Mennonite Church USA issues response to DSA report, shares findings and recommendations

By Janie Beck Kreider

“…so that God’s healing and hope flow through us to the world.”
Vision for Healing and Hope, Mennonite Church USA

From Executive Board staff representatives – Ervin Stutzman, Iris de Leόn-Hartshorn, Terry Shue – of Mennonite Church USA:

As Mennonite Church USA, we value and aspire daily to be a vessel for God’s healing in the world. So when allegations of abuse, intimate partner violence and misconduct are raised in our community, it is our responsibility to respond not only with compassion to the individuals involved, but from a space of justice. We understand, appreciate and are humbled by the courage it takes for a person to come forward, share his or her story and give us as a faith community the opportunity to restore the integrity of the ministerial relationship and the ministry of the church. We take seriously our responsibility to investigate fully the allegations, to take actions to create safe worship environments for our communities, to hold accountable leadership that has engaged in misconduct and to promote healing. As we attempt to faithfully carry out these objectives, it is never our desire or intent to re-victimize, exploit or cause further harm to anyone.

So many people in our church have faced challenges and heartbreak throughout this process. We are sorry for the stress, uncertainty and frustration that multiple delays on the release of the investigative report have caused. We grieve the ways we have made mistakes while walking this difficult path over the last year. We are especially sorry that we failed to find better ways to hear the voices of so many who have been hurt and disappointed by this process.

As leaders of Mennonite Church USA, our efforts have been far from perfect, but we remain committed to become better at responding to victims of abuse as a denomination. We are committed to learning from our mistakes, and we renew our ongoing commitment to transparency and justice and to not re-victimizing or causing further harm. As imperfect leaders, we offer the church what we have learned through this process and will make every effort to move forward with justice and grace as our guides, promoting healing and strengthening accountability at every level of Mennonite Church USA.

(Mennonite Church USA) – On May 18, 2016, Virginia Mennonite Conference (VMC) made a formal request for Mennonite Church USA to take the lead in establishing an independent review into the responses by VMC and Lindale Mennonite Church (Lindale), Linville, Virginia, to abuse complaints brought by Lauren Shifflett against Luke Hartman, former vice president of enrollment at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and former member of Lindale.

After careful consideration of this request, and with the approval of both entities being investigated, representatives of Mennonite Church USA Executive Board (EB) staff contracted with D. Stafford and Associates (DSA), a firm based in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. DSA investigated the entities’ responses to Shifflett’s complaint by conducting interviews and gathering information, and prepared a public report with recommendations based on their findings. EMU, under the oversight of Mennonite Education Agency, also worked with DSA under a separate contract to release a separate report.

In a September 2016 press release, Mennonite Church USA EB staff made a commitment to publish the DSA report, unedited by any of the entities involved. EB staff representatives – Ervin Stutzman, executive director of Mennonite Church USA, Iris de Leόn-Hartshorn, director of Transformative Peacemaking and Terry Shue, director of Leadership Development – received a 28-page report from DSA on November 25, 2016, and shared it as a courtesy with officials from Lindale and VMC. They also shared it with Hartman and Shifflett, so that they had time to read the report before it became public.

It was soon determined that the report contained a few factual errors that did not affect the findings and, additionally, evoked legal questions about some quotations attributed to individuals. Further, the report described details of the relationship between Hartman and Shifflett that were already available to the public in other places, seemed extraneous to the requested scope of the report and could be unnecessarily painful for victims of sexual abuse to read. EB staff gathered all the feedback and questions they received from Lindale and VMC leaders and Shifflett and her advocate, and submitted it for DSA’s consideration.

“When we shared our collective feedback with DSA, they made it clear that their original report was not a public document,” Stutzman said. “This set our efforts back because we had made a commitment to publish an unedited, public report.”

Following their withdrawal of the report, DSA worked to produce a concise, four-page summary of the 28-page report. EB staff representatives considered this summary unsatisfactory, because while it included DSA’s analysis of whether actions taken were legal or not, it did not speak to the ethical and moral concerns raised in the full, original report. Further, it was also labeled “Private and Confidential,” without permission to share it as a public document.

Throughout the process, EB staff representatives consulted with FaithTrust Institute – an organization whose founder, Marie Fortune, is listed in the resource appendix of the Churchwide Statement on Sexual Abuse – and encouraged both Lindale and VMC leaders to enlist their support as well.

“We contacted FaithTrust to get advice on how to proceed with transparency and integrity,” said de Leόn-Hartshorn. “DSA had not given permission to make either the original, 28-page report or the executive summary public. In the end, DSA agreed to produce a public report as we had originally requested.”

EB staff representatives received the final, public report from DSA on January 13 and “believe that it clearly communicates DSA’s findings and recommendations, and reflects the legal, moral and ethical concerns of the original 28-page report.”

“Although this process has led us to places we could not have anticipated, we are committed to ongoing transparency, justice and not re-victimizing or causing further harm,” said Stutzman. “The DSA report has not been edited, altered or redacted by Mennonite Church USA EB staff, or by Lindale or VMC, the two entities being investigated by the report.”

All concerned entities, including Lindale, VMC, Shifflett and her family, Hartman, the Anabaptist-Mennonite chapter of SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) and Mennonite Church USA staff representatives have access to the 28-page version of the original report, the four-page executive summary and the final, public version of the investigative report.

“The information gathered and recommendations made by DSA are one component of the information we are considering as we move forward,” Shue said. “This report is one tool that we can use to help us make appropriate recommendations that strengthen our commitments to accountability, justice and healing at every level of Mennonite Church USA.”

After having considered all of the information available through the report and in subsequent conversation with Lindale elders and VMC leaders, EB staff representatives make the following acknowledgements, findings and recommendations.

Acknowledgements:

  1. Mennonite Church USA believes Shifflett’s story as told in her blog on “Our Stories Untold,” and we are sorry that she found harm and not healing in our community.
  2. At the time of the events that became the subject of this complaint, neither Lindale nor VMC had a misconduct policy for non-credentialed or lay leadership.
  3. Mennonite Church USA has no authority or power to impose any type of punitive measures or requirements on Hartman.
  4. Lindale did not receive adequate pastoral support from VMC or Mennonite Church USA during this process. We regret that a better way was not found for Lindale’s voice to be heard in all of this.
  5. The Lindale congregation has demonstrated tremendous resiliency and faith throughout this process, and a desire to stand on the side of truth and justice even when it is uncomfortable and isolating.

Findings:

  1. Shifflett’s story was found credible and in line with other victims’ experiences in similar situations as confirmed by her own story, other documents and interviews.
  2. Lindale as a community was responsive to Shifflett’s story and her request for support and anonymity.
  3. Lindale’s intentions were to provide support and care for the victim (Shifflett) and provide support and accountability to the offender (Hartman).
  4. Lindale’s associate pastor Dawn Monger provided appropriate pastoral care, within the limits of her circumstances, to Shifflett.
  5. Lindale’s financial support for counseling for Shifflett was not only appropriate, but is to be commended.
  6. Due to the long-term close relationship between senior pastor Duane Yoder and Hartman, Pastor Yoder could not adequately both provide pastoral care to Hartman and serve the best interest of the congregation at the same time.
  7. Pastor Yoder did not disclose all the facts known by him about this case when reporting to the leadership at EMU.
  8. When asked by Pastor Monger, Pastor Yoder was not truthful regarding what he had reported to the leadership at EMU.
  9. Shifflett made a request that private emails between herself and Hartman be deleted, and Lindale’s ministerial leadership agreed to her request. However, Pastor Yoder kept emails of a sexual nature forwarded from Hartman that Yoder implied had been deleted.
  10. On multiple occasions, the decisions, actions and inactions of Pastor Yoder resulted in protection of Hartman rather than support for Shifflett.
  11. Much of the language in internal church documents of Lindale include language that could be perceived as “victim-blaming.”
  12. Pastor Yoder did not advise or disclose the facts known to him about this case with the leadership of VMC, even though it involved an active, high-level lay leader within the community.
  13. VMC’s policy stipulating that all communication to conference leadership must pass through the congregation’s lead pastor is problematic, and in this case left Pastor Monger unduly restricted in her access to support and her ability to report legitimate concerns.

Recommendations:

LINDALE MENNONITE CHURCH:

  1. Immediately begin a review of personnel policies and procedures, ministerial misconduct policies and procedures, and employee code of conduct to determine if senior ministerial staff engaged in ministerial misconduct, employment violations and/or ministerial boundaries violations per the congregation’s policies, procedures and code of conduct agreements. If so, act within the next 90 days to implement the appropriate resolutions and remedies per the violations.
  2. Contract with FaithTrust Institute for the following recommendations. The work needed is long-term, at least a year:
    • To review all personnel policies and procedures and ensure various mechanisms for reporting complaints and concerns.
    • To review issues of possible boundary violations for all ministerial staff and establish clear understandings between staff and board about accountability for boundary violations.
    • To set up a process and review issues of boundary violations between Pastor Yoder and others.
    • To develop procedures and actions to take after the review is conducted and a process is put in place.
    • To work with Lindale staff and elders as they establish steps to lead the congregation in responding in just and compassionate ways for the sake of the victim, the congregation and the offender.
    • Explore recommendations from the DSA report, FaithTrust Institute, abuse survivors and others for community healing.

We will depend on, and strongly encourage, VMC to work with Lindale on these recommendations in consultation with FaithTrust Institute.

VIRGINIA MENNONITE CONFERENCE:

  1. To walk along with and continue to provide support for Lindale leaders and the congregation as they process the findings, supporting documentation, determinations and recommendations of the Mennonite Church USA EB staff representatives.
  2. Consult with FaithTrust Institute to assist with the following:
    • To immediately begin a review process to determine if boundaries were violated according to A Shared Understanding of Ministerial Leadership[1] by ministerial staff at Lindale. If so, follow protocol for review of credentials.
    • To immediately develop and implement policy and procedure so that communication and reporting of concerns and complaints to conference leadership can be achieved by associate ministerial staff without passing through a congregation’s lead pastor.
    • To review current VMC policies for alignment with Mennonite Church USA’s official policies and procedures documents, A Shared Understanding of Ministerial Leadership and Ministerial Misconduct Policy and Procedure.
    • To review and update current VMC processes for receiving formal and informal complaints.
    • Within the next 12 months, develop and implement a ministerial misconduct policy applicable to lay leadership within the conference.
    • Within the next 24 months, offer and require an ethics and boundary training for lay leadership in the conference.

A Mennonite Church USA denominational minister will work with VMC as they work to implement the recommendations made by both the denomination and other independent consultants above.

MENNONITE CHURCH USA commits to:

  1. Walking alongside and providing support to VMC leadership as they carry out the above recommendations.
  2. Along with VMC leaders, hosting “listening circles” to receive the VMC community’s stories, concerns and recommendations, and to begin the process of healing and discerning the path forward as a community.
  3. Providing a Healthy Boundaries 101-201 national training in May 2017, contracting with FaithTrust Institute. This training will be open to all area conferences and Mennonite agencies, and we encourage all conferences and agencies to send at least one or two representatives to be trained.
  4. Once trainers are equipped, establishing a common agreement among all conferences to provide regular trainings on healthy boundaries to all Mennonite Church USA pastors and credentialed leaders on an every three- to four-year basis.
  5. Establishing a standard practice with all conference ministers that pastors and leaders entering any Mennonite Church USA conference must participate in the healthy boundaries training within 12 months of their employment —either through a sister conference or FaithTrust Institute.
  6. Preparing a document of learnings from this situation to share publicly with the broader church, that will also be used by Mennonite Church USA’s Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention as they work to develop a process for addressing violation of sexual boundaries with non-credentialed leaders in congregations.

 

Read the full DSA public report

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[1] Especially pages 60-65, which cover ministerial ethics with specific emphases on the use of power, confidentiality, truth-telling, and the relationship of the area conference to the pastor and congregation.

 

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