By Janie Beck Kreider
ORLANDO, Florida (Mennonite Church USA) — Mennonite Church USA Executive Board (EB) members, Cabinet staff and agency leaders gathered June 2–4 in Orlando, Florida, for the third meeting of the 2015–17 biennium. The EB passed a statement in support of the Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention, accepted the resignation of board member Isaac Villegas, conducted a review of Mennonite Mission Network (MMN) and discussed a proposal to make changes to the resolutions process for the next Delegate Assembly.
Statement of support for the Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention
During his report to the board, Executive Director Ervin Stutzman reported that the board of Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), Harrisonburg, Virginia; Virginia Mennonite Conference (VMC); and Lindale Mennonite Church (LMC), Linville, Virginia, have agreed to an outside investigation into their responses to abuse allegations against Luke Hartman, former vice president of enrollment at EMU, that will be conducted by an independent team unaffiliated with Mennonite Church USA.
Stutzman emphasized that this is not a criminal investigation and that the outside investigators will have no legal authority to demand documents or collect a body of information that would lead to a legal conclusion. Because of these dynamics, he said the full cooperation of all the institutions involved is voluntary, yet absolutely necessary.
“We are working together to bring the truth to light,” said Stutzman. “This process goes beyond what a criminal investigation can do. Our ultimate concern has to do with healing in our church, so we must address its ethos, how we treat victims of sexual abuse and listen to their stories, and how we treat one another and our church leaders.”
“Our goal is to answer the questions of who knew what and when,” said Iris de León-Hartshorn, director of transformative peacemaking for Mennonite Church USA, who provides staff supervision for the panel. “This investigation will be a gift of information for the panel and all our institutions as we try to figure out how we can handle these situations better as a church.”
Stutzman reported that the process for choosing the organization that will conduct the investigation is currently underway. EB staff is partnering with the Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention and the staff of Mennonite Education Agency in this work.
These steps follow a May 13 recommendation from the Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention. The Mennonite Church USA Executive Board (EB) staff Cabinet named the panel in December 2015, following through on the Churchwide Statement on Sexual Abuse approved by delegates in July 2015.
On June 2, the EB unanimously approved a statement of support for the Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention:
Specifically we fully support the Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention and its call that there be an outside investigation into the response of Virginia Mennonite Conference, Lindale Mennonite Church and Eastern Mennonite University to abuse accusations against Luke Hartman, and we affirm staff of Executive Board and Mennonite Education Agency in their work to ensure this investigation takes place promptly.”
Isaac Villegas’s resignation accepted
In two closed executive sessions, the board discussed whether to accept Isaac Villegas’s resignation from the EB. Following a discernment process with his congregation and ongoing conversations with Virginia Mennonite Conference, Villegas officiated a same-sex marriage ceremony on May 21 with the full support of his congregation, Chapel Hill (North Carolina) Mennonite Fellowship. VMC has since suspended Villegas’s credentials and labeled his actions as “misconduct.” The board members were not of one mind in their decision to accept Villegas’s resignation. Larry Hauder, a board member from Boise, Idaho, introduced a proposal for board consideration that would, “in the spirit of forbearance,” “invite Isaac to reconsider his resignation and continue serving on the Executive Board,” acknowledging that “Isaac’s ministerial credentials are not a prerequisite to serving in this capacity.” This proposal failed by a vote of five to nine.
The board voted nine to five in favor of accepting Villegas’s resignation, passing a motion stating, “We accept Isaac’s resignation with appreciation for his service and acknowledge this has been a difficult decision for the board with a diversity of opinions.” Board members also approved sending an open letter to Villegas and Mennonite Church USA delegates expressing appreciation for Villegas’s “extraordinary contribution to the EB and the Executive Committee,” accepting his resignation and recognizing the credentialing authority of VMC and the EB’s ongoing covenant to “honor our relationship with congregations and area conferences.” The letter is available online.
Preparing for Orlando 2017
EB members took a tour of the Orlando 2017 convention space, stopping to pray and sing in what will be the delegate hall and the worship space.
During his finance report, Glen Alexander Guyton, chief operating officer for Mennonite Church USA, reported that he is “cautiously optimistic” about registration numbers and is budgeting for 4,200 attendees.
“We will need to think about alternatives if our numbers aren’t as good as we expect,” he said. “Just a couple hundred people makes a huge financial impact.”
Convention will be held July 4–8, with delegate meetings starting on Thursday, July 6. The event will be one day shorter overall and will focus on the theme, “Love is a verb.”
Guyton also mentioned the additional challenge of incorporating new federal overtime pay requirements into the EB staff operating budget. He noted that this December, the annual salary threshold for overtime eligibility will more than double, going from less than $24,000 to almost $48,000.
“For convention, this is an issue,” said Guyton. “It will affect how we manage staff time.”
The board discussed a proposal to make changes to the delegate sessions and resolutions process for Orlando 2017, which would include appointing a standing resolutions committee that would process proposals throughout the biennium and limiting the number of resolutions discussed at the Delegate Assembly to two or three. The EB hopes to address concerns raised by delegates about lack of sufficient table group discussion time to fully engage and process resolutions, as well as to extend the timeframe for proposing resolutions and to expand access to resolutions and opportunities for study and discernment in the lead-up to the assembly.
The board received counsel via video conference call from eight church leaders who have experience with the Delegate Assembly process. The EB will continue to discuss the proposal, and how to implement potential changes, at its November meeting. Following the conference calls, EB members raised concerns about the lack of Racial/Ethnic diversity represented in the conversation. Of the eight leaders invited to give counsel, only one was a person of color.
“We’re not getting the perspective of different ways of dealing with conflict and differences if we don’t include diversity on every feedback group, on every committee, on any group that is chosen,” said Yvonne Diaz, a board member from Terlingua, Texas.
“When we think about our decision-making process, we need to have a structure that people of color can see themselves in at all levels,” added Nisha Subaiya Springer, a board member from Plano, Texas.
In their report at the end of the meeting, members of the EB’s Anti-Racism Committee suggested ways of making the board’s five anti-racism priorities for the Delegate Assembly more visible and readily available at every EB meeting. The priorities include having people of color represented among those leading presentations to delegates, planning and leading worship during delegate sessions, maintaining and determining delegate session processes, and planning and shaping agenda for the assembly that would be relevant and appealing to people of color. The EB also proposed appointing a standing anti-racism committee that would review board agenda and monitor diversity in leadership structures across the denomination.
Changes to leadership structures
The EB members discussed reducing the number of board members due to increasing financial concerns and a reduced constituency. While the bylaws specify a maximum number of board members (21), they do not list a minimum requirement, so appointing fewer members would not require delegate approval. There are currently 16 EB members without Villegas. Board members discussed the positives and negatives of having a smaller board and opted to request the counsel of the Constituency Leaders Council (CLC) before making a decision on the matter.
The EB conducts a review of each agency on a rotating basis; during this meeting, the board focused on Mennonite Mission Network. Board members discussed and affirmed a proposal to move the supervisory function of denominational church planting and peace and justice ministries from under the purview of EB staff to Mission Network staff; this change would result in the creation of a new U.S. Ministries department within the Mission Network structure.
The EB also affirmed Ervin Stutzman as the designated EB staff person to serve as a liaison between the EB and Mission Network and received the review report with gratitude for the work of Mennonite Mission Network.
At the EB’s next meeting in November, board members will conduct a review of MHS.
The EB considered a proposal that clarifies references to constituency groups and Racial/Ethnic groups and outlines an official process for the formation of “new constituent groups” within Mennonite Church USA. According to Moderator Patricia Shelly, the proposal was based on discussions with the CLC in October 2015, with the Racial/Ethnic Council in November 2015 and with the EB in February, and it will continue to be refined in conversation with these three groups before it is adopted. The proposal would require the Delegate Assembly to approve a change in the bylaws.
At its February 2016 meeting, the EB approved a request for the Intercultural Relations Reference Committee to change its name to the Racial/Ethnic Council and for the Racial/Ethnic groups to no longer be described as “constituency groups.” The EB is working to make this change to the bylaws, which will need delegate approval. With this change, Mennonite Women USA and Mennonite Men will be the only two constituency groups in Mennonite Church USA. Racial/Ethnic groups and constituency groups are able to appoint representatives to the CLC; Racial/Ethnic groups can appoint delegates to the Delegate Assembly. At the same February meeting, the EB decided to reject a request from the Brethren Mennonite Council for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) Interests to become a constituency group.
Peer-to-peer counsel and review
At its March meeting, the CLC responded with general affirmation to a proposal of a peer-to-peer review process. David Boshart, moderator-elect and chair of the CLC, reported to the board that planning for a pilot peer review process with Central District Conference is currently underway.
A pilot review team yet to be named will conduct a review of Central District Conference’s decision to license Mark Rupp, a pastor of Columbus (Ohio) Mennonite Church, on July 25, 2015. Rupp is in a committed same-sex relationship. The hope is for the team to have a report available at the October CLC meeting that, according to Boshart, will “emphasizes the learning rather than judicial function of the review while also recognizing that there may be recommendations that result from the process.”
Board members discussed how to respond to a request for counsel from Mountain States Mennonite Conference (MSMC) leaders as they discern the ordination of Theda Good, a pastor of First Mennonite Church of Denver who is in a committed same-sex relationship. Board members affirmed drafting a letter that will be sent to MSMC.
The next EB meeting will take place Nov. 10–12, 2016, in Newton, Kansas. The November meeting will be extended by half a day, and board members will meet with the Racial/Ethnic Council of Mennonite Church USA to discuss common agenda and concerns. Members of the EB and the newly formed Racial/Ethnic Council will participate together in an interactive exercise, “The Loss of Turtle Island,” facilitated by Erica Littlewolf and Karin Kaufman Wall of Mennonite Central Committee Central States.
At the June 2–4 meeting of the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board in Orlando, Florida, are (l. to r.) board members Yvonne Diaz of Terlingua, Texas; Bishop Leslie Francisco III of Hampton, Virginia; Nisha Subaiya Springer of Plano, Texas; Earl Kellogg of Urbana, Illinois; David Boshart (moderator-elect) of Wellman, Iowa; Patricia Shelly (moderator) of Newton, Kansas; and staff member Ervin Stutzman (executive director) of Harrisonburg, Virginia. (Photo by Janie Beck Kreider)