EMU delays action on hiring policy
The board of Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va., has delayed action regarding its hiring policy concerning individuals in covenanted same-sex relationships.
The delay comes after a six-month listening process collecting input from students, faculty, staff, alumni, donors and church leaders through a survey completed by more than 7,000 people. In addition, 20 dialogue sessions were attended by about 300 people on campus.
EMU currently asks tenure-line faculty candidates to identify any objections they have to Mennonite Church USA’s Confession of Faith. The listening process was instigated by the board after it heard interest by some faculty, staff, administrators and students about minority sexual orientation and its implication for access to employment.
President Loren Swartzendruber said in an interview June 23 that a key reason for undertaking the listening process was awareness of a diversity of opinions both on and off campus.
“But we didn’t have a way to analyze it, we didn’t have any data,” he said. “It was anecdotal, and we felt we needed something more than that.
“The reality was there was more support for change internally than externally. That didn’t particularly surprise us, but it was helpful to have data.”
With the delay, a November board decision to suspend personnel actions related to the current hiring policy will remain in effect as discernment continues.
“Any persons who are in same-sex covenanted relationships who are currently employed will remain in employment,” Swartzendruber said. “The old policy — which has not formally been changed — would have required us to terminate them.
“That’s the policy that’s been suspended. It also applies to any new hires. We are permitted to hire persons in same-sex relationships for the duration of this process.”
Citing confidential personal information, Swartzendruber could not say whether EMU employs staff living in same-sex relationships.
“My response to that is we have 350 employees,” he said. “One should make the assumption that there probably are. Some of them might be celibate. . . . It’s a hiring policy for faculty members and administrators of a certain level and above.”
In a June 21 news release, board chair Andy Dula said the listening process helped the President’s Cabinet gain a deeper understanding of the range of feelings, hopes and fears surrounding the issue.
“Based on this feedback, we acknowledge that the church is currently engaged in extensive discernment over human sexuality,” he said. “We wish to honor our relationship with the church by not taking a final action now.”
Swartzendruber agreed that viewpoints were divergent and passionate.
“We heard from many people on both sides that staying engaged with the Mennonite church was important for them,” he said. “And that’s what informed a lot of our thinking with respect to the decision we made, knowing that the Mennonite church is still wrestling with this question.”
He noted that making a change now could be interpreted as moving too quickly ahead of the wider church.
“We’re not tying ourselves to a specific decision by the Mennonite church,” he said. “Our board needs the flexibility to make decisions when it chooses to do so.”
It has a history of doing so.
Swartzendruber said EMU was the first predominantly white college in the South to admit students of color — six years before Virginia Mennonite Conference allowed people of color to take communion.
“That’s an example of when the college, then owned by Virginia Mennonite Conference, made decisions not approved by the conference for another six years,” he said.
“That’s just an interesting anecdote from our history as to who moves first, the institutions or the church.”
The EMU board has no official timetable for revisiting the issue. But Swartzendruber said that given the intensity of conversations across the church leading up to the 2015 MC USA convention in Kansas City, he will make regular updates.
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