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EMU trustees recommend 'listening process' regarding same-sex relationships and employment

Bonnie Price Lofton - 11/19/13

Eastern Mennonite University

In its regularly scheduled meeting Nov. 15-16, the Eastern Mennonite University board of trustees heard the interest by some faculty, staff, administrators and students for the enlargement of "safe space" for respectful, honest conversations on campus about minority sexual orientation and its implication for access to employment at EMU in Harrisonburg, Va.

In action taken during an executive session the morning of Nov. 16, the board authorized President Loren Swartzendruber and his cabinet "to design and oversee a six-month listening process [beginning January 2014] with EMU's multiple constituencies."

The recommendation issued by the board said, "The purpose of the listening process is to review current hiring policies and practices with respect to individuals in same-sex relationships."

"As a Christian university it is our responsibility to engage in community discussion and discernment over issues that Mennonite congregations—indeed almost all denominations in the United States today—are wrestling with," Swartzendruber told faculty and staff during a 90-minute "University Forum" on the morning of Nov. 18.

He noted that the board made this recommendation unanimously and stressed that the outcome of the "listening process" cannot be predicted in advance of holding it.

In its official statement, the board "reaffirms EMU's relationship with Mennonite Church USA and its practice of biblical discernment in community."

It also reaffirmed "EMU's Academic Freedom policy," which upholds the right of staff, faculty and administrators "to articulate their personal beliefs and values."

Swartzendruber said he would draw on university resources to help him organize a listening process that will encourage all views and voices to be shared widely, with attention "given to relationships and prayer throughout the process."

Citing the thoughts of one board member, Swartzendruber said, "Unilateral decision-making leads to broken relationships and rogue actions. Collaborative decision-making means that a community is functioning well. This board's decision and this process will, I think, show how well our community functions. God is giving us the opportunity to model respect for each other, honesty and integrity."

The listening process is expected to wrap up in time for a report to be delivered to the board of trustees during its June 2014 meeting.

In his Nov. 18 remarks to faculty and staff, Swartzendruber recalled accepting a call in 1978 to be the pastor of a Mennonite congregation in eastern Pennsylvania. He was 28 years old, fresh from Eastern Mennonite Seminary.

Upon arriving, he found a letter on his desk from a gay member, who was now living in an urban area but who welcomed Swartzendruber to the church.

In his pastoral role, Swartzendruber recalled trying to help this gay man and his parents have a healthy familial relationship, but feeling unprepared for this role from his seminary training in that era.

Swartzendruber offered this example in support of "the reality" that discussions within the broader Mennonite church on non-majority sexual orientations have been occurring for decades, including in such publications as the Mennonite World Review and The Mennonite and in Mennonite Church USA forums such as delegate sessions and district conference meetings.

"One responsibility of leadership is to help define reality," said Swartzendruber.

The board also heard upbeat reports on the status of a multi-year fundraising campaign to renovate the Suter Science Center, a record number of applicants to EMU's undergraduate programs and the unexpectedly fast growth of its MA in biomedicine program.