This article was originally published by The Mennonite

VMC releases response to recommendations in abuse case

In a July 18 statement, Virginia Mennonite Conference (VMC) leaders say they are “actively pursuing” recommendations laid out for them in the report conducted by D. Stafford & Associates in January, including forming an “investigation team” to review actions taken by Duane Yoder, then pastor of Lindale Mennonite Church, Linville, Virginia. The review by DSA, an independent consulting firm, grew out of a May 13, 2016, recommendation from the Mennonite Church USA Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention that Eastern Mennonite University, Lindale Mennonite Church and VMC undertake an investigation into how reports of abuse were handled. (See timeline of events below.)

In a Jan. 14 statement, Mennonite Church USA leaders made several recommendations for VMC, including calling on VMC to:

  • work with the FaithTrust Institute to assess whether or not Yoder, former Lindale Pastor, acted in ways that violated the understandings of pastoral misconduct laid out in A Shared Understanding of Ministerial Leadership, MC USA’s polity handbook;
  • review whether VMC’s policies on responding to abuse are in line with MC USA’s;
  • adapt VMC’s policies on communications and reporting to give all ministerial staff direct access to conference leaders;
  • develop a misconduct policy for lay leaders within the conference;
  • and provide training on ethics and boundaries for conference leaders (credentialed and lay).

In their July 18 statement, VMC leaders said that they will “seek to fulfill their [MC USA’s] expectations with transparency.”

The statement lists three areas where the conference says it has taken action. On Feb. 14, the conference announced that it had suspended Yoder’s credentials, pending an investigation by a “Ministerial Credential Review” team. Yoder has since retired. In response to the DSA recommendations, the VMC statement says, “Executive Conference Minister Clyde Kratz developed a pending complaint based upon the report on matters of pastoral ethics. In addition, Aldine Musser, district minister, received additional information from individuals, leading her to supplement the initial charges with the information she received.”

On June 22, 2016, seven current and former members of VMC, including Lauren Shifflett and her sister, Marissa Buck (see timeline below), submitted a formal complaint regarding Lindale pastor Duane Yoder’s response to allegations against Luke Hartman. “In several instances Duane Yoder’s actions have hurt and alienated victims and their families–people God’s church should be most concerned to comfort and protect,” said the complaint.

These complaints were given to a four-person investigation team. Members of the team were not named. (Update on July 24, 10:05 a.m.) Jon Trotter, VMC communications manager, wrote that “staff persons from FaithTrust Institute have encouraged VMC to not disclose names of the investigation team publicly” in a July 24 e-mail. The team is composed of two men and two women, with two retired pastors and two broader VMC representatives.

The team—along with the VMC Faith and Life Commission, the group responsible for credentialing in the conference—participated in two trainings: a one-day event on Healthy Boundaries 101-Fundamentals in June and a second training on Responding to Clergy Misconduct provided by FaithTrust Institute staff members M.L. Daniel and Emily Cohen in July.  The statement says, “With the completion of the Investigation Team training, the Investigation Team is prepared to receive any additional complaints concerning Duane Yoder.”

In addition, VMC’s statement says the conference is working with Lindale and providing “leadership support and monitoring progress on their recommendations.” Jason Kuniholm, former Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Mennonite Conference bishop and former pastor at Frazer (Pennsylvania) Mennonite Church, was appointed as interim pastor in May. Kuniholm will meet monthly with Musser, Kratz and the congregation’s chair for “encouragement and to monitor the progress on the recommendations from MC USA and VMC.”

The VMC statement says the conference forwarded its documents regarding “ministry practice” to FaithTrust Institute for review. The conference plans to update these policies to make them consistent with FaithTrust’s trainings. The VMC Faith and Life Commission and Conference Council will review and approve the documents.

Two conference representatives, Lonnie and Teresa Yoder, attended a Healthy Boundaries training even in Kansas City, Missouri, in May and will provide one-day trainings in each of VMC’s nine regional districts over the next year.

Barbra Graber, a leader with the Anabaptist Chapter of SNAP (Survivor’s Network of those Abused by Priests) and former editor of the Our Stories Untold website, who worked closely with Shifflett, Buck and Kay Ellen (a pseudonym for another individual who filed a complaint against Yoder), says that “church leaders are too slow to take preventative action when risk of harm is evident.”

“That Duane Yoder still holds the mantle of ordination in Christian ministry is an embarrassment to both our denomination and VMC,” wrote Graber in a July 21 email. “All the training in the world, all the well-crafted statements and all the sincere words of care will not stop this epidemic if there is neither the political will nor the moral courage to take swift public action when evidence of egregious wrongdoing on the part of a lay or ordained minister is put forth by multiple voices.”

Terry Shue, director of leadership development for MC USA, has related to VMC conference leaders as they’ve worked to respond to the DSA report. Shue says that he has encouraged the conference to communicate with greater transparency and to keep the public updated regarding their progress.

“I have wished for more transparency,” said Shue in a July 21 phone interview. “But in my conversations with Clyde [Kratz, VMC executive conference minister] over the last six months, I have been convinced that he is taking the recommendations seriously and that they are moving forward. They have embraced the recommendations.”

The VMC statement acknowledges that five months have passed since DSA’s report was released and cited a number of processes leading up to the development of the investigative team that delayed their public statement, including getting training and identifying investigative team members. The VMC statement says, “Securing persons to serve on the Investigation Team was an arduous task. Numerous individuals chose not to be involved in a potentially volatile situation whereby their life and work would be scrutinized by the public.”

“While this work has taken nearly five months to achieve, it was never for the lack of resolve to follow the recommendations of DSA and MC USA. It remains our intention to achieve this work in a timely fashion to the best of our ability.”

Read the full VMC statement online.

Contact the VMC investigation team at InvestigationTeam.vmc2017@gmail.com.

You can contact Barbra Graber and the Anabaptist Mennonite Chapter of SNAP at mennonite@snapnetwork.org or 540-214-8874

Timeline of reporting on this story

August 2014: Lauren Shifflett reports an abusive relationship with Luke Hartman, congregation member and then Vice President for Enrollment at Eastern Mennonite University, to Dawn Monger, Lindale Mennonite Church pastor.

January 2016: Hartman is arrested and charged with solicitation of prostitution. These charges were later dismissed because the statutes for the charge were not met when a specific act was not discussed before money was allegedly exchanged.

March 20, 2016: Lindale leaders write a letter to congregants stating that they have been aware of reports of an abusive relationship since August 2014.

April 12, 2016: Shifflett publishes a first-person account on the website Our Stories Untold.

May 13, 2016: The Mennonite Church USA Panel on Sexual Abuse prevention calls on EMU, Lindale and VMC to “cooperate with an investigation by an outside organization in a timely manner.” The panel recommends GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in Christian Environments) or FaithTrust Institute.

June 15, 2016: MC USA announces the formation of a new committee, with representatives from the panel, EMU, Lindale, MC USA, Mennonite Education Agency and VMC, to select a firm to conduct an outside investigation.

June 22, 2016: Seven individuals file a formal complaint with VMC regarding Duane Yoder’s actions.

August 2, 2016: EMU announces it has contracted with D. Stafford & Associates, a consulting firm, to conduct an outside investigation.

Aug. 3, 2016: The MC USA Panel announces that it is terminating its participation in the investigation. “We cannot affirm the process that resulted in the selection of D. Stafford for EMU, or any process that does not involve Lauren Shifflett.…We are sorry for the ways in which we have been complicit in this and view it as a missed opportunity. Now we are choosing to support Lauren, victims and survivors over this flawed process,” they write.

Sept. 19, 2016: MC USA announces it has contracted with D. Stafford & Associates.

Nov. 28, 2016: EMU releases a report compiled by D. Stafford in consultation with EMU representatives announces findings and recommendations from the D. Stafford review.

Jan. 14, 2017: MC USA releases the full report compiled by D. Stafford, which includes recommendations for the denomination, VMC and Lindale. MC USA staff make public recommendations for VMC and Lindale. According to the report and MC USA’s findings, Duane Yoder, Lindale’s lead pastor, withheld information about reports of abuse from Eastern Mennonite University staff and misrepresented information to Lindale staff and lay leaders “in ways that resulted in protection of [Luke] Hartman [former vice president for enrollment at EMU] rather than support for [survivor Lauren] Shifflett.” Yoder is placed on a structured leave of absence from Lindale.

Feb. 1, 2017:MC USA’s Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention  sends a request to Clyde Kratz, VMC executive conference minister, urging the conference to make a statement regarding VMC’s response to the DSA report.

Feb. 14, 2017: Yoder’s credentials are suspended by VMC, pending a review by an investigative team. Reports emerge of prior complaints against Yoder, including a misconduct file held by MC USA.

June 2017: Clyde Kratz, VMC Executive Conference minister is appointed to the MC USA Executive Director search committee. IntoAccount circulates a call for the MC USA Executive Board to remove Kratz from the committee. After the committee’s first meeting on June 12, Kratz submitted his resignation from the committee.

July 18, 2017: Virginia Mennonite Conference releases statement regarding the conference’s response to D. Stafford’s report and MC USA’s recommendations.

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