This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

EMM leader’s termination leaves unanswered questions

Eastern Mennonite Missions “separated employment with President Nelson Okanya” on Nov. 16, the organization announced in a statement, leaving unanswered questions about what warranted the move and prompting a letter from Okanya’s congregation expressing “shock, anger and disappointment.”

Nelson Okanya, then-president of Eastern Mennonite Missions, speaks at the Church and Post-Christian Culture conference in 2014 at Carlisle (Pa.) Brethren in Christ Church. — Kelli Yoder/MWR
Nelson Okanya, then-president of Eastern Mennonite Missions, speaks at the Church and Post-Christian Culture conference in 2014 at Carlisle (Pa.) Brethren in Christ Church. — Kelli Yoder/MWR

In a longer statement two weeks later, the EMM board of directors clarified Nov. 30 that the decision was “not the result of fiscal or moral impropriety, or past job performance, but the board’s understanding of a lack of alignment between the board and Nelson regarding the future leadership of Eastern Mennonite Missions as an agency of LMC,” formerly known as Lancaster Mennonite Conference.

Okanya had served as EMM president since 2011.

In a phone interview, EMM board president Brian Martin declined to elaborate on what “a lack of alignment” means.

Martin would not disclose if EMM was receiving complaints about Okanya, if an EMM policy was violated or if Okanya was even at the meeting.

“This is all held within the confidence of the separation,” he said. “I’m not trying to be evasive. We are trying to protect Nelson and the mission of EMM as well.”

Okanya declined an interview opportunity with MWR because the EMM board did not give him specific reasons for its decision.

Originally from Migori, Kenya, Okanya is a member of James Street Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa., a former LMC congregation that joined Mennonite Church USA’s Atlantic Coast Conference in April 2017 after LMC withdrew from MC USA.

In September 2017 the congregation adopted a “Shared Understanding of LGBTQ+ Inclusion” document that welcomes people who are LGBTQ+ to participate in church life and waits for calling such people to pastoral ministry or officiating same-sex weddings “until a congregational and conference discernment process affirms the decision.”

EMM is the mission agency of LMC and also has ties to other conferences, including ACC. Of the board’s 11 members, at least two are connected to non-LMC congregations: Lyn Carlson attends Forest Hills Mennonite Church in Leola (ACC), and Mennonite Mission Network executive director Stanley Green attends Waterford Mennonite Church (Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference) in Goshen, Ind.

Anger, disappointment

James Street responded to the decision with a congregational statement to the EMM board supporting Okanya and expressing “shock, anger and disappointment.”

“We have many questions as to the process by which this decision was made and the discernment that took place by your board,” it states. “From our perspective this was a very poorly handled and unhealthy process.”

James Street oversight board chair Jeff Bohlen said the congregation has many people who have served and continue to serve with EMM but had received no elaboration on why Okanya’s employment was terminated, leaving many people trying to figure out why it happened.

“I really caution everyone in our camp to not draw conclusions or pass rumors because the bottom line is we don’t know,” he said, noting the EMM board is the entity with the answers. “. . .  I can only speculate, which I won’t do for the record.”

In a Dec. 8 statement, the ACC executive committee and staff said it was “greatly saddened” a majority of the EMM board voted to end Okanya’s employment.

“We are seeking clarification and further dialogue with the EMM board and our brothers on the LMC Bishop Board,” it said.

Martin — who is also lead pastor of Weaverland Anabaptist Faith Community in East Earl, in addition to chairing the EMM board — declined to say if Okanya’s membership at James Street, or his relationship with associate pastor Carmen Horst,  factored into the decision.

A divorce of Nelson Okanya and Jessica Okanya was granted March 16.

Bohlen said Okanya and Horst announced their engagement to the congregation’s ministry staff and board Dec. 3 and plan to get married in February.

“There’s a lot of people involved here,” Bohlen said, “all the missionaries and staff and constituents who care about EMM, and there’s this sort of abrupt decision with no context or reasoning. . . . It looks bad. I don’t know really what came down. You aren’t the only one who has questions.”

Tim Huber

Tim Huber is associate editor at Anabaptist World. He worked at Mennonite World Review since 2011. A graduate of Tabor College, Read More

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