of communications, or “trusts” of confidences, and is similar conceptually to the attorney-client privilege. Whistleblowers are likely to be aware of the concept of this privilege, putting faith leaders and clergy in the unique position of being the first, or only, person to whom a whistleblower may disclose. In the event that a whistleblower comes forward to faith leaders or clergy, they should encourage whistleblowers to seek legal guidance and treat the disclosures as confidential and privileged for the protection of the individual.
In addition, clergy and other faith leaders have specific oaths and contracts with their religion and institution, most of which bind them in strict confidentiality when individuals come to them seeking spiritual guidance. These agreements are often unique to their faith and individual religious institution. When a whistleblower makes a disclosure to a faith leader or clergy person in the course of seeking spiritual advice, these leaders are ethically, as well as often legally, bound to confidentiality by these ethical codes of conduct.
Understand the Risk of Reprisal
Most federal and state whistleblower protection laws prohibit employers from retaliating against employees for reporting serious wrongdoing. The Whistleblower Protection Act applies to most federal workers, prohibits actions and threats against employees for disclosing scientific censorship that is, or would cause, any of the above forms of misconduct; it additionally protects employees who refuse to obey an illegal order.
That said, whistleblower laws are complex, leaving some whistleblowers vulnerable to swift retaliation aimed at destroying the messenger, deflecting from the alleged misconduct, and deterring other employees from speaking up. No matter how righteous their intent, employees who speak out often suffer persecution.
Reprisals against whistleblowers can take a range of forms, including: retaliatory investigations, gag orders, removal of duties or resources, reassignment, public humiliation, surveillance, management efforts to recruit complaints by peers, poor performance appraisals, threats, harassment, termination, violence, and lawsuits for defamation.
Allies that support whistleblowers—including faith leaders, journalists and advocacy organizations—are also vulnerable to retaliation. It is important to consult with a legal expert before taking any actions that would implicate your religious institution or congregation. We remind you that the Government Accountability Project is well-prepared to offer free legal counsel.
Whistleblower Law is Complicated
As a faith leader, you should not try to offer legal advice to whistleblowers who come to you with disclosures. While various rights and remedies exist in both federal and state laws to encourage workers to blow the whistle on serious abuses, the legal landscape is complicated. No single law protects all whistleblowers; instead, a patchwork of more than 60 federal statutes and numerous state and local laws provide redress. Each law has different remedies, different procedural steps, and different paths for enforcement. Evaluating possible legal options requires analyzing the type of worker one is (government, contractor, private, union member, etc), which agencies are involved, the content of the disclosure, to whom the disclosure should be (or was) made, and what kind of reprisal was suffered.
All employees thinking about reporting misconduct should consult with experienced attorneys who specialize in whistleblower law to assess potential legal rights and remedies available at the federal, state and local levels. Importantly, because it can also be difficult to navigate the legal process once a particular path is chosen, it is best, if possible, to get responsible legal advice prior to making disclosures.
Anonymity: Challenges & Consequences
Many whistleblowers want to disclose information while maintaining their anonymity. However, anonymity is not always possible to ensure. Because the majority of whistleblowers raise concerns internally first, information is often tied to an employee's job duties and expertise. Thus, when information is disclosed publicly it has the whistleblower’s fingerprints on it, making it possible to discover the source’s identity.
When a whistleblower chooses to go public with their identity, it can be easier to show that their employer had knowledge of their whistleblowing, a necessary element in asserting their legal rights to fight retaliation. Going public can also help preempt retaliation, both by putting an employer on notice and by surrounding the whistleblower with allies—advocacy groups, journalists, champions in Congress, a lawyer and, of course, their faith community—who can help shift focus to the wrongdoing and effectively undermine efforts to vilify the messenger.
Due to limited privileges afforded journalists and public interest groups, whistleblowers should be wary of promises of absolute anonymity because it simply cannot be guaranteed. Congregants who come to faith leaders with disclosures should be encouraged to get advice from experienced lawyers.
Maintaining Trust With Whistleblowers
Often whistleblowers are bewildered and scared not only by the risks they have assumed, but by an alien world in which they find themselves. This is entirely new territory for people who do not think of themselves as whistleblowers and have no experience navigating the landscape of news, politics or advocacy tactics. Often, their place of worship is the only place they feel safe opening up.
Feeling heard is significant for whistleblowers to open up further and faith leaders have a unique aptitude for this. As a faith advisor to a whistleblower, you likely already have their trust. You can keep this intact by ensuring the paramount importance of their protection. Be clear about confidentiality from the beginning, including your commitment as a faith leader to maintaining it, along with any limits there might be in your ability to guarantee it. Take their disclosures seriously.
If the whistleblower is public in his/her disclosures, having the unwavering support of the congregation goes a long way in helping the whistleblower and their family feel nurtured and safe at a stressful and tumultuous time. It is why Bearing Witness is targeted not only to clergy and faith leaders, but faith communities as well.
As always, encourage whistleblowers in your congregation to reach out to a lawyer for expert support. In addition to analyzing rights, risks and strategies to maximize effective and safe disclosure, a lawyer can help issue warnings of zero tolerance for retaliation to an employer and also potentially protect witnesses who might support the whistleblower’s claims.
Check back here for a growing list of resources that include:
10 Talking Points for Faith Leaders
As leaders of faith communities across our nation, we encourage you to engage your congregations in support of potential government accountability whistleblowers in your midst. They are brave, they are scared, and they hold a healthy democracy in their hands. Here are 10 talking points to help you communicate why whistleblowers need and deserve the support of our faith communities:
1) We need a theology of “Just Work” to uphold the public trust. We are called to do our best, be fair and honest at work; treat our fellow workers with the respect we would want to receive; offer fair wages and safe working conditions; and be sure the goods and services we provide are worth what customers or clients pay for them. Workplace values don’t stop there. We are also called to bear witness to truth when the public trust is violated.
2) Our democracy needs truth-tellers in the workplace. Many are worried as never before about the fragility of our democracy. Government whistleblowers bear witness to the consequences of harmful policies, legal violations, crimes and coverups. Their words lead to accountability and justice serve as deterrents to future wrongdoing.
3) Supporting whistleblowing aligns with our faiths. It takes tremendous moral courage to speak truth to power and refuse to let crimes and injustices go unaddressed or covered up. Supporting whistleblowers and increased whistleblower protections strengthens voices of critical importance to democracy and aligns with our faiths’ values.
4) Whistleblowers are soul-searchers. Most whistleblowers will feel conflicted because they are among the most loyal employees. Some feel forced into silence; others want to come forward to reveal truth but do not know how. Many will find strength through faith to move past intimidation and fear, to break their silence for the common good.
5) Government whistleblowers are our friends and neighbors. Whistleblowers are Democrats, Republicans and Independents. They are multifaith. Our pews hold employees across the spectrum of federal, state and municipal agencies, law enforcement, scientists and essential workers, political parties, government contractors and more who may find themselves in the unenviable position of bearing witness to, or being compelled to engage in or cover up, what they believe is wrong.
6) Whistleblowers and their families undergo tremendous professional and personal stress — physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual. Whistleblowers who choose to speak out publicly can be met with swift retaliation aimed at destroying the messenger to deflect from the alleged misconduct and deter other employees from speaking up.
7) Working with whistleblowers is complex: There are many issues to consider: security, safety, verification, legal rights and options, effects on family, professional risks, privacy versus publicity, and more. Clergy and communities can only safely support and effectively counsel whistleblowers by becoming better informed and seeking expert guidance as needed.
8) Clergy are bound by strict legal and moral confidentiality and serve as important confidants. Clergy in particular need to be well-prepared to responsibly and responsively counsel friends, neighbors and congregants to navigate these complex situations. Clergy and whistleblowers also need the support of their faith communities in this calling.
9) Whistleblowers are modern-day Davids v. Goliath who deserve our support. Whistleblowers need their faith communities to understand and affirm the essential role they play in our democracy. As communities of faith, we are well-positioned to offer moral courage and kindness, replace isolation with solidarity, and offer a welcoming place of gratitude and support.
10) Bearing Witness offers free resources and expertise, tailored to clergy and faith communities, to help you effectively support whistleblowers and their families, and help them find pro bono legal support when needed.
Best Practices for Whistleblowers
Consult your loved ones.
Seek legal advice early from a Government Accountability Project lawyer or attorney
specializing in whistleblower law.
Maintain an ongoing and detailed written record of all events involved in your disclosure.
Consider working within internal channels if it will be effective, but do not let yourself be
perceived as a threat to your colleagues and employer.
Test the waters with work colleagues and attempt to garner their support if possible.
Identify potential allies, such as elected officials, journalists, agency staff, advocacy groups and faith leaders.
Don’t communicate with external allies during work hours or while using office equipment.
Use secure communication tools, like WhatsApp or Signal, to connect with external allies.
We Need a Theology of “Just Work”
By Brian McLaren
When I was a young boy growing up in an Evangelical Christian household, religion was about getting my soul from the sinking ship of earth to lifeboat of heaven. And getting safely into heaven was primarily about doing religious things like believing correct doctrines, praying, reading my Bible, going to church, and converting others.
But as I grew, I became less satisfied with that framework.
My spiritual migration has led me to see religion less as an evacuation plan and more as a transformation plan. Instead of asking how I can get “beamed up” to heaven, I’m asking a different question now: How can this earth become less of a hell, plagued by war, hate, fear, sickness, poverty, and ignorance, and more of a heaven, full of peace, love, joy, health, well-being, and wisdom?
My Jewish friends call this transformation process tikkun olam, repairing the world. Our shared Scriptures teach us that our most essential job as human beings is to join God in this transformative work by doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.
When I talk about this shift with friends of various religions, their eyes often light up. The details differ, but they have had a similar journey that led them from focusing on “doing religious things” to concentrating on doing everything — what we might call secular things — in a beautiful and transformative way.
Growing up, we had lots of theological specialties. Theology was the study of God. Hamartiology was the study of sin. Eschatology was the study of how the world would end. Ecclesiology was the study of the church.
But one thing I never heard being discussed, and that was a theology of “just work”. In these times, if we’re working for tikkun olam, we need a theology of work as never before. We need a theology of “just work” that gives meaning to the forty-plus hours we spend at our place of work.
We need a theology of “just work” that motivates us to do our best, to be fair and honest, to treat all our fellow workers with the respect we would want to receive, and to be sure the goods and services we provide are actually good enough and actually serve well enough to be worth what customers or clients pay for them.
But it’s possible to work hard for a government, company or profession that does harm, and so we need a theology of work that helps us working toward healing the world, rather than further damaging it.
Such a theology of “just work” would take seriously these words from C. S. Lewis: "The greatest evil is now conceived and ordered in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices.”
This theology would resonate with early religious teachings. Buddha’s teaching on right livelihood guides followers away from jobs or professions that do harm. The Buddha offered specific examples in his context of jobs to avoid: weapons manufacture and trading, human trafficking and enslaving, producing and selling meat or intoxicants, and making or selling poison. Similarly, according to The Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus, early Christian leaders required soldiers, pimps, idol-makers, actors, gladiators, and magistrates (among others) to find a different line of work if they wanted to be considered Christians.
A contemporary theology of just work would urge us to think about whether this or that job opportunity qualifies as “right livelihood” in our time and situation. Even more, among jobs that we would consider morally acceptable, this theology would help us consider the best ways to do this work. We would ask questions like these:
How should we pay and treat our employees? What is a living wage in our area, and what working conditions and leave provisions should we promise?
What is the window of pay inequality that we consider morally acceptable? Is it OK that the CEO is making 500 times the pay of the average worker?
Do we understand the morality of taxation, and have we figured out ways to pay our fair share for the commons, or the common good?
Are we working in the most ecologically responsible ways? How do we be restorative rather than exploitive of our fragile earth?
What is our bottom line? Is it profit or shareholder return alone, or do we care about other benefits that we bring to our employees, customers, and society at large?
And something more. The theology of “just work” that we need today would also take seriously the role of whistleblowers, truth-tellers who point out wrongdoing in violation of the public trust and refuse to let crimes and injustices go unnoticed or covered up.
In recent years, many of us have been worried as never before about the state of our democracy. If it weren’t for brave truth-telling whistleblowers who come forward about wrong-doing within and around the government workplace, we would not know about important crimes and injustices taking place in violation of our democracy.
I think about government officials who take bribes, violate laws and ethics; business leaders who cheat on their taxes or launder money. I think about the cover-ups. Why do employees who know what’s going on remain silent? Is it because they don’t care? Are they afraid? Do they not know where to turn?
I was faced with such a situation when I was a pastor. A member of my parish was a government expert in foreign policy. He had privately briefed a highly-placed government official on an important matter, summarizing the best intelligence from a variety of agencies. Later that day, he watched that official go public with a flagrant lie and misrepresentation of the briefing. His conscience was troubled by this lie to the American people. He went to his supervisor. His supervisor was afraid to speak up. He came to me wondering if I could offer guidance. I listened, but there were no manuals for clergy about how to guide a would-be government whistleblower through a fraught situation.
I knew this whistleblower was a voice of critical importance to democracy. I wish I had the resources back then that are available now. In light of recent threats to our democracy by those in and around the halls of power, a new whistleblower resource specifically written for faith leaders, clergy and communities, called Bearing Witness, gives us a framework to safely and responsibility provide spiritual care alongside sound informed counsel in the months and years ahead.
Working with whistleblowers is complex and much needs taken into careful account: security and safety, vetting and legal support, psychological and emotional support, the pro’s and con’s of publicity and more. This theology of “just work” equips us to help build ethical workplaces and helps prepare us for when things go wrong.
We are the faith communities in which these whistleblowers gather for strength and faith, and we are called to offer support through our own moral courage and kindness. Those driven by their faith to speak truth to power need the spiritual support of their faith leaders and communities. They are our modern-day Davids v. Goliath. The consequences of their courage can be dramatic. We are called to support, protect, and honor brave insiders who seek to tell the truth in the face of personal and professional cost. If not for them, far too many crimes, injustices and coverups will remain hidden, and even more will be successfully planned and implemented.
All of our faiths aspire to the moral courage shown by whistleblowers, and all of us who are clergy must stir our moral courage to stand with them. Otherwise, our faith communities are too heavenly minded (or perhaps too obsessed with self-preservation) to be of actual, down-to-earth good.
Sample Scripture and Faith-Inspired Quotes
Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens. [Exodus 18:21]
Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, and plead the widow's cause. [Isaiah 1:17]
When you tell the truth, justice is done, but lies lead to injustice. [Proverbs 12:17]
A truthful witness saves lives, but one who breathes out lies is deceitful. [Proverbs 14:25]
He has told you, O humanity, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? [Micah 6:8]
Rebuke your neighbor frankly so that you will not share in his guilt … love your neighbor as yourself. [Leviticus 19:17-18]
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. [Ephesians 4:25]
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. [2 Timothy 2:15]
Let there be among you a community calling to the good, enjoining right, and forbidding wrong. It is they who shall prosper. [Qur’an 3:104]
I heard the Messenger of Allah say, Whosoever of you sees an evil, let him change it with his hand; and if he is not able to do so, then [let him change it] with his tongue; and if he is not able to do so, then with his heart — and that is the weakest of faith. [Hadith 34]
Honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom. [Buddha]
There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting. [Buddha]
They bark and speak, telling only lies; all thought of righteousness has left them. Those who have no honor while alive, will have an evil reputation after they die. [SGGS p 1242 holy Granth, Sikh]