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Last updated March 03.

March 3, 2014 issue

Media control

Church needs a free press, open meetings

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.

Comments

  • Thanks for the insight. I was curious what the closed session was all about.

    - Jennifer Yoder (mar 3 at 2:33 p.m.)

  • Paul, you have my deepest gratitude for maintaining yours and MWR's journalistic integrity. Thank you for remaining faithful to your readers and the church.

    - Jake Short (mar 3 at 2:52 p.m.)

  • Paul, I would like to second the thanks of Jennifer for your insights, and the gratitude of Jake for your work (as well as the work of your entire team). You routinely get flak from all sides, but not nearly as much appreciation as you deserve.

    - Charlie Kraybill, Bronx, NYC (mar 3 at 3:02 p.m.)

  • "Emotional safety" is a canard invented to protect privilege. When someone is claiming the illusory "safe space," you can be sure the only safety being insured is that of the status quo.

    As someone who was once a journalist and a Mennonite, I'm grateful for this editorial.

    - Tammerie Day (mar 3 at 3:11 p.m.)

  • "Sunshine laws make meetings, records, votes, deliberations and other official actions available for public observation, participation and/or inspection. -Investopedia

    MC USA Executive Director Ervin Stutzman blocked presence of members of the media in order to "invite a maximum sense of safety for board members to express themselves.” However, as executive director he is charged to consider the safety of all members of the church over the momentary discomfort of the few.

    It is not safe for our districts, our congregations and our members to live as a denomination without the witness and discernment of the church press.

    Our church media are part of the body of the church. They offer unique gifts of listening,processing and sharing what it sees in the church. They are our eyes and ears, faithfully transmitting what they see and hear to the rest of the church body.

    We truly are a body of many gifts. We cannot afford to plug our ears. And to pluck out our denominational eyes does more harm than good for the entire body. It blinds us all.

    At times such as ours, we need all the vision we can get.

    - Audrey Joy Roth Kraybill (mar 3 at 3:11 p.m.)

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    - Stephanie Krehbiel (mar 3 at 3:24 p.m.)

  • "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."

    Yes. Thank you. We need clear-eyed journalism more than ever. I'm sharing this article and also linking to your subscription and donation pages.

    - Kirsten Eve Beachy (mar 3 at 3:27 p.m.)

  • Good job, Paul.

    - Ben Chappell (mar 3 at 3:38 p.m.)

  • Good and much needed words. Thank you, this echoes broader sentiments, I am sure.

    - Philipp (mar 3 at 3:38 p.m.)

  • Kudos and bravo, Paul. As your colleague in Canada, I applaud you for your courage to hold Menno leaders in the US accountable. Shame on them for lowering the "sunshine" bar lower than the government. Media law standards in most states require that all official meetings are open to the public and press except for personnel matters, litigation in process and the buying of property. This is "Ceasar's" standard. Our Anabaptist theology of community calls for a much higher standard, as you have so eloquently pointed out.

    - Dick Benner (mar 3 at 4:07 p.m.)

  • How healing and comforting your words are, Paul. I have often commented how foundational Jesus' words regarding truth telling are for freedom. Dealing with being fake, or having friends who have to be fake, is horribly incarcerating, and cuts all of us off from each other. The truth spoken with love is a thousand times better than hints of love never spoken or lied about. If there was any doubt (there wasn't), my renewal for MWR is on the way!

    - Jonathan Beac hy (mar 3 at 5:40 p.m.)

  • Thank you, Paul. I understand that church leaders are servants of the people, It is difficult to understand why a servant leader would need to feel safe, when many others are in hurting places.

    - Marilyn M. R. Yoder (mar 3 at 5:40 p.m.)

  • And the actions of Stutzman surprise us why? For several years already, sessions of delegates to the convention have been closed to those who are not "official" delegates, discussion has been limited and mikes have been cut off. Closing executive sessions was just the next unsurprising step. Pretty soon we'll have a pope running the whole show (see current issue of The Mennonite).

    - Joan King (mar 3 at 6:18 p.m.)

  • "Media control"? That comes into play only if the press sits in on the executive session. Of course, MWR has responded appropriately: no thank you.

    I don't mind Executive Board members doing their soul-searching behind closed doors but I do mind that they do not then record their votes in public. That's the real issue here.

    - Berry Friesen (mar 3 at 6:33 p.m.)

  • Thank you for posting this. "If then you have been raised up with Christ, keep seeking the things above, where Christ is...set your minds on the things above, not on the things that are on earth...and whatever you do, in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks.." taken from Colossians 3:2,3,17

    - Connie Buller (mar 3 at 7:40 p.m.)

  • Good decision Paul. When I was on the Harrisonburg City School Board there were basically two justifications for going into executive session allowed by state law: personnel issues and legal issues. But all voting had to be in open session. Seems to me that MC USA Executive Board should be at least as, if not more, transparent than a public school board. In both cases, it is our money at work, not to mention the ethical reasons.

    - rick yoder (mar 3 at 7:50 p.m.)

  • Paul--

    Thanks for letting us know of this change in posture toward church press from the MC USA executive board. It's disconcerting in a time when we need our leaders and leadership structures to model healthy dialogue, open process and authenticity in the midst of struggle. Thanks for highlighting and questioning this posture, for reminding us that leadership is risky and for hopefully provoking Mennonite Church USA leaders to reconsider this policy and their perspective.

    - Stephen Kriss (mar 3 at 9:16 p.m.)

  • "...of great interest to the denomination". Basically there are only two sources of the news: Your paper and THE MENNONITE magazine. How many subscribers? How many whole church subscriptions on either magazine these days?

    When one reads the "Reader Responses" it appears the very same names surface over and over again. It is hard to imagine how a denomination can coalice around a sustained and contensious discussion of sex?

    - Jake Hershey (mar 4 at 6:19 a.m.)

  • Thank you, thank you, thank you, Paul Scrag. Thanks for your voice.

    - Barbra Graber (mar 4 at 7:04 a.m.)

  • Paul Thanks for your courage and voice

    Just one clarification, there are at least two Joan Kings in the world so to avoid confusion when I post it will be under the name of Joan kenerson king thanks

    - joan kenerson king (mar 4 at 7:46 a.m.)

  • Thank you, Paul. I value your commitment to your readers and your courage to be so forthright. Your principled journalistic reporting serves the church well.

    - Mary E. Klassen (mar 4 at 8:29 a.m.)

  • As a professional journalist I can say in my experience the times when a governing body goes into privacy mode there is usually great fear attached. This is not at all a justification for the actions of the board. If our leadership cannot find ways to share deeply and personally AND keep the church informed in honest and open ways, then leadership may need to re-think how and why it does business. At this time the church deeply needs open, strong, caring and healthy modeling leadership. I pray that the board will reconsider its actions.

    - J. Tyler Klassen (mar 4 at 10:53 a.m.)

  • Paul, as I read you editorial, I'm reminded that we need an theology of power and authority (and I'm working on that!)

    When I read this passage of your editorial: "It is true: Being a denominational leader isn’t 'safe,'" I wanted to let you know that you've hit the nail on the head! This is something I've experienced personally and it's a real challenge that requires spiritual and intellectual maturity that we don't always foster as a church in part because we don't know how to prepare ourselves for the headiness that often come with power and authority, in part because it's absolutely frightening to be a leader in times of conflict precisely because we can't please everyone and might make a few enemies in the process.

    Sharing power and authority in a church body that is in crisis ain't easy. I pray that we find a way to both "agree to disagree" AND have difficult conversations out in the open.

    - Malinda Berry (mar 4 at 11:29 a.m.)

  • Thank you so much for this clear assessment of the current situation. I appreciate your observation that "Anyone who expects emotional safety probably shouldn’t be an Executive Board member — or, for that matter, a conference moderator or a pastor."

    - Beth Birky (mar 4 at 12:05 p.m.)

  • Ervin Stutzman says,“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.” The answer to that is simple. For a board member there should be no expectation of "emotional safety" so therefore no "need" to balance against the real need for transparency in boards which are supposed to represent the membership. If your emotions do not permit you to share your thoughts with the membership on church issues then you should not be on the board.

    - Herbert Reed (mar 4 at 5:56 p.m.)

  • prophetic

    - Caleb Lázaro Moreno (mar 5 at 2:19 a.m.)

  • Excellent editorial about a disturbing trend in MC USA! One of the greatest missed opportunities in the last ten years has been the lack of modeling by the Executive Board on how the church can disagree on this issue and still be brothers and sisters in Christ together. We have a denominational document titled, "Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love," yet our actions suggest we are scared to death to publicly disagree with each other. It's no wonder our legacy of dealing with hard issues is so poor.

    - Karl S (mar 5 at 11:22 a.m.)

  • Thank you!

    - Tim Barr (mar 5 at 2:24 p.m.)

  • Thank you for sharing this Paul. My initial reaction to reading it was very similar to that of those who have responded above. However as I thought about the probable issues involved and the potential damage to the body likely to occur based on leaderships response to these issues I am not sure that some degree of privacy was not appropriate.

    I can see value in a place where leadership can discuss and evaluate issues in a forum where minds can be open to change without pride and politics getting in the way. We have the right to expect high standards from our leadership but there is a danger that egos may play a significant role when those leaders are in front of those they represent. These are brothers and sisters who we hope are honestly trying to make Godly decisions in a way that prevents the church from crumbling. If we the church feel comfortable with our specific representatives than why do we need specifics?

    I believe the best path lies someplace between a closed and fully open meeting. Possibly including a non-board representative to document the points but not the specifics.

    - SJohnson (mar 6 at 9:35 a.m.)

  • I am totally fearful of the demise of our Church. My little country was 120 and we became 40 because we were seen as being unfaithful. We are now again 140 because of the blessing of recent immigrants from Burma. I wish they could identify with our Mennonite Church but I can be sure. I can only envision our conference losing another 40 percent, our neighboring conferences losing about 30 percent, our collages cut in half. I don't know how we will survive. This editorial is most unfortunate. Let them weep in private. I just don't see anyway out of this. I pray I'm wrong.

    - Jonathan Charles (mar 7 at 1:42 p.m.)

  • Thank you, thank you, Paul Schrag!

    - Laura H. Weaver (mar 8 at 5:06 p.m.)

  • While I understand the importance of a free and open press, at this point in this situation, I think it is best the meeting was closed. Had we seen quotes from individuals on the EB stating their personal opinions or concerns, whoever disagrees with them would immediately say "they are not objective, they can't work on behalf of the whole church, they are prejudiced against....", and there would be immediate calls for their resignations/dismissals. How would that be helpful? There may come a time when it would be important to know what individual members think about this issue, but I do not believe that time is now.

    - Dottie Hathaway (mar 9 at 2:10 p.m.)

  • I am grateful for your comments, Paul. We do need to be open in order to be informed, yes, and also in order to hear the wisdom and the struggle as our leaders try to discern together. I am glad that Luke was present in Jerusalem so that he could give us the Acts 15 account of the early church leaders discerning together.

    At the same time, the problem of the leaders making the choice for executive session is a whole church problem and not just a leadership problem. Our culture has evolved into such polarization. As soon as we disagree with someone, they become less than human and we treat them with less than the respect and love we owe our sisters and brothers in Christ. Here, I am not speaking of the writers of the MWR, but of all of us.

    Can we not be loving enough to our leaders that we disagree with them in ways that still validate their intent to follow God and discern God's will?

    It is true that leaders must accept risk and vulnerability as part of the job. I expect that. And I also agree that regardless of risk, I want my leaders to be willing to have that openness and vulnerability.

    But I also expect that as followers of Christ, we can take our leaders to task in ways that do not cause them to fear. This decision reflects not only on our leaders, but also on how we have treated our leaders. I am sad that they chose to close so much of their meeting. And I am sad that we treat them in ways that cause them to want to close so much of their meeting.

    - Bev Regier (mar 10 at 11:50 a.m.)

  • We expect leaders to speak truthfully and that all matters needing decisions will be made in line with Word of God and not with consideration to worldly values and fears of what the world thinks. After all our faith is built on the steadfastness of "Many a Martyr" standing for truth the Word and against popular belief and even laws. When truthfulness is used in Godly leadership may be harmful to the speaker, ask yourself: What would Menno Simmons' say; "Close the Doors so we can not be heard?" Would he cower behind sealed doors? What is even more alarming is the fact history itself has proven that closed doors from public scrutiny, breeds abuse in many forms. Issues which are considered 'clear cut' according to the Word of God often are NOT 'clear cut' in the 'World' today with its broad interpretation of what is acceptable and 'Politically Correct'. Must we cower behind the doors in fear every time one of these issues are brought forward or do we stand with our forefathers in faith? Standing outright in the knowledge we are standing with our Lord! When we Mennonites begin to fear the world to the point we can not stand 'outright' in out convictions; we are no longer Mennonite.

    - Fred Morgan (mar 10 at 1:22 p.m.)

  • I'm sympathetic to a desire that the Board members have all the help they can get to encourage vulnerable admissions of uncertainty and humble listening that can allow a Spirit-generated unity to slowly (and in great fragility) surface. Isn't that what all our church members want to happen, and indeed are praying will happen? And isn't that atmosphere exponentially less likely to be present when Board members feel even the slightest need to care about a public impression or fear that their admissions might come back to haunt them?

    - hnmiller (mar 11 at 9:46 a.m.)

  • I wonder if persons who post on blogs, not using their full (real) names, also feel that the board should be fully transparent, while reserving the blogger's privacy. There is risk in stating your convictions. And I don't disrespect persons who acknowledge that they are in a state of discernment, both personally and corporately. I read this "media control" by Schrag to be disappointment in not getting the "scoop" or "dirt" on the board members' comments and personal understanding of scripture. Maybe due to the position MWR editors have taken in the issue at hand. When read from that perspective, this article sounds like a spoiled kid that didn't get what they wanted. When I was a firefighter, there were times the media needed to be controlled, for many reasons, including preserving the dignity, privacy, and to show a little respect for the suffering. I think the board is suffering now. Instead of complain about lack of open meetings, let's pray for the issues that cause this anxiety and those in places of extreme responsibility.

    - Jerry Pankratz (mar 16 at 12:41 p.m.)

  • Jerry, you do an injustice to Paul Schrag. He has been a sincere and honest church journalist for many years, often having to balance carefully competing strongly held opinions from readers. On this issue he has allowed the publication of numerous letters on both sides of the issue. To talk about him looking for "scoops" and "dirt" is slander. What evidence do you have that Paul has ever done this? This is not comparable to the need and right of privacy for the victims of a fire. Being "in a state of discernment" is not an excuse for lack of transparency by a representative board. Constituents are supposed to have input into discernment by representative boards. How are they supposed to do that if the boards meet and discern in secret?

    - Herbert Reed (mar 16 at 10:17 p.m.)

  • Herbert, I tend to agree with some of the comments by Dottie and Bev. Have you spoken with any of the board members, either before or after the meeting? Has MWR contacted them for information? Are we so distrusting of them not to take their word? Are we earnestly praying for them and each other? A point I'm trying to make is that this article, while probably accurate, breeds distrust and takes us further down the negative paths, and away from dialogue. When I didn't agree with the choice by Joanna Harrader to preside over a same sex covenant ceremony, I called her to ask questions of clarification and for her rationale in going against the stated conference Confessions. We had nice conversations over the next months, and respect each other for having searched the scriptures, even though we came to different beliefs. I feel this is the way to approach fellow persons in positions of authority with whom we might disagree. But most importantly, pray for them and each other. My earlier comment was intended to point out that usually the extreme left or right views get the most coverage. That's what draws readers to the articles. I also think most of the more conservative MCUSA members are not weighing in, not stating their opinion, rather waiting to see what the leadership says. So let's not try to publish articles giving the results of meetings until the board has time to properly process this very divisive topic. MWR needs to be patient, along with the rest of us.

    - Jerry Pankratz (mar 17 at 10:20 a.m.)

  • Jerry, you can disagree with Paul Schrag's opinion on media access to board meetings without questioning his sincerity and motivation by talking about getting "scoops" and "dirt" and "spoiled kids." That is over the top unfair and disrespectful, in my opinion.

    - Herbert Reed (mar 17 at 1:48 p.m.)

  • Jerry, to the point of the article and your question, "Are we so distrusting that we can't take them at their word?" I would say -

    1) Their vote is their word on the issue and constituents have a right to know what it is. Not every constituent has easy access to board members. That is why church media should have access. You have turned the argument on its head. Transparency breeds trust, not distrust.

    2) Do we so distrust the constituency that we cannot allow them to know how their representatives vote on an issue? Trust goes both ways.

    - Herbert Reed (mar 17 at 2:06 p.m.)

  • My apologies for weighing so late ...

    Jerry Pankratz asks if we are so distrusting that we can't take them at their word? Yes. There are many of us who don't trust denominational leadership. As has been documented by many others, their failures regarding homosexuality over the years are legion and often indefensible. The most recent and maybe the most egregious is the Executive Board's decision to conduct business (ie. take action) behind closed doors, which is a clear violation of the application of executive session.

    What's more, leadership doesn't trust the media for reasons I simply don't understand. MWR in particular has a sterling record of responsible, faithful journalistic service to the church. Paul Schrag has studied at both the University of Kansas, which has one of the finest journalism schools in the country, and at AMBS. Frankly, he is more qualified for his work than many of our "leaders" are for theirs.

    - rdp (mar 22 at 5:59 p.m.)

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