Former Staffers of Relevant Magazine Say They Loved the Mission, but a Toxic Culture Tested Their Faith

A recent Relevant magazine cover. Screengrab

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.”

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.

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.

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Source: Religion News Service