Torching My Career to Tell the Truth at AMBS

by | Aug 24, 2023


by Susannah Griffith, PhD

I knew telling my story would be costly. I didn’t know that it would be this costly.

I published my story in Anabaptist World because I saw institutions related to the Mennonite Church USA ignore and minimize abusive behavior again and again. I wanted to share my first-hand experience with one of those institutions–Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS)–and acknowledge the ways that AMBS employees both helped me and pushed me toward danger. Through the process of my separation and divorce, I received many gestures of care from the AMBS community, along with harmful admonitions about forgiveness and reconciliation. Both happened. I thought, and still think, that I wrote a piece that exposed the damaging patterns at AMBS while also expressing gratitude for tremendous support and generosity.

A few weeks after the publication of my Anabaptist World piece, I had a routine meeting with the seminary’s academic dean for a third year review. Most of the meeting went fine. I had largely positive feedback from students and colleagues about my performance. However, at the end of the meeting, the dean told me that it was her duty as my supervisor to apprise me of my “obligation to only represent the institution in a positive light.” She told me that I could expect future meetings with more AMBS personnel to determine the future of my employment at AMBS.

Leaving the meeting, trembling, I could barely believe what I had heard. My story was offensive to AMBS administrators not because it was false, but because, they believed, it made AMBS look bad. My experience, the experience of other survivors, was secondary to institutional preservation. My job had been threatened in retaliation for my daring to tell the truth about my situation and AMBS’s response.

That day hastened the decision I’d already contemplated, the decision to resign. If I had to choose between integrity for survivors and institutional preservation, I would choose the truth of integrity every time.

I reached out to Into Account for support because I feared future retaliation. Stephanie Krehbiel, as my advocate, did not control my response to the institutional violence I had already experienced, but supported me in making the decisions that I needed to make for myself. Two weeks after the meeting with the dean, I sent in my resignation letter.

In the letter, I asked for a modest severance package, a request which AMBS granted. I believe that part of AMBS’ motivation to grant the severance came from public pressure generated through Into Account’s social media activity on my behalf. AMBS clearly stated in the severance agreement that granting the money did not amount to any admission of culpability. I gave up my right to sue AMBS in order to get some money to help my family.

I thought that AMBS and I were basically done with each other. I packed up my office there with not a few tears and help from my husband and a colleague.

Then, weeks after my resignation, Stephanie Krehbiel notified me that the husband of the AMBS dean and Title IX coordinator called Stephanie’s father. (Can we just stop to marvel at the patriarchy going on here?) The two had no prior relationship (and let’s not even pretend that a prior relationship would have made this contact okay). The dean’s husband berated Stephanie’s father about his out-of-line daughter and complained how all of these “difficult women” were making his spouse’s job too difficult. He implied that both Hilary Scarsella (an Into Account staff member and AMBS alumna) and I lied about our experiences of AMBS’ mishandling of gender-based violence at AMBS.

Hearing about this phone call was intensely retraumatizing for me. The dean’s husband’s behavior confirmed everything I had written about in my Anabaptist World article and more. AMBS had not previously admitted culpability for any of the abuse and harassment I’d reported, but they could not deny what the dean’s husband had done.

I requested–and after several days and some prodding by other advocates–received an apology from the dean and president of AMBS for the harassing phone call. (This apology was mostly copy-and-pasted from one that the dean had sent to Stephanie in response to Stephanie’s email reporting the phone call.)

In the wake of this episode, I did not receive the public admission of wrongdoing from AMBS that I had said was necessary. The dean is still, to my knowledge, in place as Title IX coordinator, despite the obvious violations that took place in order for this phone call to be possible. (How did her husband know what he knew about the “difficult women” he was complaining about without clear breaches of privacy and confidentiality?)

In the end, though, what hurt most was not the administration’s hints at retaliation and failure to take full responsibility. It was the shunning I received from most of the community. People I’d considered friends wouldn’t speak to me. Emails I sent asking for solidarity were largely ignored. I was taken off all AMBS email lists weeks before my resignation went into effect. I felt a crushing grief as I became more and more isolated, in which the silence of friends declared that my pain and the injustice of it all didn’t matter.

My experiences with AMBS are problematic not only because they harmed me, personally, but also because they communicate damaging realities:
1) If you’re being abused, but you want to still have a community, you should stay quiet about it.
2) If you want to perpetrate abuse, AMBS is a great community in which to do it. You can count on immediate efforts at reconciliation, and for others to keep the secret of your actions safe for you.

Moving forward, I don’t expect that AMBS administrators will respond to any communications that I would attempt to have with them. However, this is what I think should happen going forward:
1) AMBS should publicly acknowledge its ongoing complicity in gender-based violence;
2) The current dean should, at minimum, step down from her role as Title IX coordinator;
3) Potential applicants to my vacant position, as well as prospective students to the seminary, should be well aware of the fact that AMBS is not an environment that is safe for survivors. In other words, if you are a survivor or care about survivors, don’t go there right now.

Telling my story about abuse at AMBS has been, professionally, the most costly choice I’ve ever made. I’m feeling the repercussions painfully and continually. But I would not go back. What I wrote at the end of my Anabaptist World article matters too much to me:

“Forgiveness doesn’t mean anyone has to stay in relationship with their abuser. Reconciliation is the work of God, not the burden of survivors.”

If those words are too controversial to be heard in the AMBS community, I don’t belong there.

About intoaccount
Support for Survivors of Sexualized Violence


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