(Trigger warning: sexual abuse, mishandling of sexual abuse cases.)
“We talk a lot about accountability, but it’s the conference’s job to figure out what that means. We want to ask you, pastors, how do you expect us to hold you accountable?” Last Thursday, Michael Danner, Executive Conference Minister of Illinois Mennonite Conference, asked us this question. Sitting with a dozen Chicagoland credentialed leaders, we discussed the mechanisms we appreciated and the mechanisms we needed to handle concerns about financial management and sexual abuse, among other issues.
As the conversation closed, I raised a tentative hand and said: “Michael, whatever else comes of this accountability conversation, please don’t let a Lindale happen in Illinois Conference. Please, feel empowered to step into any congregation dealing with allegations of sexual abuse. Please, feel empowered to be proactive.”
I don’t mean to call out or condemn Lindale. They are in a difficult position of responding to Lauren Shifflett’s report of abuse. And if you aren’t familiar with Lindale and the fallout from Luke Hartman’s solictiation-of-prostitution arrest, there are plenty of articles in the public record so you can make up your own mind.
As a Mennonite pastor, I cannot help but look at Lindale with an eye toward, “What would I do?” We pastors know our professional risks. We know that the very nature of our profession–peacekeeping, relationship-building, hours of potluck and Dutch Blitz–will tempt us to handle concerns in-house with a minimum of fuss. We are mindful that when pastors exercise church discipline, we are sometimes put in the uncomfortable position of disciplining our friends–as Duane Yoder was at Lindale. As a pastor, I look at my own congregation and think, “Dear God, if that happened here, my professional and spiritual role mean that I am one bad decision away from defending and justifying a sexual predator.”
Two days later, over a chic lakefront brunch that was supposed to be an unwinding away from work, a Mennonite-turned-atheist college roommate of mine said, “What’s the deal with Lindale? I don’t feel like I have a say in it anymore, but shouldn’t the pastors do better? Shouldn’t the pastors have to answer to someone?”
Her question stuck with me. If the Mennonite Church believes that pastors have specific responsibilities to victims of abuse, if the Mennonite Church believes that sexual abuse is an ethical issue at all… who holds us accountable? In our polity, it’s the regional conference body. After all, they hold our credentials. And the more I consider it, the more I wonder: why haven’t I heard anyone call for an investigation of Duane Yoder’s credentials?
I don’t say this lightly. Investigating credentials is a serious process. When I was 15, my own pastor’s credentials were suspended because he presided at a same-sex wedding. It didn’t affect my day-to-day relationship with my pastor, but when I stopped and thought about it… It was a shitty experience. It left me skeptical of the institutional church. It left me feeling like everyone else was trying to boss us around without listening to us. Suspending a pastor’s credentials ripples through a congregation, adding to their stress and creating frustration or distrust with the regional body. It’s not something we should do every time we’re mad at a neighboring (or distant) congregation.
And when it comes to a pastor affirming two same-sex Christians seeking Christ together in a congregation that wants them present, I still can’t make a compelling case for suspending that pastor’s credentials. When it comes to a pastor selectively ignoring or invalidating accusations of abuse and prioritizing the abuser’s comfort in church over the victim’s ability to worship unharrassed, the area conference has a moral obligation to at least interrogate the credentials of a pastor. There’s still some ambiguity about what happened at Lindale. However, there is enough evidence to merit a conference-led review of the pastors’ credentials.
Given what we know on the public record, much of which has been made public by Our Stories Untold and the Mennonite chapter of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), Virginia Conference has the authority and the obligation to announce an investigation of Duane Yoder’s credentials. Virginia Conference has an obligation to show us that it believes in accountability. Virginia Conference has an obligation to show that accountability isn’t selectively enforced only when it comes to same-sex participation in church. Virginia Conference has an obligation to declare publicly that responses to sexual abuse cannot be “discerned” with careful attention to the abuser’s resume.
Instead, Virginia Conference has been glossed over accountability. On March 24, Virginia Conference Executive Director Clyde G. Kratz offered a news release to The Mennonite in which he shared the expectations of accountability. The full letter is online, but there are several key lines that indicate what Virginia Conference thinks accountability is.
“Luke does not have ministerial credentials associated with Virginia Mennonite Conference.”
Virginia Conference believes it does not have jurisdiction over Luke Hartman and is not interested in collaborating or participating with any of the bodies–Eastern Mennonite University, Lindale–that do. It’s a damage control measure to minimize their role–but a dangerous precedent to indicate to pastors, “You’re accountable for handling sexual abuse allegations on your own. Please don’t bother us.”
“We continue to affirm the necessity of appropriate intervention for children and adults who experience sexual exploitation in any form.”
Virginia Conference believes in setting guidelines, but doesn’t have clear statements or processes for holding anyone accountable to those guidelines. Virginia Conference is not interested in clarifying when law enforcement should be contacted; what pastors should do on their own; or when Conference staff should be contacted.
“At times there are limitations to pastoral responses based on family dynamics, personal concerns, and lack of clarity about the breadth of an issue that is being presented.”
Virginia Conference believes that accountability is contextual, and we ought to examine family dynamics and “personal concerns”–that is, friendships, professional embarrassment, and accomplishments of the abuser–before we make any statements about accountability.
“In spite of the fact that in the Commonwealth of Virginia ministers are not mandatory reports of child sexual abuse to local authorities [sic]… Virginia Mennonite Conference is planning a series of consultations that can assist pastors in the challenges of difficult pastoral cases.”
Virginia Conference would like to hold everyone equally to the same standard of accountability, rather than directly addressing and targeting those who have flirted with or violated commonsense procedures for handling abuse. (Note: the first of these consultations, “A Restorative Approach to Broken Boundaries,” is an opt-in event that costs $15.) The implication is that Lindale has already suffered enough public embarrassment and their pastors have done their very best given their knowledge at the time. Certainly, all we can hold people accountable for is doing their very best–not doing what is legally expected for other professions; what is recommended by those who work in rape crisis or abuse counseling; or for holding anyone to an ethical norm of responding to abuse. Duane Yoder and Dawn Monger, the pastors who have been publicly named as ones who worked with Luke Hartman in a way that clearly did not prevent him from abuse and unethical sexual behavior, should not be treated differently than any other pastor in the congregation. This is a problem we should all work on, all together.
Accountability is uncomfortable and often mismanaged. It is easy to point fingers at others’ failings, and I’m wary of feeding the trend of telling regional bodies whose credentials are valid and who are not. I don’t know anyone at Lindale personally. I’m not advocating a total revocation of anyone’s credentials. But as a pastor, I expect to be accountable for handling sexual abuse in my congregation. I expect my area conference to work with me, personally, to hold me to certain standards.
I believe it is a necessary and good faith gesture for Virginia Conference to review the credentials of the pastors at Lindale. It is a gesture of accountability. Pastors are accountable for handling sexual abuse in their congregations. Pastors should be accountable if they act like the goal of abusive situations is to keep the abuser in church. Pastors should be accountable when they set up accountability groups with the abuser, an ineffective measure that we saw fail over and over with John Howard Yoder. Pastors should be accountable for alerting authorities and other church organizations to allegations.
If, at the end of a review process, Virginia Conference finds Duane Yoder, Dawn Monger, and everyone else’s credentials in order… so be it. Any review is under the purview of Virginia Conference. It’s unclear what the result would be. But at least we will know that the Conference believes in accountability.