What Does MC USA Want in an Executive Director?

When a congregation goes through a pastoral transition, it has a lot of conversations. What do we want in a pastor? A good preacher? An activist? Someone who is good at visitation? Someone skilled in conflict resolution?

As Mennonite Church USA prepares to welcome a new executive director next spring, we ought to ask the same question: What do we want in an executive director?

We tend to think an executive director should be a pastor or a spiritual leader. But the executive director is not, as I’ve heard some people jokingly describe it, “The Mennonite Pope.” The executive director does not give spiritual mandates, define doctrine or appoint conference ministers. Instead, the job description includes supervising MC USA staff, serving as CEO and primary spokesperson, fundraising and monitoring spending. While many pastors do some of this in their positions, very few pastors go into ministry because they have fundraising, CEO or management skills.

The executive director is a management and business position. While it would be wonderful to find a candidate who is skilled at both management and ministry, the search committee’s primary charge is to find a skilled administrator. In the job description, “theological studies” and “ministerial credentials” are desirable qualities, not essential qualities.

We need church leaders with strong theological backgrounds. We also need church leaders with business skills; who understand strategy and marketing and can articulate strengths in ways that make people excited to be part of this group of peculiar Christians. Those may not overlap with pastoral skills like explaining Scripture through a sermon; greeting everyone on Sunday morning or visiting homes and hospitals.

The wide, clamoring, diverse body of MC USA must also change expectations of the executive director. Outgoing executive director Ervin Stutzman was often called in to keep this or that constituency in the church; to appease this or that group; to shepherd by speaking at conferences and gatherings. He was often expected to be a spiritual leader, to guide through challenging conversations about sexuality and the Confession of Faith. While the executive director has some role in shaping those conversations in a non-anxious way, the executive director is not hired to be the arbiter of orthodoxy.

As a nonhierarchical denomination, MC USA must resist the temptation to push a business leader into spiritual leadership. For that, look to the Constituency Leaders’ Council — the representative body of conference ministers, moderators and constituency group leaders who meet to “worship and pray together, encourage faithfulness, share ideas and resources, process concerns and discern direction on issues of faith and life,” according to MC USA resource documents.

The executive director faces a large challenge to navigate and unify the strong, diverse views of MC USA–and to restore trust during and after a major conflict. The new executive director is expected to be faithful to the Anabaptist vision and devout in his or her own spiritual walk. But that does not equate to a pastoral temperament or years behind the pulpit. The next executive director may very well come from the administrative staff of a denominational agency, be an educator in an Anabaptist institution, or an energetic Anabaptist entrepreneur.

The executive director can only be as good as the clarity of MC USA’s vision. Let us use these months of searching to discuss with each other our brightest vision of this beautiful, broken body of Christ.

 

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This post first appeared in the Mennonite World Review.

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Is it Too Late to Save Mennonite Voluntary Service?

In 2009 when I graduated from college, I chose to go into Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS). I made the choice independently, only to discover that many of my friends were also choosing a year of service in cities across the country. The program was expanding rapidly. It added two units in 2009-2010, and for some time that spring, had a waitlist of young graduates eager to serve.

In 2015-2016, MVS closed half its units due to declining participation. In spite of downsizing, the program is struggling. This year, after hosting just two participants in a unit designed for eight, one congregation in a popular city is debating a “sabbatical year” in 2018-2019. Continue reading

Privilege is not Solidarity: Mennonites and the Anthem

As the national anthem began to play and all activity stopped in the stands, I became acutely aware that I was the only one not facing the flag with my hand over my heart. I hadn’t been to a sports game in months, but as I stood, refusing to pay homage to the flag, for the first time, I realized the way conscientious objection can feel like drowning.

Like many Mennonites, as a child, I was applauded when I didn’t stand for the anthem or say the pledge. Even in high school pep assemblies, when my silence drowned out by my peers’ dutiful pledges, I could hear the voice of my church community encouraging this separation between worship and worship of country.

I was slow to “get” the Colin Kaepernick controversy. I was stumped by the idea that the thing I’d done since childhood and been widely ignored for, was noteworthy, much less offensive. I’d spent a lifetime sitting in Kaepernick’s figurative shoes, and couldn’t remember ever being ridiculed by my peers. Then again, I was 21 before I saw my first football game, and it took years after that before I realized the sport was a religion in its own right. Continue reading

On Grieving in Public on the Internet

I’ve been thinking about dancing. How much I love it. The places I’ve danced–literally thrown up my arms and been absorbed by the beat–in the middle of something terrible. How dancing is always a desperation, a need to move every limb and moment and be as present in every nerve of my body, as embodied, how the extreme of embodiment is the beginning of the mystical. About dancing as a sacrament, the way I nod–head bob, even–when I read my friends’ posts about dancing as a form of worship, how queer clubs are the closest thing queers have to church.

How I once said to a friend,  “I love dancing.” And he said, “No you don’t, I’ve seen you not dance. You don’t like going out to dance.” And I said, “No, I mean dancing when it’s safe. Like at liberal arts college parties when you know everyone in the room and you know no one is going to hurt you, they just came to dance.” That may be the least Anabaptist thing I’ve ever said. Somehow, in a religious tradition that spent 400 years eschewing dancing, the act of having a body with music still feels sacred to me. Continue reading

What the Church can Learn from Bernie Sanders

This article first appeared in Mennonite World Review.

Two months ago at Sent, the Anabaptist church-planting conference, I spoke with some young church plant­ers about what brings millennials to church. “May­be we should be more like Bernie Sanders,” I joked.

“Why not?” one planter responded. “If the church offered free education, millennials would be all over that.”As the Sanders campaign meanders onward, many speculate how the 74-year-old attracted such a rabid millennial following. But the church should ask another question: Has Sanders said something to our young people that the church has failed to say?

As I scroll through my Facebook feed, as I listen to a Goshen College alum explain his tithing to Sanders’ campaign, as I talk with a recent Wheaton College graduate celebrating Sanders’ win in Indiana — the answer is a resounding yes. Continue reading

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

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. Continue reading