ORLANDO, Fla. — The Mennonite Church USA Executive Board affirmed recommendations from a sexual abuse prevention panel and accepted the resignation of board member Isaac Villegas during meetings June 2-4.
Executive director Ervin Stutzman reported that the board of Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., Virginia Mennonite Conference and Lindale Mennonite Church in Linville, Va., have agreed to an outside investigation into their responses to abuse allegations against Luke Hartman, former vice president of enrollment at EMU, that will be conducted by an independent team unaffiliated with MC USA.
Stutzman emphasized that it is not a criminal investigation and that outside investigators will have no legal authority to demand documents or collect a body of information that would lead to a legal conclusion. He said the full cooperation of all the institutions is voluntary, yet absolutely necessary.
“We are working together to bring the truth to light,” he said. “This process goes beyond what a criminal investigation can do. Our ultimate concern has to do with healing in our church, so we must address its ethos, how we treat victims of sexual abuse and listen to their stories and how we treat one another and our church leaders.”
Iris de León-Hartshorn, director of transformative peacemaking for MC USA, who provides staff supervision for the panel, said: “Our goal is to answer the questions of who knew what and when. This investigation will be a gift of information for the panel and all our institutions as we try to figure out how we can handle these situations better.”
The process for choosing the organization that will conduct the investigation is under way. Board staff is partnering with the Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention and the staff of Mennonite Education Agency in this work.
These steps follow a May 13 recommendation from the Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention, which was named in December.
In two closed executive sessions, the board discussed whether to accept Villegas’ resignation. He officiated a same-sex wedding May 21 with the full support of his congregation, Chapel Hill (N.C.) Mennonite Fellowship. Virginia Conference has suspended his credentials and labeled his actions as “misconduct.”
Board members did not all agree on accepting Villegas’ resignation. Board member Larry Hauder of Boise, Idaho, introduced a proposal that would, “in the spirit of forbearance,” invite him to reconsider his resignation. It failed by a 5-9 vote.
The board voted 9-5 to accept Villegas’ resignation and passed a motion “acknowledg[ing] this has been a difficult decision for the board with a diversity of opinions.” Board members approved an open letter to Villegas and MC USA delegates expressing appreciation for his “extraordinary contribution” to the board and recognizing Virginia Conference’s credentialing authority and the board’s covenant to “honor our relationship with congregations and area conferences.”
Board members took a tour of the Orlando 2017 convention space, stopping to pray and sing in what will be the delegate hall and the worship space.
Chief operating officer Glen Alexander Guyton said he is budgeting for 4,200 attendees.
“We will need to think about alternatives if our numbers aren’t as good as we expect,” he said. “Just a couple hundred people makes a huge financial impact.”
The convention will be held July 4-8. The event will be one day shorter than in the past.
The board discussed reducing the number of members due to financial concerns and a reduced constituency. Bylaws specify a maximum number of board members (21), but do not list a minimum, so appointing fewer members would not require delegate approval. There are 16 members without Villegas. Board members requested the counsel of the Constituency Leaders Council before making a decision.
At its March meeting, the CLC responded with general affirmation to a proposal of a peer-to-peer review process. David Boshart, moderator-elect and chair of the CLC, reported that planning for a pilot process with Central District Conference is under way.
A team yet to be named will conduct a review of Central District’s decision to license Mark Rupp, a pastor of Columbus (Ohio) Mennonite Church, on July 25, 2015. Rupp is in a committed same-sex relationship.
The hope is for the team to have a report available at the October CLC meeting that, according to Boshart, “emphasizes the learning rather than judicial function of the review while also recognizing that there may be recommendations that result from the process.”
Board members discussed how to respond to a request for counsel from Mountain States Mennonite Conference leaders as they discern the ordination of Theda Good, a pastor of First Mennonite Church of Denver who is in a committed same-sex relationship. Board members affirmed drafting a letter that will be sent to Mountain States.