Several weeks ago, we published two narratives on our survivor story blog Our Stories Untold, both written by our Director of Theological Integrity Hilary Jerome Scarsella. In the first narrative, Hilary tells her experience of being raped in 2009 by a fellow student at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, and the subsequent failure of the school to respond to that assault as a sexual assault. In the second narrative, Hilary describes the successful restitution process she went through with AMBS this year, a process made possible in large part because AMBS’s outgoing president, Sara Wenger Shenk, set the tone with her respectful and trauma-informed treatment of Hilary and of myself as Hilary’s advocate.
Many of you reading know just how rare this is. Higher education administrators are not, as a group, known for handing it well when survivors make demands. And to be clear: there are no just outcomes without demands. Hilary made demands; this was not a successful process because she was in any way compliant. Survivors frequently walk away from processes like these having been essentially branded as an enemy of the institution. That didn’t happen here, and it’s largely to Sara’s credit, because Sara demonstrated an understanding that restitution isn’t just window dressing.
After hearing the news about AMBS’s preferred candidate to replace Sara as president, David Boshart, both Hilary and I are feeling the need for an asterisk on the success of her process. To explain why, we’re sharing two letters here. Both have been sent to the AMBS presidential search committee, and both express the core problems with Dave’s career, from a justice perspective: his general theological rigidity, his regressive gender complementarianism, and his long history of disdainful, spiritually abusive treatment of LGBTQ+ people. All of these things are indisputably disastrous for sexual violence prevention.
The first letter is from Lisa Pierce. Lisa is a writer, an M.Div., and a lay leader in the St. Paul Mennonite Fellowship of Mennonite Church USA. (For wider context, during the events that Lisa describes here, Mennonite Church USA was in the process of forming through a merger of two now-defunct smaller denominations. Throughout that process, LGBTQ+ people were objectified and dehumanized as “the issue” that must be resolved in order for the merger to succeed.)
The second letter is from Hilary.
We share these letters now because Hilary’s successful process with AMBS must not be co-opted into an institutional narrative that erases the trauma of other survivors, that asserts a false peace while silent suffering continues, and that elevates Hilary as a chosen survivor on the backs of people who do not fall within Dave’s narrow-minded understanding of the body of Christ. If he is appointed, we fear that outcome, and must actively fight against it.
If you agree, you can contact AMBS’s Presidential Search Committee as well, at AMBSPresSearch@MennoniteEducation.org
My body remembers stress and unearned shame when I hear his name.
Dear Members of the Presidential Search Committee,
My name is Lisa Pierce. I write to you from the margins of the denomination. I am a member of Saint Paul Mennonite Fellowship, a lay-led congregation that has served in the diverse, urban West Side Neighborhood of Saint Paul, Minnesota, for more than thirty-five years. We are members of Central District Conference; we transferred to that conference seven years ago from Central Plains Conference. Prior to the formation of MCUSA, we were members of Northern District Conference. I write to you as an individual and my words here should be interpreted as my own opinions. I am theologically educated, having earned a Master of Divinity from United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities in 1997.
I write to you with concern over the possible appointment of Dr. David Boshart as President of AMBS. My concern grows from my congregation’s interaction with David when he led the Faith, Life, and Procedures Committee of the then newly-merged Central Plains Conference. I have little doubt that David’s conscience is clear regarding his treatment of Saint Paul Mennonite Fellowship in that role—and that is part of the problem. He seems to get credited with creating a process that enabled conferences in conflict with congregations over the welcome of LGBTQ people to merge in the creation of MCUSA. In my experience, he created a process which allowed Central Plains Conference to merge on the back of Saint Paul Mennonite Fellowship.
Under David’s leadership, the committee established “A Mission-Focused Approach to Congregations at Variance with Conference,” which shifted focus from disciplining congregations at variance to controlling pastors, a change that many have heralded, but I saw two negative outcomes from this. First, the process utterly failed to address our reality as a lay-led congregation. That was our first hint that there would be little attention paid to our congregation’s unique ministry, mission, and context, and its value to the Central Plains Conference and MCUSA. In adopting an approach that failed at base to consider our ministry context, the committee demonstrated indifference, at best, toward congregations whose form and mission are shaped by diverse cultural realities.
Second, I witnessed pastors in another welcoming congregation have to defend their credentials through a process that forced them to distance themselves from their own congregation with a wink and a nod in order to maintain their credentials and a pretense of “peace” with the conference. Pastors in Central Plains and around MCUSA who served communities that welcomed LGBTQ people were forced to make difficult choices between maintaining the credentials that allow them to do the work of ministry and maintaining their own theological integrity and that of their congregations. As a lay-led congregation, we were not as easily leveraged into making statements to create a false sense of “peace” for the sake of “peace” that was always meant to belong to the majority, but not the whole.
When our congregation refused to “affirm” the entirety of the Confession of Faith, we offered, instead, to more honestly “acknowledge” the Confession, including a commitment to teach the actual positions of the church as the positions of the church. This was not enough to keep at bay others in the conference who demanded not to be in fellowship with us. There was nothing that would quiet them and leadership seemed either uninterested or unable to confront their unjust behavior. They would not be satisfied until we were disciplined. So, in spite of the fact that we were a member in full of Northern Plains District, not disciplined going into the merger, we were forced into a position of being disciplined by a newly forming conference in order to simply maintain a place in the church.
At no point did David or other leaders ask those who opposed us in the conference to defend their positions theologically. Nor was the Confession of Faith used as a litmus test for any other issue beyond the welcome of LGBTQ people in the church. We were allowed by leaders to become the sole lightening rod of conference politics during the merger. The conference was a diverse group of congregations, yet it was only our diversity that was unwelcome. Congregations and pastors were not asked to defend their aggressive behavior toward us, nor their variance on positions against women in ministry or in support of U.S. military participation or any number of other theological differences in the new conference. Boshart and the other conference leaders allowed our congregation to become the sole battlefield of merger conflict, as if the battle waged there would have no impact on actual bodies, on actual lives. We alone were asked to defend our position theologically and our defense was rejected by David because we sourced not only Anabaptist theology, but also Liberation and Feminist theologies. We alone were disciplined, in spite our commitment to honestly teach the church’s positions as the church’s positions.
On the surface, it seems that the disciplining of Saint Paul Mennonite Fellowship resulted in the simple loss of our vote in Central Conference matters and some limitations on our participation in certain leadership roles in the conference. This way of understanding church discipline, however, is through the lens of authority. Here’s what it actually looked like from the margins: Yes, we lost our vote and that impacted our ability to participate fully in conference, but more than that, we were alienated from the resources and relationships that help congregations to do the work of Christ in their individual contexts.
We were treated by fellow congregations as if we were unclean, even dangerous. People grew defensive and avoidant in our presence. Members of our congregation were made to feel shame—often in a particularly sexualized way—that did not comport with the Gospel and its message of Grace. Some families found themselves on both sides of the line of discipline. Within our congregation, we began to grapple with conflict over whether to stay in Central Plains Conference and struggle for justice on behalf of LGBTQ youth across the conference, or to seek better support elsewhere. We considered both inside and outside MCUSA, but eventually chose Central District Conference and MCUSA. Along the way, members grew exhausted. Physical and mental illnesses were exacerbated by the stress. Some left our congregation. some left MCUSA, some left Christianity. This is what church discipline looks like from the margins. It looks like the thinning of, the sickening of, the stressing of the body of Christ. It certainly did not look like mission, or unity, or reconciliation, or Christ-like care.
So I come to you with concerns about advancing Dr. David Boshart’s leadership in this critical moment of church history. I don’t think David is a bad man, but my body remembers stress and unearned shame when I hear his name. David is a smart, hard working, committed guy. He’s Anabaptist through and through. He’s comes to you via a familiar path through education and leadership. He is, I’m sure, an easy and comfortable choice. But when you hear his name, I want you to think about the edge of the knife on which the church stands. What will it take for the church to survive and thrive in the 21st century?
What I learned about David during the merger is that his vision of church unity goes something like this: It is unity if it looks like us, sounds like us, behaves like us, or at least pretends like it will until the merger is complete. Maybe that’s the kind of effective manager some people long for during a complex merger . . . someone who makes it work even while keeping it all under a pretense of peace and the shine of unity. Someone who makes the parts that don’t seem to fit disappear. But is that what the denomination needs in the leader of theological education? Someone for whom there is only one right way to speak of God, who wears blinders to the rest of the world? Someone for whom a pretense of peace is an adequate substitute for an ethic of justice? Someone whose vision of unity requires scapegoats? I ask you these questions from the margins of the church: Does he represent the future of the church? Is this the model of church leadership that will sustain a diverse denomination in the global Anabaptist movement for the 21st century? If so, then on whose backs?
Saint Paul, Minnesota
The sense of hope I developed over the last year disintegrated.
Dear Members of the Presidential Search Committee,
Some of you may have read news last week of the sexual assault I experienced on campus as an AMBS student, the school’s initial mishandling of my report, and the process I pursued with AMBS this last year to account for the institution’s failures. If you are not familiar with the story, here are the relevant links.
As I have said publicly, I consider this last year’s process a success, and success in these matters is incredibly rare. Success is so rare that in my years of working as an advocate for survivors of sexual violence, this is the first I have witnessed. AMBS has an opportunity to lean into its growing sensitivity to matters of sexual violence and lead the way among Christian institutions of higher education in developing theologically robust, ethically sensitive, and practically achievable programs of sexual violence prevention, response, and theological education. This past year, I have developed sincere hope that AMBS may, in fact, step into this role. Today’s theological landscape needs AMBS to do so.
When I learned last week that AMBS’s candidate of choice for President is Dr. David Boshart, the sense of hope I developed over the last year disintegrated. AMBS will not be able to continue its trajectory toward theological leadership with respect to sexual violence if Dr. Boshart is at the helm.
I speak as a survivor. I also speak as a theologian, as an ethicist, as an intellectual and practical sexual violence specialist, as a seminary professor (newly this year), as an alumnus, as a former leader of Mennonite Church USA’s Women in Leadership Project, and as a Mennonite. It is my job to speak toward that which resists sexual violence and that which enables it. I am confident that installing Dr. Boshart as AMBS’s next president will compromise AMBS’s ability to engage issues of sexual violence with integrity.
I assume that Dr. Boshart’s desire and intention is to do right by survivors, but desire and intention do little when not backed by the specific resources and skills that enable follow-through. Based on my reading of Dr. Boshart’s published work, my observation of his leadership style as board member and moderator of Mennonite Church USA, and reports of his leadership made to me by sexual violence survivors who have worked more closely with him, I do not think that Dr. Boshart operates from a theological perspective that is equipped to engage sexual violence well. And I do not think that he has the leadership tools critically necessary for ethically addressing sexual violence at the institutional level. His intellectual and theological approach to gender and sexuality is thoroughly ill-equipped to analyze situations of sexual violence effectively. He routinely demonstrates a tendency toward conflict avoidance that prioritizes “keeping peace” over standing with those who have been wronged. Had AMBS’s current president, Sara Wenger Shenk, shared these qualities, my attempt to pursue institutional acknowledgment, accountability, and restitution this last year would have failed.
In fact, Sara’s leadership was essential to the success of the process I pursued this last year. My colleague, Stephanie Krehbiel, said it well:
“This would not have happened without the outgoing AMBS president, Sara Wenger Shenk. She was our main contact person throughout this process, and she led her colleagues into accountability in a way I’ve never seen in any other higher ed administrator. She was respectful, patient, and trauma-informed. She took this process seriously, and without any fanfare whatsoever, at nearly every juncture and potential crisis point, she followed Hilary’s lead.”
Sexual violence cannot be addressed well in institutions of higher education (practically or in the classroom) without strong leadership that is both committed to and equipped for the task. I believe that a good portion of AMBS’s faculty are committed to developing the seminary toward the vision that President Wenger Shenk modeled. I believe that, regardless of who AMBS’s next president is, AMBS faculty want the seminary to continue to work toward engaging sexual violence with theological, ethical, and practical integrity. I also know that the faculty’s power to do this will be severely limited if their president is not equipped to lead the way.
Sexual violence survivors are watching and hoping. If you install Dr. Boshart as president, you will be sending a silent but powerful message to survivors across the church that you do not hear them, that you do not understand sexual violence well enough to see that Dr. Boshart’s leadership will not only limit but compromise AMBS’s ability to engage sexual violence well, or that you do understand this but do not value ethical theological engagement with sexual violence highly enough to prioritize this in the decisions you make regarding the seminary’s future.
I cannot end this letter without observing that failure to affirm and celebrate LGBTQ gender and sexuality is a form of sexual violence. Theological arguments that frame LGBTQ gender and sexuality as separate from that which is fully blessed and celebrated by God directly fuel a cultural ethos that costs LGBTQ persons their health, their safety, and their lives. No matter the spirit in which such arguments are offered, they result in LGBTQ deaths. This theological and cultural violence is violence perpetrated on the basis of a sexual logic. And in this way, it is sexual violence. Dr. Boshart has vocally espoused a binary, complementarian view of gender (which is oppressive to cis women in addition to trans and nonbinary persons). He has argued that the church should not conduct marriage ceremonies between persons of the same gender. He has contributed to decisions within Mennonite Church USA that have excluded LGBTQ persons from ministry and from full affirmation by the church. Regardless of how he shapes AMBS’s policies and educational options with respect to LGBTQ gender and sexuality, his presence as President will make AMBS a hostile environment for LGBTQ students, staff, and faculty. Many LGBTQ Mennonites will, no doubt, choose not to attend AMBS, and the broader church will miss out on the gifts of their ministry. If you install Dr. Boshart as President, you will be sending a message to all LGBTQ Mennonites and the people who love and support them that the primary educational setting for ministry in the North American Mennonite Church affirms their exclusion. This will, without a doubt, set the course for the development of the seminary in years to come.
I cannot overstate how dismayed I am to learn, one week after my hope in AMBS as an institution was restored, that the seminary is about to make a decision that will undo what I and the AMBS personnel involved in my case worked for these last fifteen months. Please know that I have chosen my words carefully. I have not written in haste. I do sincerely believe that installing Dr. Boshart as president of AMBS will unravel the critically important theological, ethical, and institutional progress woven through AMBS’s recent acknowledgement of its failures with respect to sexual violence and its commitments to prioritize theologically robust sexual violence prevention and response going forward.
Thank you for your attention and consideration.
Hilary Jerome Scarsella