Thomas L. Harder

Kansas Mennonite minister and musician disciplined, later removed from leadership positions

In 2011, while a co-pastor at Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church, Wichita, Kansas, Tom Harder (b. 1957) crossed pastoral boundaries and communicated in inappropriate, sexualized ways with a female college student he had met on an international trip (Interterm) for students from Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas, and Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas.

The Ministerial Leadership Commission (MLC) of Western District Conference (WDC) of Mennonite Church USA (MC USA) charged Harder in April 2011 with ministerial sexual misconduct and then determined guilt for three acts of “sexualized behavior.” Sanctions included one year of probation as well as counseling with a therapist specializing in sexual misconduct.

While the student and a number of church leaders, including an expert in clergy sexual abuse, all recognized the sexual nature of Harder’s conduct at the time, the documentation received by MAP suggests Harder never acknowledged his misconduct as sexual.

The MLC restored Harder’s credential in August 2012, and he continued to serve as a minister in WDC and as a camp pastor at Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp. Problems related to Harder’s disclosure of his misconduct continued up through 2021, when he resigned from a position on MennoMedia’s hymnal committee.

Identifying the misconduct

The WDC investigative team pointed to six instances where Harder knowingly pushed boundaries in his communication with the student, including when he wrote, “I think I needed to be more forthright about my mixed agenda in sharing so deeply with you, and definitely am aware of the selfishness and riskiness of doing so.”

Transcripts of Facebook conversations between Harder and the student show that he put the onus on the student to say whether she was uncomfortable with his behavior, which included describing Harder having a crush on and falling in love with her, as well as being jealous of her boyfriend. He used her as a “confidant and journaling partner” to share about his struggles with “the need to be liked, loved, needed, affirmed, close,” and suggested she do the same with him. He suggested she might go without a boyfriend, and when she seemed to agree, he asked, “So what will you do in the meantime with the part of you that craves closeness and touch and love and intimacy?”

The student further described to MAP her experience with Harder as “Hugs that lasted a little too long, side hugs turned into front hugs, etc; conversations that never should have happened; comments about my looks and personality that were too often or just inappropriate. At one point he called me babe. That’s when all my red flags appeared.”

While Harder claimed that his misconduct was not sexual, the documentation shows he used sexualized language and continued to push when the student tried to avoid it: “But I think you might have missed what I meant when I said I felt ‘jealous’…. Unless you got it and decided to let it pass. Which might be the wiser thing to do!” The student responded: “I had a feeling that’s what you meant, but I thought I’d give you the benefit of the doubt… and offer you an easy way out.”

The student then told Harder: “I don’t feel comfortable emailing you one on one anymore. I feel like this crossed the line and we need to stop emailing immediately.” The next day, Harder contacted the student again saying, “Can we please talk? … At least give me the chance to listen to you and understand how I’ve hurt or offended you.” The student agreed to meet if Harder’s wife and the student’s mentor joined them, but Harder then told her that he had “decided that it would be best to not have this conversation with you at this time.”

The student sought support from several other pastor-mentors, who consulted with Dr. Carolyn Holderread Heggen, the author of Sexual Abuse in Christian Homes and Churches. Holderread Heggen reviewed the full correspondence and identified sexual grooming behaviors based on her professional experience. The student then sent the Facebook transcript and Holderread Heggen’s analysis to the WDC conference minister, Clarence Rempel. Five weeks later, she received an official complaint form from MLC member and WDC pastor Kathy Neufeld Dunn.

Rempel had been hired as conference minister eight months prior—by a search committee chaired by Harder. Neufeld Dunn, who was appointed to help investigate the student’s complaint, had also been a participant on the international trip where Harder met the student.

While the student, her mentors, and Dr. Holderread Heggen, as well as the WDC investigators and the MLC, all recognized the serious and sexual nature of Harder’s conduct, in Harder’s own statement to his congregation in November 2011, his self-assessment report from August 2012, and his second statement to his congregation in October 2012, he did not acknowledge patterns of sexual grooming or even directly acknowledge his misconduct as sexual.

Neufeld Dunn acknowledged to the student that at the time of the charge Harder “seemed to minimize the impact he had on you and to disregard the potential harm his actions might have on his future ministry,” but after the MLC restored his ministerial credential in August 2012, conference minister Rempel commended Harder to the congregation for “taking full responsibility for his actions and their consequences.”

Current analysis

In 2021, Into Account, a professional survivor advocacy group, analyzed the Harder documentation and detailed the sexual grooming behavior that Holderread Heggen and others had identified in 2011. Into Account further noted that Harder used the same manipulation techniques he’d used with the student to manipulate the WDC misconduct process, which Into Account described as focused on Harder’s restoration rather than on reaching other potential victims or preventing further harm.

[Harder’s] messages combine inappropriately intimate sharing about his personal struggles with repeated, subtle sexual innuendo. This combination is a hallmark grooming technique of abusive clergy, as it confounds an empathic target with the choice between expressing concern for the perpetrator and calling out a behavior that the perpetrator can easily deny or blame on their target’s “oversensitivity” or misinterpretation.

Harder pushes the student over and over until he finally realizes that she won’t respond the way he wants her to and may in fact reveal their correspondence to his wife; at that point, he quickly pivots to damage control. … Later … Harder tries to argue that the student misperceived his intentions, writing, “does a sexual interpretation of a message make it sexual by default?”

His repeated mention of boundaries has the added benefit, to him, of providing the appearance of ethical discernment in the event of getting caught. Whether deliberate or not, this self-protective measure seems to have been largely effective, as his WDC peers do not identify manipulative intent in these statements, despite the overwhelming amount of pressure that his demands for feedback inevitably place on a 22-year-old.

Notifications

When the student asked WDC about notifying other students who had been on the international trip, Neufeld Dunn said the MLC had not followed up with the other students in part because the professors who led the trip said they hadn’t heard anything concerning.

Harder had also served in leadership roles at Camp Mennoscah and Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp, and according to Neufeld Dunn, WDC notified the camps that “until his therapist says otherwise, [Harder] should be working with young adults only when [his wife] accompanies him.”

Olivia Bartel, executive director of Camp Mennoscah, reported to MAP that Harder “has not been allowed to lead or participate by himself in camp-led events with young adults,” in keeping with WDC guidance. Corbin Graber, executive director of Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp, reported that “After careful evaluation of the information provided and the protective environment for our Family Camp program, Tom continued his role as camp pastor.” Harder was in fact allowed to continue leading at the camp even during his disciplinary process: He helped lead family camps there in 2011 and 2012 while his credential was still on probation for sexual misconduct. He continued in that role until 2021.

Dr. Holderread Heggen reported to MAP that she had expressed concern to the WDC conference minister about Harder leading at Rocky Mountain camp: “Clarence said [Harder’s] wife would also be there, implying that that would keep him from violating young women. I pointed out that his wife had also been on the overseas trip with him and she either had no idea what he was doing with and writing to this young girl or she didn’t know how to stop him.”

The notion of a wife as a preventative measure emerges from victim-blaming patriarchal logic (also known as rape culture) that forces women to accept responsibility for managing and preventing male sexual predation. (analysis by Into Account)

At Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church—where Harder was co-pastor with his wife Lois Harder at the time—WDC appeared to have informed some congregational leaders about Harder’s misconduct case by May 2011. Those leaders did not seem to have informed the full congregation until six months later, in early November 2011, and at the request of the conference. Neufeld Dunn had earlier explained to the student that the MLC left it up to Lorraine Avenue leadership to handle notification of congregants.

Ongoing accountability

During Harder’s credential probation (May 2011 to August 2012), he was assigned an accountability group as recommended in a supplement to the 2000 misconduct policy. This accountability group reportedly included another pastor who had himself been found responsible for pastoral sexual misconduct.

In 2016, Harder applied to be part of the new hymnal committee for MennoMedia, the publishing agency of MC USA. No one seems to have disclosed Harder’s misconduct history in the application process: not Harder himself, not any of his references, and not the MC USA denominational minister at the time, who was part of the team that appointed hymnal committee members.

When Harder updated his ministerial profile in the MC USA database in 2017, ahead of applying for a new job at First Mennonite Church in Hillsboro, Kansas, WDC leaders noted that Harder’s misconduct file did not contain a summary statement for notifications as suggested in current policy. Neufeld Dunn, who had been a participant on the 2011 trip with Harder and also a member of the investigation team and the MLC at the time of Harder’s misconduct process, had been hired as associate conference minister for WDC in 2016 and was then tasked with writing a summary statement for Harder’s file in 2017. Her summary did not directly name the misconduct as sexual or include any of the analysis provided by Dr. Holderread Heggen, which was preserved in Harder’s file.

The Harders left their co-pastorate at Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church in 2018, and Tom was hired as lead pastor at First Mennonite Church in Hillsboro, Kansas (without his wife, who took a job elsewhere). Sources at Hillsboro reported to MAP that there was some confusion among congregants about the nature of his misconduct at the time of his hiring. Neufeld Dunn was responsible for notifying the search committee of Harder’s misconduct, presumably using the WDC summary statement. Two congregational leaders at First Mennonite who were directly involved with Harder’s hiring had also been participants on the 2011 international trip.

In 2019, the Harders began hosting a female high-school exchange student in their home, but after community members expressed concern due to knowledge of Harder’s misconduct, the program removed the student.

In 2020, after composer David Haas was reported for serial sexual misconduct, the hymnal committee of which Harder was a member issued a statement announcing the removal of Haas’s songs from the hymnal. Churches and publishers across the country committed to not using Haas’s songs. MC USA offered resources for replacing Haas’s music. Harder, however, included a well-known Haas song in the service at his church as recently as December 13, 2020, despite concerns expressed to him at that time.

In January 2021, in a confidential memo, MennoMedia executive director and publisher Amy Gingerich stated that Harder had resigned from the hymnal committee. As confirmed by Gingerich to MAP, the memo expressed regret that Harder had not disclosed the misconduct himself when it became directly relevant to the committee’s work, and further, that MennoMedia had no way to access the information through official channels. She stated that MennoMedia will, going forward, ask whether any misconduct files exist for all future applicants.

In April 2021, MC USA announced revised sharing protocols for ministerial misconduct files, stating:

The need for the expanded file sharing access was made apparent in December when MennoMedia, an agency of MC USA, learned that a vetted member of its Voices Together Hymnal committee had a past history of sexual misconduct. When the committee member was vetted in 2016, their ministerial credentials had been restored by their conference, and MC USA did not have a file-sharing policy. Danner said he realized that MC USA’s subsequent file-sharing policy still would not have provided MennoMedia with clear access to information about past misconduct. In response, MC USA has now expanded the policy to provide that access.

In July 2021, Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp sent a letter to constituents acknowledging mistakes related to Harder’s leadership roles at the camp:

In 2011 and 2012, Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp invited pastor Tom Harder to serve as a pastor during one of its weeks of family camp while his credentials in the Western District Conference were made probationary due to pastoral sexual misconduct. In light of new information in recent months (Mennonite Abuse Prevention website), the director and board now realize that we mishandled this situation.

In 2023, Harder resigned as pastor at First Mennonite Church in Hillsboro, Kansas. Later that year, Harder visited Shalom Mennonite Church, Newton, Kansas. The following week, the pastors of Shalom sent a letter to the congregation stating:

At worship this past Sunday, Tom Harder introduced himself as a visitor. … At the end of his self-introduction at Shalom, Tom said this: “If you think you know stories about me, just remember I probably know stories about you too.” For those already thinking about his misconduct, this was clearly inviting (or demanding) congregational silence about his misconduct. A “culture of silence” is essential for abusers who seek to operate without pushback in congregations. That is not acceptable at Shalom. Tom’s statement and the culture it encourages are dangerous, regardless of Tom’s intention when he said it.

The pastors referenced Shalom’s Abuse Prevention and Response policy [which] indicates steps to be taken if “known offenders…are seeking fellowship in our congregation.” Around this same time, Harder also reportedly contacted Bethel College Mennonite Church to inquire about attending there.

Three months later, a newly-formed Shalom Safe Sanctuary Task Force updated the congregration and communicated “our assessment of the congregation, our assessment of Tom, and our sense of Tom’s self-assessment,” stating:

Tom is reluctant or unable to see the extent of his impact on others (not just in the past, but also in the present and future). While we offered the opportunity, Tom did not demonstrate an observable commitment to prevent future harm. He shared about some of the professional counseling that he has undertaken. Yet in the words of one task force member, Tom “told us a lot of things he has done, but didn’t tell us anything of what he has changed.”

The task force outlined a plan for Harder’s limited participation in the congregation and later communicated that Harder had expressed a desire to continue with that plan.

In early 2024, the task force informed the congregation that Harder had unexpectedly withdrawn from the process to facilitate his participation in the church, stating: “We have invited Tom to have an exit interview either in person or in writing to help us understand the process better and discover what our congregation might do differently the next time a similar situation comes up. We have not received a response yet.”

As of February 2024, Harder had reportedly begun attending Faith Mennonite Church, Newton, Kansas, where the congregation apparently did not have a safe sanctuary or abuse prevention policy in place.

Editor’s note: MAP Executive Director Jason Miller attends Shalom Mennonite Church, but no one from MAP played a role in the response by church leaders.

Church-related positions

  • Co-director, Camp Friedenswald, Cassopolis, Michigan, approx. 1991–1996
  • Associate and co-pastor, Lorraine Avenue Mennonite Church, Wichita, Kansas, 1996–2018
  • Worship and music leader, Family Camp II, Rocky Mountain Mennonite Camp, (at least) 2010–2021
  • Mennonite Worship and Song Committee, MennoMedia, 2016–2020
  • Lead pastor, First Mennonite Church, Hillsboro, Kansas, 2018–2023

Documentation

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