Is it Time to Change Ervin Stutzman’s Job Description?

At the end of January, Ervin Stutzman, the Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA was appointed for a third term as Executive Director. This decision was made by the Executive Board, who has a mixed track record on keeping an ear to the ground floor of the church. And at first, I was a little puzzled; most of the progressive pastors I know have strong and personal negative reactions to Ervin. How could he be reappointed so easily?

I don’t object to Ervin’s reappointment. In fact, it seems necessary and unobjectionable. What I am calling for is a thoughtful reflection on what work we want Ervin to be doing.

I have no personal axe to grind against Ervin (and I call him Ervin only because I was raised by Goshen College, where Anabaptist conviction has led to this notion that we ought to address each other not by hierarchical titles, but by first names). I’ve only met him once–and while he was dismissive of my question and the idea that young adults should be (more?) involved in church leadership, he was also encouraging of the church, in general. Ervin is a guy who loves church. That was clear from the first and only time I heard him speak:

But loving church does not a spiritual leader make.  He is not appointed by the church to be a spiritual guide for all our faith anxieties. In his last term, we–the Church–treated him like a spiritual guide, like the spiritual guide, and onto him we cast our spiritual burdens. He became the go-to spokesman on the church’s tense feelings about sexuality and, from my own distant evaluation, he rose to the role as though he felt it were his obligation. But in doing so, he also made his institutional bias so clear that he’s lost the trust of many who are working for inclusion. And that’s not healthy for our dialogue.

I’ve said before that people fundamentally misunderstand the task of Executive Board. Executive Board manages the business and logistics of running a nonprofit organization. Ervin, then, is the Executive Director with responsibility for the fiscal and organizational operations. We have not called forward Ervin to guide us through a conversation about sexuality, and it is a disservice to the lay people, the pastors, and to Ervin himself to pigeonhole him into that role. It’s unfair and unreasonable to pin our sexuality conversation onto the speech of one leader, much less a leader who is not specifically called to facilitate dialogue. And Ervin is not. The Executive Director is not the Executive Dialoguer.

As Executive Board clarifies the goals they’ve set for Ervin’s next three years, they ought to intentionally encourage Ervin to distinguish between organizational leadership and spiritual leadership. Ervin ought to step back from invitations to speak at spiritual retreats and annual conference assemblies. Full Disclosure: I do have skin–and quite a bit of it–in this game, as Ervin is the keynote speaker for the Illinois Mennonite Annual Assembly. I look forward to more dialogue with Ervin and am excited about his availability in that space. But I am not looking forward to hearing him muddle through sermons purportedly designed for our spiritual enhancement but actually designed to speak to the organizational priorities of the institution. Ervin comes at spirituality from an organizational perspective–and he should, as an executive director. It’s just not the spiritual enrichment I need and hope for from annual assembly. Give me a speaker who knows spirituality, who has the hope and the creativity to rejuvenate, who is not so entrenched in the hardest parts of being church. This is a speaker who can facilitate the spiritual enrichment I hope to have at annual assembly. We haven’t charged Ervin with teaching us healthy spirituality.

Ervin is unpopular with progressive pastors in part because he doesn’t do the regular practice of hearing voices across the political and social spectrum. And he doesn’t practice hearing because it’s not his job description. His job isn’t to be in touch with the grassroots of the church. His job is to do the regular work of creating coherence among the voices that are in leadership, which tend to be a more establishment sampling of the individuals in the church.

An Executive Director is not the closest thing we have to a spiritual head, although we’ve treated him that way in the past few years. The Executive Director is not a spiritual decider-in-chief. Instead, we should look to CLC–a gathered body of the representative church, including our Conference Ministers, who are specifically called to leadership because of their skill as spiritual supports–as our leaders in this conversation about sexuality. They are ones who, as a matter of daily work, listen to and facilitate dialogue among the whole range of voices in this sexuality conversation.

It’s something that Executive Board and Ervin should have their own conversation about–but even more, we, church, the collection of us, need to take a long look at our own expectations. We don’t expect CEOs to speak into spiritual crisis. Yes, CEOs can have spiritual gifts, but when we call them to organizational leadership, let us not expect one individual to be all this and more for us. If we give Ervin permission to be a quieter voice in our spiritual conversation, it will allow him to do his job better. And it will allow us all to carry on this conversation in healthier ways.

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