Denominational Response to John Howard Yoder Legacy

Ervin Stutzman
Ervin Stutzman is executive director for Mennonite Church USA

In a recent article for Equipping, I announced that Sara Wenger Shenk and I are proposing a denominational response to the painful and complex legacy of sexual abuse perpetrated by John Howard Yoder (JHY). Sara is president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., where Yoder once served as a president and professor.

We are convening a discernment group to guide a process that we hope will contribute to healing for victims of JHY’s abuse as well as others deeply hurt by his harmful behavior. We hope this work will lead to church-wide resolve to enter into lament, repentance, and restoration for victims of sexual abuse by other perpetrators as well.

We believe that this process will work best logistically if the discernment group is small and the list of persons consulted is large. After the group begins its work, we will draw up more specific goals as hoped for outcomes of our work.

Four people have joined Sara and me to form the discernment group to guide this process:

  • Linda Gehman Peachey is familiar with some of the victims; she heard their stories while serving as director of women’s advocacy for Mennonite Central Committee U.S. in Akron, Pa.  In that role, she helped to arrange support groups and provided resources for victims of abuse, as well as resources for church leaders on ways to prevent and respond to abuse.
  • Chuck Neufeld is conference minister for Illinois Mennonite Conference. He brings both personal and professional knowledge of sexual abuse issues to the group, and artistic gifts to help the church move toward healing.
  • Ted Koontz is a long-time professor at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, a former colleague of Yoder, and one who values many of his contributions to peace theology. Encounters with some of those wounded by Yoder’s abusive behavior have given Ted a deep desire to help heal these wounds and an appreciation for the need to integrate theology and spiritual formation.
  • Regina Shands Stoltzfus is a professor at Goshen (Ind.) College. As a founder of the Damascus Road antiracism training, she brings particular expertise in the analysis of various forms of oppression, along with a passion for healing and reconciliation.

Throughout the process, Carolyn Holderread Heggen will serve as an advisor to the group. She is the author of Sexual Abuse in Christian Homes and Churches, published by Herald Press. Carolyn was one of the eight women who in 1992 went to the General Secretary and other leaders of the Mennonite Church to share their personal stories of violation by Yoder. She helped develop the eight steps the women asked the church and AMBS to take to protect others from Yoder’s abusive behavior and to hold him accountable.

In addition, Carolyn has heard, both in this country and internationally, the stories of many other women abused by Yoder. She has been an advocate and support for other victims of abuse and one of the church’s leading voices on sexual abuse, its prevention and the path to healing beyond the violation.

As a group, we intend to listen carefully to those most deeply affected by Yoder’s harmful behavior, and to seek the counsel of people who were closely connected with Yoder’s discipline process. I will lead the group on behalf of Mennonite Church USA, under the supervision of Moderator Elizabeth Soto Albrecht and the larger Executive Board. Our group will also report to the Constituency Leaders Council and to the broader church as appropriate. We covet your prayers, so that we may lead with grace as well as truth. May God’s healing and hope indeed flow freely through our church to the world.