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Mennonite leaders from United States and Canada ask forgiveness of MPH retirees

   

Feb. 11, 2004
Joint release for Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada
by Laurie L. Oswald

NEWTON, Kan., and WINNIPEG, Man. (MC USA and MC Canada) -- There’s no way to alleviate all the pain that retirees from the former Mennonite Publishing House (MPH) have felt in the transition that led to Mennonite Publishing Network (MPN).

But the Joint Executive Committee (JEC) of Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada has taken steps to show it cares about retirees, whose supplemental health benefits were cut due to the financial struggles of the joint publishing ministry.

JEC recently sent a letter to the retirees, acknowledging that JEC didn’t do enough soon enough to help their denominations understand the costs the retirees suffered emotionally and financially. The letter confessed this wrong and offered to continue to make the retirees’ needs better known. The two denominations are inviting their constituents to continue to give financially to the retirees, even though formal appeals for the MPN barn-raising campaign ended in December 2003.

The former MPH board decided the financially troubled publishing agency in January 2001 would stop monthly payments toward retirees’ supplemental Medicare insurance policies. Compounding this loss was the loss of respect retirees felt in how abruptly they heard of this decision, some retirees said.

“Many of us were trying to understand what was happening, but there wasn’t enough information available to clarify the situation,” said retiree David E. Hostetler of Scottdale, Pa., who worked for MPH for 19 years, serving as editor for Purpose and news editor of Christian Living and the Gospel Herald (see second story).

His wife, Rose Hostetler, worked at MPH for several years as a cashier at Provident Bookstore and then as manager of the bookstore from 1976 to 1996. “We don’t question the need for reform, but the pain came in wondering why there was no communication about that need and why the change was done so abruptly,” she said.

The JEC acknowledges that it didn’t take its share of the responsibility in responding quickly or sensitively enough to the matter, said D. Duane Oswald, JEC member and moderator for Mennonite Church USA.

“The retirees felt they hadn’t gotten the full recognition that they should have from us, and they were right,” he said. “So here we are to acknowledge our lack of sensitivity. … I think when leadership makes mistakes or errors, it needs to step up and take responsibility and ask forgiveness.

“We want people to see servant leadership exhibited in the church, and it has to begin with the leaders who can demonstrate they are sensitive to the needs of the people.”

Henry Krause, moderator of Mennonite Church Canada and pastor of Langley (B.C.) Mennonite Fellowship, said, “We wanted to convey that we understood the retirees’ concerns and to show that we care and want their situation to have a just end.”

The letter, signed by Oswald, Krause and Ervin Stutzman, past moderator of Mennonite Church USA, also thanked the retirees for their longsuffering during their time of stress, upheaval and transition. “As the current and past moderators of the Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada, we wish to thank you for your sacrificial service to MPH,” the letter stated.

Stutzman, dean at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Va., and formerly a JEC member, said he’d heard more directly about the retirees’ pain when a retiree attended a Sunday school class he taught. At that point, he was no longer a member of the JEC because his duties as moderator of Mennonite Church USA had ended. But he felt there could still be healing in an attempt to communicate more deeply.

“I hope that there is healing in this letter for everyone,” Stutzman said. “I think it may be the first time that anyone from the church has said in a formal way that ‘we’re sorry.’ And to show that, we want to lift up the plight of the retirees in ways we hadn’t before.”

The retirees’ plight began when the former board decided to stop monthly payments on their benefits. MPH paid only about one half as much as other church agencies toward the cost of medical benefits during an employee’s working years. So it was a long-standing policy to continue to help with supplemental medical insurance costs for those who worked to retirement.

The former MPH board made the decision to discontinue these benefits at a time when MPH experienced financial losses and was not willing to list this $1.3 million actuarial liability on the FYE 2001 audit sheet. These factors led 72 of the affected retirees to ask Nelson Waybill, retired personnel director, to chair a committee to enact the MPH and General Board grievance. This resulted in the appointment of a mediation committee to make a recommendation to the denominations.

“We regret that the transitions during the denominational merger made the grievance process more complicated and time-consuming than it would have been otherwise,” the letter stated.

In March 2002, the publishing enterprise stood at the brink of bankruptcy. In a meeting with representatives of MPH, the JEC decided to set aside the MPH board and take control of the publishing business. At the same meeting, the mediation committee presented its recommendations regarding the supplemental health benefits. This in essence recommended that because of the financial situation at MPH, the general church should assume responsibility for the cost of the lost benefit.

“While the JEC and the retirees accepted the report, most of our energy in the next months was directed toward resolving the financial difficulties,” the letter states. “Most troubling were the debenture notes that could have caused bankruptcy, if not handled appropriately.”

At that time, the JEC, after consultation with the Constituency Leaders Council -- an advisory group to the Mennonite Church USA Executive Board -- began a fund drive to receive funds for three purposes -- the debenture problem, the bankruptcy rescue and the retirees’ supplemental benefits.

“Because the JEC also served as the interim publishing board, the denominational promise to seek funds for the retirees’ benefit took third place behind the debenture problem and the rescue of MPH from bankruptcy,” the letter states. “Further, the JEC was attempting to handle current employee lay-offs and other issues.”

Despite the realities that caused the JEC to be distracted at the time, Oswald said he and the others believe it’s never too late to thank people for their dedication and faithfulness. And for that reason, Oswald said he’s grateful for a second chance.

“We want our churches to know that we appreciate and value the people who worked at MPH, and we appreciate the long years of service the retirees provided,” he said.

Those who wish to contribute to the supplemental health benefits of the retirees may do so by sending a donation to Mennonite Church USA or Mennonite Church Canada, earmarked as “retiree supplemental benefits.” For more information, contact either Mennonite Church USA at 1-888-866-2872 or Mennonite Church Canada at 1-866-888-6785.

Laurie L. Oswald, news service director for Mennonite Church USA, wrote this story for Mennonite Church USA and Mennonite Church Canada. Contact: Laurie L. Oswald (316) 283-5100, E-mail: LaurieO@MennoniteUSA.org