Everence is a rarity in the financial world. It is the only full-service financial institution founded by one of the historic peace churches, and it continues to be a ministry of Mennonite Church USA and kindred churches.
Founded nearly 70 years ago as Mennonite Mutual Aid, the company initially offered loans to conscientious objectors who worked as Civilian Public Service workers during World War II. During the years since, it has grown considerably in scope and size.
Everence “helps individuals, organizations and congregations integrate finances with faith,” says its website, everence.com. “There is enough for all if we manage our gifts effectively. Becoming an effective steward of those gifts is a lifelong journey – a journey made easier when you join with the faith community of mutually supportive people dedicated to the same ideal” (found at everence.com/difference).
After a merger with Mennonite Financial Federal Credit Union and a 2010 name change, Everence now offers life and health insurance, financial advice, investment products and banking services – all fields employing numbers-focused people. Today, almost 30 EMU alumni work in its various divisions and branches.
“Numbers serve as signposts – they tell me if we’re meeting our financial goals and if our revenue is going in the right direction,” says J.B. Miller ’70, vice-president for investment services at the company’s headquarters in Goshen, Indiana.
And while numbers are critical to evaluating ideas, Miller is most drawn to the ideas themselves: “Good ideas and strategy sustain organizations…. Spending time dreaming about new products or services and then bringing them to market is what I like to do.”
After spending more than 20 years as a banker in Florida, Miller took a job at Everence, in part as a way to fully integrate his faith and values with his expertise in finance. In the mid-90s, Miller oversaw development of Everence’s Praxis family of mutual funds, based on the concept of having a positive impact with one’s investment dollars beyond simple financial returns.
Often called “socially responsible investing” – or SRI – this approach at Everence stands on three legs: (1) the screening of companies for sustainable and socially just practices (such as their stewardship of the environment and avoidance of child labor and other abusive practices); (2) using shareholders’ collective voices to promote improved environmental, social, and corporate-governance practices; and (3) applying up to 2% of invested dollars toward revitalizing or building healthy communities.
Adjunct business professor Allon Lefever, who has been in the management team of several national corporations (two of them going public in his tenure), says Everence leads the way on socially responsible investing, which includes passing up manufacturers that thrive on the proliferation of weaponry. Lefever is a member of the investment committee of Mennonite Education Agency, through which EMU’s pension funds are invested. “We [at the education agency] work with seven or eight financial management groups that screen for social responsibility,” he says. “But Everence does the best job.”
Lefever applauds Praxis for pushing Hershey Chocolate to agree in 2012 to make its Hershey’s Bliss chocolate products with 100 percent cocoa from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms. Since 2009, Everence (via Praxis Mutual Funds) has encouraged Kraft Foods Inc., the world’s largest chocolate manufacturer, and Hershey to strengthen cocoa sourcing policies and local development activities aimed at eliminating forced child labor and increasing income for smaller farmers, according to a March 1, 2012, report in Mennonite World Review.
Lefever points out that “socially responsible investing” means different things to different investors. In keeping with the prevailing ethos of the church members they serve, the Praxis funds exclude industries that derive their profits from alcohol, gambling, tobacco, abortion-specific products, and weaponry or military contracting. Praxis seeks to invest in industries that put a high value on environmental sustainability, human rights, positive labor relations, and community development.
Investment advisor Glen Kauffman ’82, MBA ’06, working from the office in Harrisonburg, Virginia, sells Praxis funds as well as other investment products to clients.
“I make every effort not to use either fear or greed to motivate my clients to take certain actions,” Kauffman says. “I believe that these emotions are contrary to the way God would want us to make financial decisions.”
As president/CEO of Everence Federal Credit Union, W. Kent Hartzler ’94 applies a similar values-based approach to his responsibility to keep the credit union “relevant and viable.” He says his education at EMU has helped him balance a “‘bottom line’ corporate focus” with concern for the organization’s impact on the broader faith community.
Through church relations representatives like Rhoda Blough ’94, who earned a certificate in pastoral studies at EMU (Aurora, Colorado) and Randy Nyce ’94 (Souderton, Pennsylvania), Everence also supports congregational efforts to promote stewardship of finances through Sunday school curricula, educational materials, seminars and workshops.
As repeatedly emphasized by other alumni interviewed for Crossroads, however, Melvin Claassen ’77 notes that communication skills are at least as important for any number-cruncher as math skills.
“The most important duty of my job was communicating the sometimes complex financial situations of Everence to other decision-makers,” says Claassen, who retired in 2012 as chief financial officer.
In that role, Claassen says he needed both the technical skill to understand pertinent mathematical and financial information as well as the ability to translate it to others in the company.
Like all financial institutions, Everence has the fiduciary responsibility – that is, it is morally and legally obligated – to put the interests and desires of each client in the driver’s seat, says Joseph L. Lapp ’66, JD, Everence’s managing director in the Harrisonburg area. There is always room, however, to help people understand how their Christian faith might shine through their financial choices, he adds.
“Much of life is connected to business and finance,” says Lapp. “If left outside the realm of faith, unfortunate things occur by default, [things] that are contrary to being Christian disciples. By being aware of the implication of business and finance decisions, we can care for others, support the church, and benefit ourselves as well.” — Andrew Jenner & Bonnie Price Lofton
Other Alumni Who Work at Everence
At Kalona, Iowa, site: Cheryl Martin Miller ’01. Goshen, Indiana: Daniel Grimes ’78, Kevin Strite ’95, Elaine Martin ’79. Kidron, Ohio: Barbara Reinford ’77, Lois Bontrager ’72. Lancaster, Pennsylvania: Abram Moyer ’74, Elizabeth Mast ’11, Alicia Hurst ’09, Keith Witmer ’87, Michael Zehr, class of ’77, Marv Smoker ’93, Kevin Nofziger ’94.