After hearing Lauren Shifflet’s & Kay Ellen’s stories, I felt compelled to write the following article.
Lauren and Kay have been victims of betrayal from their churches and church families. They trusted their ministers and church elders to protect them and help them grow spiritually. They could not have known that just the opposite would happen to them. Both of them were basically forced out of the churches in which they grew up and where their families and friends congregated. They stood alone while lies were told about them – lies that were later revealed to the world – showing they told the truth while churches leaders did not.
I have spent my entire life following practices that kept me from being a victim. I taught my children how not to become victims. I emphasized behavior that kept from putting myself and my family at risk. Lock your doors. Wear your seatbelt. Park under a street light at night, etc. So it is with bitter irony that I discover I have been a victim… or a sucker… or both. Again.
In the late 80’s and early 90’s, I had to file an antitrust suit against the largest plumbing wholesalers in the United States. Using unfair and unlawful practices, they aggressively came after me and attempted to put me out of business. It was un-American as well as a clear violation of business laws. I hired a high powered attorney. As part of the suit, my attorney asked me to make two lists of the people we would be deposing for depositions: one list of people who I thought would tell the truth, and another list of people who would not tell the truth. I made the list and upon giving it to him, he asked me why I thought the names on the “truth-teller” list would tell the truth. I said it was quite simple. They were Christians and churchgoers. He told me it was his experience that Christians were in fact the untruthful ones. I was shocked. I didn’t believe him. My husband and I wondered what kind of church he went to that he would hold that opinion. It certainly wasn’t my church, or my church friends.
As time moved on, I learned who was supportive of me and who was not. And there were friends, families, and church people in both groups. I was counseled by church people that I was not to sue my brothers, but to take these matters to the church. I responded that they weren’t my ‘brothers,’ they were my enemies. Then I was told to pray for them. Some in my family agreed with the church’s position that I should settle all conflicts inside the walls of the church and not file a lawsuit. They were vocal in their criticism of me. The most vocal was my dad and we were close. It was gut wrenchingly horrible. I did not like disappointing my dad. However, just before he died he told me “Annamary, I didn’t understand what your lawsuit was all about and now I do. Please forgive me. I’m sorry.”
Anyway, one day a businessman from my church came to my store and told me he thought I was doing the right thing. He had had to file lawsuits in his career and he understood what I was going through. I cried; my relief was palpable. For someone who had grown up in the Mennonite church, who had been a Sunday school teacher and had gone into Voluntary Service, his support meant the world. But his was the lone dissenting voice. It seemed that all the other Mennonites in our community did not understand my unwillingness to be treated badly. They did not understand that standing up for myself in the face of a serious injustice was a healthy thing, a good thing. The weight of their disapproval made it too painful to attend church, knowing they were upset with me over something for which I felt I had no choice.
As the lawsuit progressed, I had to admit my attorney was correct. Most of the truth tellers were those who drank and caroused at night, played golf instead of going to church, raced cars instead of teaching Sunday School. These people seemed to know true right from wrong – and they understood that what was being done to me was wrong.
Some of the people on the truth-teller list, the church-going Christians, expressed fear of losing their jobs in their depositions. I guess they thought the Lord would protect the sparrows, but not them. Or maybe they were just taking their 'brother's' side. I don’t know, but I was deeply hurt, and I had just learned through these depositions that a close friend had instigated the betrayal of me and was behind this push to put me out of business. This all happened at the most vulnerable time of my life. So I built fences. No, actually I built walls. So high and so thick no one could penetrate them to get to me.
After the lawsuit, my attorney told me, “Annamary, I see the walls you have built. I hope you will learn to let people into your life. You have learned some valuable lessons and you should share your experiences.” But by that time I didn’t want to share – I wanted to be left the hell alone.
Nine years later I sold my business and became involved with Christian Fellowship Mission (CFM). This non-profit independent organization did charitable work in Haiti and was based in Sarasota, Florida. My husband and I had been involved in this Mennonite mission for some time, but I had dropped out as the demands of the lawsuit and running my business took up too much time. John stayed involved. When the man who was treasurer of the mission did not want to continue in that role I became involved again and started doing the bookkeeping. My husband and I ratcheted up the fundraising– getting more people involved and bringing in more contributions.
Enter Duane Yoder, the charismatic, energetic minister at Bayshore Church in Sarasota, part of Mennonite Church USA’s Southeast Mennonite Conference. I liked his personality, saw myself in some of it, and felt I might be able to be friends with him and his wife. He felt the same way about us, and at one point said, “Come to my church. I will make you an elder.” I told him I didn’t want to be an elder and didn’t want to go to his church. I told him about the lawsuit and he looked me straight in the eye and said, “Annamary, you can trust me.” And I almost felt like I could.
As time progressed, and I saw Duane at the CFM monthly board meetings held at our house, I let a crack in my wall, and then a hole large enough for Duane and other board members to slip in. I was happy with my life and my mental health again, after some very rough waters.
We started going to church again – not Duane’s church, but the church we used to attend. And then I heard Duane had resigned from Bayshore Church and was moving to Virginia to a new church. He explained it to me. “Annamary,” he said, “I had a young woman come in for counseling. I gave her a hug and she took it the wrong way. Her father is very influential in the church and was making a big deal out of it, so I decided to leave and move to Virginia. I have always wanted to teach Bible at a college, and if I move to Harrisonburg I will have that opportunity.” I knew he was a hugger – but so am I. I was sad he was leaving but believed the reasons he left were what he told me. I trusted him.
Later we purchased a summer home in the Linville, VA area – just a few miles from Harrisonburg – and his church was only 2 miles away. We started attending his church. We went out to dinner with him and his wife. We had them to our house for a birthday party. I genuinely liked him and adored his wife. But things didn’t quite add up.
People at the golf course he liked to play referred to him as the “potty mouthed preacher.” But, hey, I have a potty mouth, so all is still good. He referred to another one of our friends as practicing “voodoo religion.” He excoriated and demeaned a successful business man on the church council with an 8th grade education for having the nerve to argue with HIM, when he had a college degree and was working on a PhD. My father had a 6th grade education and was one of the smartest, best read men I have ever met. Duane referred to a conservative Christian as a “despicable right wing fundamental asshole,” and accused the daughter of a friend who moved out of state of “probably paying her bills by being a prostitute.” Flags started waving. If he is referring to our close inner circle like this, what is he saying about my husband and me behind our back? Around this same time, my husband lost his mom, had serious, painful shoulder surgery, and then lost his only sister to a brain tumor. More rough waters. We never heard one word from our pastor, our ‘friend’.
Then we learned about the situation in Harrisonburg, and how Duane, as lead pastor at Lindale Mennonite Church, covered up for Luke Hartman, a youth leader and university vice president from his congregation who was reportedly seeing prostitutes and coercing a young woman from Lindale Mennonite Church to have sex with him. We learned that Luke stalked the young woman and she was so afraid for her life she went to Lindale Church (her and her family’s church) to get help in keeping him away from her.
And then I learned there was a secret, sealed file sent from Sarasota to Harrisonburg before they hired Duane, but that the pastoral search committee at Lindale never saw it. I learned that Duane had agreed in Hesston, Kansas – where he pastored prior to his Sarasota job – to never counsel a woman in private. I learned that Virginia Mennonite Conference officials believed the issues had been “resolved” and Duane had been “restored” so there was no need for them to open his file. I learned more about the young woman from Bayshore Church, how she had been stalked by Duane and that she had filed a complaint against him.
I learned from the Mennonite USA probe by D. Stafford and Associates that Duane was “untruthful” when he spoke with Eastern Mennonite University about Luke Hartman. I learned Duane was “untruthful” when he told his associate pastor that he had informed the college of everything he knew. I learned that, somehow, the grooming, sexual bad behavior and subsequent stalking by Luke Hartman was, according to Duane, “a consensual affair with an 18-19 year old girl which had happened before EMU hired him.”
I learned of more allegations from Hesston regarding both Duane and Luke. I learned that the people in the Mennonite hierarchy had promised one of the young women from Bayshore Church that Duane would never be hired at another church without that church knowing what he had done in Florida – while at the same time telling Duane that his file would never see the light of day and that he had been restored. I learned that since all this was exposed Duane represented to a church in Richmond, a city two hours from Harrisonburg, that he was on sabbatical leave when he applied for a job there, instead of letting them know he was under a ministerial credentialing review. I learned that finally Virginia Mennonite Conference stepped in and suspended his license while a full review is ongoing, a situation that probably would not have happened if Barbra Graber and the Anabaptist Mennonite Chapter of SNAP had not shared their documentation on Duane.
I learned that bad behavior is excused by naïve enablers who say, “But he has done so much good!” I learned that protecting the sinner is more important than turning families against families, friends against friends, blood relatives against blood relatives and church leaders against the victims. When the division in the church becomes so strong that it forces people out who have grown up in that church with their friends, where is the good in that?
When church policy allows you to cover up and conceal the sins of the offender while pointing your finger and demonizing the victim, where is the good in that? When the most vulnerable children share with their Sunday school teachers their problems and situations in their life with which they need help, and then those reasons are thrown back at them later in life to make them feel worthless, where is the good in that? When blaming the victim becomes so strong that you repeatedly consider suicide, where is the good in that? When you lied about someone for a year (and finally admit you were the one that was lying,) where is the good in that?
When abusers are not called out, but allowed to preach and teach all over the entire United States and then later their indiscretions, bad behavior, and lies are open to the public, where is the good in that? We encourage non-believers to become part of our church and then later drive them to question their beliefs and doubt the very existence of God. Where is the good in that?
I learned that some sins are forgivable and some are not. (Apparently, exposing your minister and church elders for bad behavior is not forgivable, but the bad behavior is.)
I now doubt a lot of things I have been taught in the Mennonite church and that is the understatement of the year. I cannot reconcile that ministers who believe in heaven & hell could or would stand up in front of the church and preach on family values while making sexual advances on members of their congregation and soliciting prostitutes. I cannot reconcile that someone could believe you would burn in hell for lying, and then lie. For a year. I cannot reconcile that leaders of the church are more interested in protecting themselves from lawsuits than protecting the victims that were harmed and preventing future victims from harm. I cannot reconcile that church leaders believe it is okay to have sealed files on this earth, while believing all will be unsealed in the next world. I cannot reconcile that a “Christian” college can believe it is okay, as long as they have not violated the letter of the law, to conceal, defend, and protect someone who threatens, abuses, and shames victims.
But most importantly, I learned to patch that hole in the wall surrounding me. I learned to keep building my wall higher and thicker. And I doubt that anyone, who is not already inside that wall, will ever be inside of it. If you aren’t already inside my wall, and I don’t know you, then I don’t think I want to know you. You might be extended family by birth, but I don’t recognize you as part of my family. You might attend the same church as I did, but we will probably only say hi in passing. You might know things that would make my life easier, and vice versa, and at one time maybe we could have been friends. But we will probably never know.
I don’t know where this journey will end for me, but it will be even more difficult now to trust people who are not already part of my life. Because of my pastor’s actions and the actions of my church, I have been thrown back into a crisis of faith.
Annamary welcomes your private messages. They may be sent to her through Barbra Graber at firstname.lastname@example.org.
We invite others with more information about Duane Yoder or any other offending church leader, lay or ordained, to find the courage to come forward. We urge you to report what you have seen, suspected, or suffered to independent agencies such as civil authorities, crisis centers, specially trained therapists, legal professionals, or independent survivor networks like our own. This is a practice of solidarity and care that tangibly contributes to the safety and integrity of our communities.
4 Previous Comments
FAITH TROYER WYSE says:
May 10, 2017
This is such a well-written explication of your unfortunate journey to enlightenment. As a 73-year-old woman who has long ago left the church, I share your analysis and have often said the same thing–that I found it more easy to trust those who neither cited the Bible nor claimed to have God on their side but spoke directly their own thoughts. So much is obfuscated when put into religious language, and this obfuscation allows for manipulation that is less easy to spot for those who rely on that language for guidance. Thank you for sharing your insights.
DEBBIE RHODES says:
May 10, 2017
I’m sorry for all of the lives that have been damaged or destroyed by the wolves. It is a certain part of the Mennonite church that is to be blamed. The wolves and the ones covering up the years of abuse will be the ones to answer for it. To say because a leader has done so much good we’ll let the bad slide is horrendous since the bad ends up being worse than you think. There are good men and women in places leading the flocks. There are people who will help and protect the downtrodden. Wolves run in packs. Where there is one, you will find more. May God give back peace to everyone and their families who have been damaged by these years of abuse.
May 10, 2017
Annamary, too many of our leaders are, in Jesus’ words, whitewashed tombs full of stench. I grieve with you, & I understand your impulse to build walls. I do not urge you to take them down. Trust is not unconditional like God’s grace; trust has to be earned over time and is always revocable. Love and blessings to you.
LISA SCHIRCH says:
May 14, 2017
Thanks so much for writing. We need people to speak up and break out of the code of silence. You’ve done that here.