Illinois and Kansas Mennonite intentional community leader, minister, and clinical social worker credential removed, disciplined twice

In 1997, John Lehman (b. 1932), a licensed social worker and a long-time leader at the Mennonite-affiliated intentional community Reba Place, in Evanston, Illinois, lost his ministerial credential for sexual misconduct with an adult. He had failed to “establish and guard physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries” with women he counseled in the 1970s.

Lehman denied sexual intent in his actions, terming it “bad judgement” instead. A joint credentialing committee, of the Illinois Mennonite Conference and the Illinois and Wisconsin District of the Church of the Brethren, expressed concern that Lehman had not sufficiently acknowledged the need to alter patterns of behavior, or the importance of supervision to prevent further misconduct.

The committee also expressed concern that Reba Place leaders had not adequately cooperated with the investigation. It recommended further evaluation of Reba Place’s “structures, practices, and expectations … which may contribute to inappropriate conduct.”

Lehman then moved to Kansas, where he resumed social work practice. In 2017, another client reported misconduct by Lehman to the Kansas Behavioral Sciences Regulatory Board, and he was subsequently disciplined for engaging in “physical intimacies … with one’s client” and other “unprofessional conduct.” The board report does not indicate knowledge of Lehman’s previous misconduct, and his social work license remains active as of this publication.

1996–1997

After a woman who had formerly lived at Reba Place came forward, and then multiple other women came forward during investigation, Lehman admitted that he had violated boundaries as a pastor and counselor in the 1970s.

One woman reported that Lehman took advantage of her need for love by, over time, building from extended hugging to repeated touching of private parts, while “praying over” her. In a counseling session where she was particularly vulnerable, she reported that Lehman repeatedly pressured her to undress, saying he would “protect” her if she did. He subsequently blamed her for his behavior and sought to have her shunned by her community. She was required to live separately from the community, and the community was not allowed to speak to her for months, a deeply traumatic experience.

Another woman reported that Lehman had repeatedly expressed his attraction to her during counseling sessions, until she called in a third party to stop it. She said he further asked her to join counseling sessions with other women, where his questions to them seemed voyeuristic, “asking gruesome details of sexual abuse.”

In response to the complaint about Lehman expressing attraction in counseling, he admitted making an “inappropriate and confusing” statement about his attraction to the woman, noting that his statement “had incestuous feeling because of the significant father role [he] had with [her].”

Lehman denied any sexual intent in his conduct. The investigation found Lehman “fell short” of his responsibility to establish and guard physical, emotional, and spiritual boundaries. Following the Guidelines For Discipline Regarding Ministerial Credentials of the Mennonite Church, the committee recommended an initial two-year suspension that would include evaluation by a therapist and ongoing supervision by an accountability group.

According to Michael Danner, Associate Executive Director of Church Vitality for Mennonite Church USA, the denominational misconduct file for Lehman holds no record that the suspension or any of its requisites took place. Rather, Lehman’s credential was terminated that same year, in 1997, for “sexual misconduct with an adult.”

(Danner sent the investigation report to MAP in July 2020, after consultation with Illinois Mennonite Conference’s acting conference minister David Miller, and in keeping with MC USA policy, stating that “IMC is sharing this file in the service of preventing further abuse and/or providing information that may help other victims.”)

The investigation team also heard from a group of young women who reported that as children at Reba Place, older boys had sexually abused them. When they had earlier reported to church elders, including Lehman, they said Lehman did not take them seriously, the perpetrators were not held accountable, and the girls were left to feel it was their fault.

According to separate documentation obtained by MAP, John Lehman had helped Reba Place respond, in the early 1990s, to child sexual abuse by therapist Conrad Wetzel. It appears Lehman and other Reba Place leaders did not report Wetzel’s abuse to the Illinois clinical psychology licensure board and delayed reporting to the Illinois Mennonite Conference, where Wetzel was conference minister. Read more: Conrad Wetzel

John Lehman was also named by a victim in the criminal case of Arlan Kaufman as having advised her church community to treat her in a way that was harmful to her. Read more: Arlan and Linda Kaufman

The investigation report also expressed disappointment with Reba Place leaders, who tried to have the investigation abandoned, said “ministry credentials will be resigned in the event of unacceptable findings,” and initiated premature contact between Lehman and the complainants. (“[Lehman] failed to honor the Guidelines‘ prohibition of contact with complainants during the investigation process itself. [He] justified these actions as an attempt to ‘reconcile,’ but the persons involved felt retraumatized.”)

The committee recommended that Reba Place work with outside leaders to evaluate the “structures, practices, and expectations within the congregation which may contribute to inappropriate conduct,” noting the reports of child sexual abuse as well.

2017

In approximately 2000, Lehman moved to Kansas, where he obtained a license to practice social work. He practiced in both Florence and Hesston.

In 2017, a former counseling client of Lehman’s, along with two of her successive therapists, reported to the Kansas Behavioral Sciences Regulatory Board that Lehman’s “faith-based” counseling sessions had included increasing physical contact over more than ten years, with kissing and rubbing, and suggesting he and the client “lie together in her bed chest to chest.”

Lehman also reportedly “referred to his six other female clients as his ‘daughters’” and discussed their therapy with the reporting client, who knew them from their small shared community.

“The client tried on many occasions to discontinue the physical touching and eventually the therapy sessions, but [Lehman] continued to contact her about meeting again.”

The regulatory board found Lehman responsible for engaging in “physical intimacies … with one’s client” and other “unprofessional conduct” that were grounds for “suspension, limitation, revocation or refusal to issue or renew license.”

The disciplinary report shows no knowledge of Lehman’s previous misconduct in Illinois.

An attorney for Lehman negotiated a one-year probation agreement “in lieu of adjudicative proceedings to resolve the report of alleged violations.”

MAP has requested additional documentation from Illinois Mennonite Conference, the Illinois and Wisconsin District of the Church of the Brethren, and Reba Place concerning any further actions taken after the 1997 investigation, such as whether anyone reported Lehman’s misconduct to the Illinois social work licensing board.

Soon after, Reba Place replied to acknowledge our request had been received by the trustees. The Brethren’s district executive also replied to say he had consulted with the denominational Office of Ministry, and to his knowledge, “there is no additional documentation of actions taken in response to John Lehman’s misconduct.” He noted that the current denominational guidelines, approved in 2008, are available online.

In addition to his positions in Illinois with Reba Place, Lehman held positions with the Illinois Department of Public Aid and Chicago State Hospital. As of 2020, he operated Wellspring Counseling Service in Florence and Hesston, Kansas.

Church-related positions

  • Founding member, coordinating committee, senior elder, head of the Elmwood household, counselor, and credentialed minister at Reba Place Fellowship, the Anabaptist intentional community in Evanston, Illinois, 1957 to late 1990s
  • Credentialed minister with the Illinois Mennonite Conference and the Illinois and Wisconsin District of the Church of the Brethren
  • Led seminars for students in the Pastoral Ministries program at Hesston College (between approximately 1999 and 2006, as described in Jesus, Deliver Us: Evil, Exorcism, and Exousiai, by Willard M. Swartley, Cascade Books, 2019)

Documentation

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