In what follows, Kay Ellen courageously tells of the abuse she experienced from her former pastor, Duane Yoder, and of the ways her communities of faith failed to hold him accountable. As you will learn from reading her own words, Kay has chosen to share her account publicly in order to help prevent this same harm from being perpetrated against others and to let those who have already been similarly harmed know they are not alone. Abuse thrives in secrecy and loses power in the light of transparency. We are all in Kay’s debt, and I could not be more grateful for her fortitude, resilience, and determination to help our communities become better able to resist sexualized violence.

Kay welcomes your respectful communication and requests that anyone interested in contacting her privately do so through OSU Editor, Barbra Graber: barbra.graber@yahoo.com. Please respect Kay’s wishes and do not attempt to contact Kay directly.

* “Kay Ellen” is a pseudonym chosen by the author, who is personally known to Our Stories Untold.

** Further documentation regarding credible accusations against Duane Yoder can be found on SNAP Mennonite’s MAP List.

– Hilary J. Scarsella

Prior to the new millennium I had never experienced depression as I understand it now and therefore could not relate to those who had. However, by early 2002 that changed. My husband and I were experiencing financial difficulties as a result of 9-11 and the subsequent economic downturn. And the year before, my good friend and her husband and a couple of their family members were killed in a tragic car accident. I was devastated by it and I was having health problems. I was depressed and anxious for a few months and was getting worse. I was crying a lot, feeling despondent and having trouble sleeping and eating.

My husband and I talked to my family and, unsure what to do, they suggested we call Duane Yoder, who was pastor of our church Bayshore Mennonite in Sarasota, Florida, to come out and give us counsel.

During the session with Duane, one of my family members privately raised the question of whether or not I should be admitted to the hospital for emergency treatment. Duane said something like, “No, don’t admit her. She is very depressed but they’ll just medicate her and I think I can help her. I’ll keep an eye on her and I will stop by and see her regularly. I can counsel with her.”

I found it strange that he would be coming to our house, but didn’t have the strength to come up with a different plan. I just wanted help.

So Duane started coming to our house during the days in March of 2002. He was checking on me nearly every day. At other times I met with him at his office at Bayshore Mennonite Church. He would call to ask about me, how my day was going, and how I was feeling. He sometimes asked if my husband was at home. He remarked several times that my husband tried but didn’t know how to help me, so he would. “How are you doing? Call me anytime. You know I’m the only one who truly understands how to help you and I can talk you through this,” he would say.

During his first visit he told me, “If I ever make you uncomfortable by putting my hand on your knee for example, I just want you to know I don’t mean anything by it.”

Initially our conversations were helpful. He talked with me through the grief of my friends’ deaths and my financial fears. But he tended to talk in a derogatory way about my husband not being around much to help me and not really knowing how to help me.  

More and more he began pointing out that he was the “only one” who knew how to help me and talk me through my fears and panic attacks when I had them. He also pointed out that my family didn’t seem to be there for me although they tried to be. He told me private details about other people he counseled, about members of the congregation that he knew were on antidepressants and businessmen who used them to help cope with stress in their lives.  

One time in my home and later in his office he said to me, “I wish I could give you a hug to solve all those problems you are having.” I didn’t respond because I was uncomfortable.  

Soon he began alluding to his “feelings and caring for me” and said things like, “Your husband is so fortunate to have you. You are everything a man could want in a woman. You are everything I would want in a wife and more. Does your husband know how fortunate he is?” I became more and more uncomfortable and questioned him a bit about his comments about caring for me and he would say, “What is wrong with you that you can’t receive my caring?” But he also would say he cared for me in “more than a pastoral way.”

Often he looked at me very intensely, boring into my eyes with his, trying to lock eyes with me, leaning close in saying, “Do you know how deeply you are cared for? You are so dynamic even now, do you know how attractive that is?” When I told him I was uncomfortable or that his words were not appropriate, he would again ask, “Why is it such a problem for you to receive my love and care?”    

“Because you are my pastor and it’s not ok,” I would answer.

He said, “Once you see that nothing is going to happen between us, you will calm down. I’m the one here for you. Nobody else knows how to talk you through all this or help you like I do.”

I was still having a lot of trouble sleeping and eating but had started taking an antidepressant. However, I had begun having panic attacks so Duane encouraged me to get a prescription for Xanax saying, “It’s like a beer in pill form. You will feel better and sleep.”

He would ask me occasionally what my feelings were for him, “Are they romantic?” When I said, “No they aren’t romantic,” he seemed irritated and frustrated. He would ask, “Do you think that you love me?”

“No”, I said several times, “I just feel like I’m too dependent on you. I’m relying on your help too much. But I don’t know what to do.” (Which was true. He had convinced me he was the only one who knew how to help me).

He would look disappointed and angry and ask me, “But has anybody else ever helped you as much as I have?”

He also said to me one day in his office, “Look how close I am to you. You are only inches away. Do you have any idea how hard this is for me?”

He  asked if he could give me a hug and I said, “No, I don’t think so.” He seemed irritated and said, “You’d have a panic attack if I so much as hugged you wouldn’t you?” I said I probably would. But he grabbed me anyway, giving me a side hug saying sarcastically, “Oh, sorry if that’s a problem for you!” He then walked out and hopped on his motorcycle in the parking lot saying, “I bet you don’t like these either?” I told him he was right; I don’t.

Once he commented to me that he noticed the skirt I had worn to church the day before and said, “Nice. Very hot.” I never wore the skirt again and threw it away.  

After saying “sorry” to him once in a phone conversation he asked me if I knew of the famous line from the movie Love Story– “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.” I didn’t answer him.  

In the two to three weeks that he came to my house, met with me in his office, or spoke with me on the phone, I told him many times that he couldn’t talk this way to me. One day during a phone call he got another call and the line beeped. He reacted suddenly and very angrily. “You are recording me aren’t you? Are you recording me!?” He hung up quickly and then called back almost immediately saying he realized what had happened and that the beeping he heard was from another call coming in.

But at that moment it dawned on me that he had likely done this sort of thing with a woman before. I confronted him and asked, “You have done this before haven’t you? You’ve talked to another woman like this when you counseled her didn’t you? Why did you move here from Hesston (Kansas)? Were you reported for something there?”

He admitted he had done this before. He said, “Well, yes, there was someone in Hesston whose husband was abusive and I counseled her and developed feelings for her. I wasn’t as controlled in my actions with her as I have been with you.” I asked him what that meant, but he would not answer.

He then told me there were people at Hesston who “had it out for him.” [The church Yoder pastored was called Hesston Inter-Mennonite,  now called Hesston Kingdom Life Ministries and no longer part of the Mennonite Church.]

At this point, I told him to not call me or contact me again.

But he began contacting me by email instead of calling on the phone. (In fact it was an email that was the convincing evidence of misconduct when I later filed a complaint against him with Southeast Mennonite Conference in the spring of 2002).

During this time Duane would sometimes just show up, at a restaurant where I was eating or at my children’s school. About a month after I told him to stop contacting me I remember seeing him in the church sanctuary during Bible School week. I had to rush to the restroom to throw up because of the uneasiness and panic I felt. When I came out of the bathroom, Duane had somehow found out that I’d gotten sick and approached me to ask how I was.  

He also led an informal church meeting in the fellowship hall a few weeks later where he suggested everyone sit at tables according to birth month. I did not know it but Duane and I were born in the same month. He came directly over to the table where I was seated, patted my upper leg and whispered angrily, “Is it a problem if I sit here?” Then turned, smiled and waved to his wife across the room.

I became so uncomfortable that he wouldn’t leave me alone that I talked to one of my best friends. I also told my husband the kinds of things Duane had been doing and saying to me. We went again to family members. They suggested we speak to two couples from our Sunday School class. Both of the men had served as elders at the church.

The other couples expressed how sad they were to hear what had happened and said that unfortunately they were not surprised. The gentlemen said that they had heard Duane joke about going to strip clubs and talk about how if wives didn’t want to have sex with their husbands, it was their wives’ fault if their husbands needed to watch porn.

We discussed as a group what to do. The others had heard about his misconduct in Hesston. They said when Bayshore hired him in Sarasota Bayshore told him he was not to counsel women alone. But he reportedly ignored it. Apparently as lead pastor he felt the right to do as he pleased. And the leadership at Bayshore had reportedly reminded him of the restriction. But Duane was said to rebuff it because he “knew what he was doing.”

As a group we talked about a number of options. Primarily, should we ask him to leave town? But my main concern was that he would sexually harass another woman or young girl again elsewhere. When Duane mentioned that he was invited to interview for a position in Harrisonburg, Virginia and wanted to pursue his doctorate at EMU, I became very concerned about him interacting with female students there.

After discussing it we decided to get the counsel of Rocky Miller who was the associate pastor at Bayshore Mennonite at the time. He told my husband and me the best recourse to keep Duane from acting out in the future was to file a complaint against him to the Southeast Mennonite Conference leaders. We decided to follow Rocky Miller’s suggestion. Ken Naumann, who is since deceased, was the Southeast conference minister and had been my pastor as a teenager at Ashton Mennonite Church. He was our point of contact for filing the complaint.

Ken’s response during the ensuing investigation was disappointing to my husband and me as he seemed to want to protect Duane and focus on ‘restoring him’ instead of protecting others from the types of things Duane had said and done with me. However, I filed the complaint and there was an investigation by the conference.  

Duane took a short sabbatical during the investigation. He requested a paid leave from the church and got it. He only cut it short after my husband and I complained in an email to him. After all, we were still struggling a great deal with all we had been through and now had the added stress of dealing with this situation. My husband was furious and struggled to concentrate on his work, and I was still recovering. “We still have to get up and go to work but HE is getting a paid sabbatical?!” my husband complained several times.

The timeframe for the complaint filing was May or early June 2002. (All of my initial interactions and encounters with Duane had occurred in only a 2-3 week time period). I typed up notes of everything he had said and done in terms of sexual harassment, sharing with me things others had told him in confidence, and his general lack of professionalism. The investigation then took two or three months, with three people from area congregations assigned to the completely internal investigation. I was told early on that the national Mennonite Church (which later became MC USA) had just enacted a sexual harassment policy and I was the first to file a complaint; so in many ways I felt like a guinea pig.

The three investigators chosen from within the conference were a nurse practitioner, a licensed mental health counselor from a neighboring town, and a pastor. My husband and I objected and said another pastor would have a difficult time being impartial. We pointed out that there were too many conflicts of interest. But no change was made. I was later told that the nurse practitioner and counselor quickly saw Duane was way out of line in many ways – breaching confidentiality, crossing professional boundaries, inappropriate comments, etc. — but the pastor had a hard time believing Duane had done anything wrong or harmful to me.

Meanwhile, Duane was claiming to his friends and those who found out I had filed a complaint against him that I had simply “misinterpreted his caring.” He even told my husband at one time that he wanted to “smooth things over” and hadn’t meant for me “to fall in love with him.”  He told others I was crazy, that my husband was neglectful, and that I was lying. But I had an email from him where he acknowledged he had been “inappropriate” and that my idea to not have contact was a “better way of handling things.” The email was fortunately enough evidence to support the truth I had been telling. SE Conference ultimately found that Duane was guilty for sexualizing a pastoral counseling relationship.  

After the investigation, Ken Nauman presented the SE conference findings to me and my husband as follows:

  1. Duane couldn’t counsel anyone alone for 6 months
  2. He had to receive counseling for 6 months himself
  3. He had to do a continuing education course about appropriate boundaries.

My husband and I questioned Ken Nauman and asked, “What about us?”

He said, “We are trying to restore Duane. He is a very good pastor and we wish you the best of luck.”

And sadly, I remembered what Duane said to me once: “I feel like the good I’ve done here outweighs any harm I’ve caused you.” Clearly he and the conference did not understand the pain and trauma he caused me and continued to cause with his lies about me to others.

Southeast conference officials told my husband and me that everything from my report would go on Duane’s permanent record and would remain in his file for life. I was told he would not go to another job without that conference knowing of my complaint and its findings.  

I was further assured that when Duane was being considered for the job at Lindale Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg that Sam Weaver of Harrisonburg, who was a part of the search process, knew of Duane’s behavior in Sarasota but “wanted him badly anyway.” I was told by Rocky Miller, “Sam knows what he is getting and is okay with that.” I was also told Weaver promised to ‘keep an eye’ on Duane himself.   

I was also told by Ken Nauman that Duane’s guilty verdict from the conference was available to anyone who checked his licensure and that the information would be forwarded on. I specifically questioned whether anyone would ever truly check his licensure/credentials, but I was only told they “likely would.”

The most difficult thing for me to get over was that for an entire year from the time Duane said and did the things he did with me before he moved to Virginia, he was allowed by church officials to stay  in the role of lead pastor at Bayshore and he used that time and his position to tell others I was a liar and a crazy woman (to those who found out) or that I had flirted with him. He said that I was neglected, had misinterpreted his caring, and that I was making him out to be someone he wasn’t because I was so “unstable.”

My husband and I were determined to stay at our home church because of the many close relationships we had there, but eventually it became too painful to stay. Today, even after all these years, I can no longer attend a Mennonite church  because of the discomfort, trauma and rejection I experienced there.

Some people at Bayshore said things to me like, “Well, he didn’t rape you. You just need to get over it and forgive him,” “You MUST have done something to encourage him,” or, “You need to forgive and move forward now and not look back.” I assure you I wanted to move on but every time I came to the church or encountered these people, I was hurt again. My husband even questioned at one time if I had done something to encourage Duane. Meanwhile, I wondered why he didn’t step in and help when I initially told him I thought Duane was so inappropriately flirting with me.

This was very difficult, and along with the other strains in our lives, our marriage eventually dissolved. I will never know for certain to what extent Duane Yoder was the reason for our inability to work things out, but I know he was no help to our marriage as a pastor. Quite the opposite. Duane Yoder poisoned our marriage and my life has been deeply affected in a negative manner ever since. I have often since struggled with trusting and following my own judgement.  

Marlin Birkey from Ashton Mennonite Church was in the “forgiveness group” (see below) and told us that he knew Duane very well and wasn’t believing the story Duane was telling about what had happened. He was one of the few who seemed strong enough to call Duane out on his behavior. Both Marlin and Rocky Miller, our associate pastor, stood up for me and my husband during this time.

But to my knowledge, neither the church nor the conference ever asked Duane to leave. As far as I am aware, they never fired him, never warned others about him, and never told him he couldn’t preach. In the time before my complaint filing I remember Duane making reference in his sermons to things he and I had discussed about my depression and/or caring for people. For example, he specifically mentioned grief at losing someone close to us and anxiety about financial concerns. While his comments could be perceived as general comments or topics to others, I felt he was directing them to me based on things I had shared with him in private counseling. I was shocked and disgusted. Later, after my complaint filing, he often referenced that he was a “fallen” man and not a good person without Christ. To those who knew what had happened it was clear he was again referencing my situation.

Yet he continued to tell people I was “unstable” and lying. Apparently he became uncomfortable enough, though, that he cut his losses and decided to remove himself from the situation, just as he had at Hesston. He got a job in Virginia at Lindale Mennonite Church in Harrisonburg.

Just a couple days before Duane and his wife moved to Virginia he asked to gather some people from Bayshore together to “ask (my) forgiveness and clear the air.” He said he wanted to be able to come back to Sarasota to preach and visit because he enjoys it here and he had made many friends and “connections.” I now believe that he wanted to do this so there would be a clean slate in Virginia; so that if anyone asked he could say, “Oh yes, I asked her forgiveness and everything is resolved.”  [Thus his conference file in Virginia is reportedly marked “Resolved.”]

The ‘forgiveness meeting’ Duane requested took place in a conference room at Bayshore Church. In the room with me were my husband, one of the church elders, Associate Pastor Rocky Miller, and two of my close friends, one of which was also on the church council. Finally, in the room was Marlin Birkey, a pastor from another church in the area.  

At the meeting Duane said, “Ok. So I’m not proud of it, but everything she said I did, I did; and everything she said I said, I said.” And just as quickly, he looked at me very intently (as he had many times before) and asked for my forgiveness. (All this after he had spent the past year lying and telling people I was crazy, unbalanced, and that I had misinterpreted his comments.) He never asked forgiveness for spreading lies and gossip about me, even after he admitted I was telling the truth.

I had counseled with a credible licensed therapist before the meeting who told me it was by no means appropriate for Duane to ask or pressure me in this meeting for my forgiveness since it was something that could take years for me to work through. Especially given the ongoing trauma he was causing me with his continued lies and damage to my reputation.   

He had, just a moment before, finally admitted what he had lied about for a  year. Now, suddenly, he asked for and expected forgiveness from me when his own future depended on it. I told him I would forgive him in my own time and that it was not appropriate for him to pressure me by asking for it.  

The next day Duane Yoder moved to Virginia for his new job at Lindale Mennonite Church. Even after Duane admitted he had done everything as I had said, the conference leadership did not remove Duane from a lead pastor role. Duane was hired by Lindale Mennonite Church in Virginia and welcomed back to Sarasota the next year, invited to preach as a guest at Bayshore. 

In the meantime, my husband and I were specifically told that “the Southeast Conference wanted to restore Duane” and, “hopefully the two of you (me and my husband) will get good counseling.” The church paid for a few months of counseling.

Fifteen years later I still live with the effects of the trauma of what happened at Bayshore with Duane Yoder in 2002 and 2003. I still struggle with anxiety and tend to doubt my own judgement more than I did in the past. I am more cautious about meeting new people and more reserved than I was before. I used to do some public speaking at Bayshore but I do not do so in my new church home. I am more distrusting of people as a whole and especially of men. I am also still painfully aware of those who passed judgement on me in the past and/or still do because of Duane’s maligning of my character and reputation.  

It is my understanding that only a small segment of the congregation ever knew of any of this. When Duane left there were those who praised him at a going away luncheon after church. They thanked him for his good counseling of so many couples. Many people stood up to declare how wonderful he was, how he had gone “above and beyond” the call of duty to help and counsel and do anything to help others. This was very hard to endure and very upsetting for both me and my husband, close friends and family.

After I came forward, several other married women came to me and told me they had also gotten subtle flirtatious, sexual vibes from Duane. They told me he also subtly undermined their husbands, planting seeds of doubt about their husbands being worthy of them and saying that “if you were my wife I would treat you much better,” which was a phrase he had used with me often.

I have not fully come to terms with the impact on my life of Duane Yoder’s actions and the church’s response, but I know my faith in Jesus has helped me survive. I fully believe in the redemptive power of Jesus Christ and the ability of people to change, but I have no reason to believe that Duane Yoder has changed. I believe he is predatory and abusive and will do more harm if allowed to remain in positions of ministerial leadership which give him power over others. I filed my complaint with Southeast Mennonite Conference fifteen years ago hoping no one else would be hurt as I was by Duane’s  actions.

However in 2016, 14 years later, I was deeply troubled and saddened to hear of the way he protected another offending church leader, Luke Hartman, allowing Hartman to potentially go on to harm others after he harmed Lauren Shifflett. Duane Yoder’s lack of support for the victim, and reports of his bullying behavior toward others, mirrors the behavior he exhibited with me and further convinces me he has not changed and may be a threat to the vulnerable.  

It has been confirmed to me by Northern District Minister Aldine Musser that additional women from Virginia Conference have come forward with complaints about Duane. Still, though Virginia Conference has suspended Duane’s ministerial credentials, they have not removed his credentials.  I can’t express how disturbing and saddening that is to me since I filed my motion 15 years ago with the sole intent of protecting others.

If Mennonite church leadership in Kansas and Florida would have taken seriously the reports and the warning signs, how many others could have been spared? And why, given the additional complaints filed now, has his current conference not rescinded his ministerial license? Duane Yoder victimized me at a time when I was the most depressed and vulnerable I had ever been, and yet, essentially, nothing was done. Had I not received support and Godly counsel after my encounters with him and the destruction of my reputation, I easily could have committed suicide. Is the church more concerned about its members or its pastors? Why isn’t more being done? And who is protecting the flock? What will it take for the Mennonite church to truly hold their pastors accountable? 

Kay welcomes your respectful communication and requests that anyone interested in contacting her privately do so through OSU Editor, Barbra Graber: barbra.graber@yahoo.com. Please respect Kay’s wishes and do not attempt to contact Kay directly.

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.