The Case for Suspending Credentials: Lindale, Virginia Conference, and Definitions of Accountability

(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.” Continue reading

John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse: Asking the Wrong Question

Even though this week a Goshen College student was slapped by Jennifer Lopez, John Howard Yoder is still the biggest Mennonite celebrity we have. While at Pastors Week, I heard stories about how he would takes notes on a lecture in a foreign language, just for practice. Or how he could listen to a lecture and engage in conversation while writing a sermon. Or from students who said, “I didn’t grow up Mennonite, but I’m studying at AMBS because I read John Howard Yoder.”

As the Mennonite Church dives into its first real attempt to name him as a serial abuser with a distorted sexual politic, one question surfaces over and over: “Can we still honor and use his work even though we now know he harassed and assaulted as many as 100 women?”

I heard this question for the bajillionth time this week, talking to a Mennonite student at AMBS. He was one of those who came to the church by way of John Howard Yoder, finding a belief system he could truly resonate with. He mused, “I wonder how we respond to his work.” After some more thought, he said, “Yoder was brilliant. He’s such an articulate thinker and he lays such an important foundation for Mennonites. I think we can still redeem his work and use it to represent our church.” Continue reading