This article was originally published by The Mennonite

VMC delegates hear concerns about ministerial discipline, DSA report

Photo: Executive Conference Minister Clyde G Kratz gives his presentation to delegates. Photo by Jon Trotter. 

At Virginia Mennonite Conference’s Winter Delegate Assembly, held Feb. 4 at Waynesboro (Virginia) Mennonite Church, delegates received a letter regarding the disciplining of Isaac Villegas, were updated on the findings of and response to the D. Stafford & Associates report, and voted to release a congregation from membership.

Response to Villegas’ credentials being suspended

Three delegates presented a motion to VMC delegates in response to the disciplining of Villegas, pastor of Chapel Hill (North Carolina) Mennonite Fellowship. “On May 15, 2016, the conference’s Faith and Life Commission suspended his credentials for performing a same-sex wedding ceremony, despite an extensive Chapel Hill congregational discernment process that unanimously affirmed Pastor Villegas,” the motion reads.

Affirming the resolution on “Forbearance in the Midst of Differences” that was passed by delegates to the Mennonite Church USA general assembly at Kansas City in 2015, the motion calls for VMC to “reinstate Isaac Villegas’ ministerial credentials” and “to allow space for different viewpoints and interpretation of the Spirit’s leading regarding acceptance and inclusion of sexual minorities, without the threat of punishment and loss of relationship with the church at large.”

A second motion, from six pastors and two district ministers, affirmed the action of the Faith and Life Commission.

Action on the motions was delayed until this summer’s delegate assembly. Meanwhile, delegates approved the creation of a polity task force chaired by Phil Kniss, pastor at Park View Mennonite Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia. This six-member group will make recommendations that seek to provide clarity to how authority is exercised at the various levels of the conference structure, including congregational decision-making. The task force will seek to complete its work in one year, then make key recommendations to Conference Council.

Clyde Kratz, executive conference minister of VMC, said that in Virginia Conference “we have navigated our way through” other issues, including divorce and remarriage, church members in the military, and women in church leadership. In each case, the conference studied the issues from a biblical standpoint. He announced that the conference is planning a consultation of biblical scholars and pastors to study the biblical texts regarding homosexuality.

Yoder’s credentials suspended, review ongoing

Kratz reported results of an investigation by D. Stafford & Associates (DSA) that focused on VMC and Lindale Mennonite Church, Linville, Virginia. The report, along with recommendations from MC USA staff, was released to the public on Jan. 14. Kratz said he is committed to conducting a ministerial credential review for Duane Yoder under the rubric of “abuse of power.” At the time, Yoder was on administrative leave from Lindale and had informed the congregation he will be retiring and not return to the congregation as pastor.

On Feb. 1, members of the MC USA Panel on Sexual Abuse Prevention sent an email to Kratz, urging the conference to make a statement regarding the DSA report. “Given that silence begs to be filled with assumptions based on a lack of information, we urge VMC to make some initial communication that acknowledges receipt of the report, outlines intentions regarding the recommendations, and commits to further communication as the conference and congregation begin to act on those recommendations. Any communication is also an opportunity to express remorse for harms experienced and a commitment to learn from mistakes to better respond to disclosures and support victims of sexual violence,” wrote the panel.

In a Feb. 14 press release, Virginia Mennonite Conference announced that the Faith and Life Commission had made a decision to suspend Yoder’s ministerial credentials immediately. The statement said, “FLC acted on Executive Conference Minister Clyde Kratz’s recommendation. The action to suspend Duane Yoder’s credentials was based on information from the DSA report, findings from Aldine Musser, Northern District Minister and a complaint issued locally against Duane Yoder. More recently, Barbra Graber, a leader in the Anabaptist Mennonite Chapter of SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests), has passed on additional documentation.”

Meanwhile, others have done their own investigation into  the process of responding to reports of abuse. On Feb. 7, Dr. Stephanie Krehbiel and Jennifer (Jay) Yoder, founders of Into Account, released their own report, which included their own timeline of events involving both Luke Hartman, former Vice President for Enrollment at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and Duane Yoder, as well as responses from staff and leaders at EMU, Lindale Mennonite Church, MC USA and VMC.

The report cites sources, which The Mennonite has confirmed, that a previous misconduct file regarding Duane Yoder is held at MC USA.* (See correction below) The report also cites documentation from two members of the pastoral search committee at Lindale Mennonite Church that hired Duane Yoder, who say they were never made aware of these misconduct files during the hiring process.

“We don’t think that most people understand the wider context and we wanted a clear, easy context for people to be able to see all the pieces together,” said Jay Yoder in a Feb. 14 phone interview. “The DSA report was really limited in scope.”

Both Krehbiel and Jay Yoder emphasized that too often, congregations and institutions try to manage processes that are “out of their depth of expertise.” They also expressed concern that the DSA report had “scapegoated” a few individuals without examining broader institutional culture and decisions which did not adequately address reports of abuse.

“I think what we tried to highlight is that in each individual moment, a decision-maker felt like they were making a small decision or a decision just related to that moment and report, and what we know about sexualized violence is you always have to take a step back and really do some digging and think about what is the wider context,” said Jay Yoder.

Read more advice for congregations and institutions from IntoAccount

Kratz said that VMC will utilize FaithTrust Institute in both the formation and implementation of the ongoing Ministerial Credential Review process.

VMC delegates also voted to release Mountain View Mennonite Church, Lyndhurst, Virginia, from conference membership. The leadership of the congregation secured an almost unanimous decision to withdraw from Virginia Mennonite Conference. Key issues in this withdrawal include a congregational desire to uphold their interpretations of biblical authority, a perspective of Scripture as “inerrant and infallible,” and a desire for leadership that exercises authority when individuals and/or congregations move beyond the agreed-upon beliefs and practices of the faith community.

*Correction: A previous edition of this story mentioned two files held by MC USA staff. The staff of The Mennonite, Inc. have only adequately confirmed reports of one file being held by MC USA staff, although Krehbiel and Jay Yoder mention two reports. Names and information from misconduct files are not released to the public (including the church press) by MC USA staff.

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