At its recent meeting in Harrisonburg, Va., the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board might have modeled the faithful discernment the church needs to find its way through contentious issues.
But you would have to take their word for it. We can’t tell you firsthand. We can’t describe the conversation. We can’t judge for ourselves. The board addressed its sensitive topics in private.
It’s hard to be a role model behind closed doors.
If someone had a wise pastoral word, you won’t read about it. If someone offered an insightful perspective, you won’t learn from it. If someone said something refreshingly candid or just plain interesting, it’s not for us to know.
In fact, we don’t know what any individual board member said about issues of great interest across the denomination. We don’t even know how many members voted against the board’s statement expressing disapproval of Mountain States Mennonite Conference’s decision to grant a ministerial license to a lesbian pastor. All we know is it wasn’t unanimous.
We’re in the dark on all of this because the board has imposed new policies and practices that control the media. The first is an excessive use of closed sessions. The second is an insistance on decision-making power over what is published. These restrictions prevent the church press from serving as the people’s eyes and ears while church leaders do their work.
In the past, closed sessions were used mostly for personnel matters. But, at its recent meeting, the board spent about seven of 16 hours in executive session, The Mennonite reported.
Shutting out the church press breaks with a tradition of open meetings held by the top leadership boards of MC USA and its predecessors, the Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church. In the past, a topic’s sensitive nature was not considered a sufficient reason to hold a closed session. In fact, an independent reporter is especially important then. Church members need an observer who puts their interests first and doesn’t shield church leaders from controversy.
Denominational leaders believe closed sessions are necessary “to invite a maximum sense of safety for board members to express themselves,” MC USA executive director Ervin Stutzman wrote in a report to the board. “Eventually, we hope to find a better way to balance the competing needs for both emotional safety on the board and independent reporting to the church.”
It is true: Being a denominational leader isn’t “safe.” No matter what you do, somebody won’t like it. You give up some of your privacy because you become a public figure. When you do the work of the church, the members have a right to know how you did it and then give you praise or critique.
Anyone who expects emotional safety probably shouldn’t be an Executive Board member — or, for that matter, a conference moderator or a pastor.
Stutzman is deeply convinced that, for the board to do its work well, its members need to be able to share in personal, heartfelt ways. They need to feel free to say things they would never say if they knew they might be quoted publicly. In the past, he says, board members were not expected to be this vulnerable. This is why he and other leaders believe the denomination needs to control the coverage of board meetings in ways that neither it nor its predecessors used to. He says today’s board can’t do business as usual.
MWR is sympathetic to these concerns and has made concessions. We have accepted the policy that a board representative may read and give counsel on a story before it is published. But we cannot accept the rule that a church leader has the right to decide what we will publish if the editor and the leader disagree on something. An independent publication that lets a church leader tell it what to print is no longer doing its job of serving the people, not the leaders. It has given up the rights and duties of a free press. These rights are as important to the members of a church as they are to the citizens of a democracy.
MWR will not send a reporter to MC USA Executive Board meetings under the board’s current policies. If we did, you wouldn’t know if you were reading the story as we saw it or the story a church leader wanted you to see.