Over the past 16 years, Twila Yoder has been assistant to three Eastern Mennonite University presidents: Joseph Lapp (1987-1995), Beryl Brubaker (interim, May 2003-December 2003), and current president Loren Swartzendruber (2004-).
Several months after Swartzendruber’s announcement of his retirement plans, Yoder was interviewed by Weather Vane co-editor-in-chief Devon Fore about her career, her integral role with administration, and her hopes for the future of the institution.
“Little did I know,” said Twila Yoder, seated in the president’s office at Eastern Mennonite University, “that this is where I would end up…”
Rooted in faith…and Ohio
Yoder grew up in West Liberty, Ohio — “a very small town that produced a lot of interesting people.” She met her husband, Steve, when she was a senior at Central Christian School in Kidron, Ohio. They both attended Hesston before getting married at the age of 20.
In 1976, “not knowing a soul,” they moved to Harrisonburg so her husband could finish his undergraduate Bible degree at Eastern Mennonite University.
“I wasn’t particularly interested in finishing a four-year degree at that time,” Yoder said. “In my mind, I kind of wanted to start a family early and then when our children were older, maybe go back to school.”
After Steve’s graduation with a degree in Bible, the Yoders moved back to Ohio where Steve did a two-year pastoral internship, and then on to Elkhart, Indiana, where Steve attended Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary and Twila worked part-time at the Mennonite Mission Board offices.
They returned to Harrisonburg in 1982, where they raised four children, three of whom eventually graduated from EMU.
Back to school becomes ‘back to seminary’
While raising their children, Yoder wanted to return to school, but her husband’s career, financial limitations, and their ideas about raising their children led her to wait.
“We were committed to having a parent in the home as much as possible. I was a stay-at-home mom most of the time, though I was very active in various roles at Harrisonburg Mennonite Church and Virginia Conference women’s organizations,” Yoder said.
Her work with the church would prove advantageous when she was finally able to go back to school. “I couldn’t quite figure out how we could afford for me to go back to college because by that time I really wanted to go to seminary. And that was when I learned that I could actually apply to go to seminary through a certificate program.”
This program allows people over 35 years of age with five years of ministry experience to earn a certificate in theological studies or in ministry leadership. Yoder earned this certificate and then finally, a master’s in church leadership with a concentration in pastoral care and counseling.
After graduating in 1998, Yoder explored ministry options. “But my husband was in transition at the time too … transitioning from pastoring into teaching at Eastern Mennonite High School … There didn’t seem to be a real clear sense of direction to step into a ministry position at that time.”
‘A call’ to her current position
Instead, she interviewed for a position as a department assistant In the social work department.
“I was hired with reluctance because I had just graduated from seminary and was seen as overqualified. There had been a lot of turnover in that office and there was concern that I wouldn’t be able to commit longer term. I assured them that I had no other plans so he hired me.”
Nine months later, in February of 1999, Yoder was asked to consider applying for the assistant to the president position when Peggy Shenk announced her retirement and after a thorough interview process, she was hired. “The most difficult part of that transition was informing my supervisor that there was a change of plans.”
She explains the decision: “I felt such a strong call to the position. My spiritual life has been very strongly woven into everything that I do and the decisions that I make … I had never really envisioned that I would be someone who would take on a full-time job or career after raising four children, but my husband’s willingness to take a part-time role at Eastern Mennonite High School made it possible for me to step into this demanding role.”
Yoder’s responsibilities are wide-ranging and integral to the smooth functioning of the university at the highest levels. She schedules all of the president’s meetings; serves as corporate secretary to the Board of Trustees; aids in the development of numerous administrative documents, such as board policy manuals; and serves as a representative of the president’s office on numerous committees including the crisis management preparedness team and the facilities task force, among other duties.
Weathering and smoothing transitions part of the job
Working 16 years with three different presidents, Yoder continues to appreciate the challenges and transitions of her job. One of those specific challenges has been the listening process, which lasted from January to June 2014, and the ensuing change of the hiring policy. Yoder was responsible for scheduling 20 listening sessions which involved scheduling two members of President’s Cabinet in each session to serve as listeners and to take notes about the discussions.
Besides the large logistical challenges, the listening process also took an emotional toll on EMU administration. “We knew it was very important and I had a sense that we were on to something that was going to be difficult and painful, but it was also the right thing to do,” she says. “In a lot of ways, even though the decision has been made it is not over yet. One of the challenges that we are still facing is responding to our constituents who are unhappy, who are very opposed to the decision, who still don’t understand or completely appreciate the decision that has been made.”
The hiring policy is just one example of the changes that EMU has been experiencing over the time that Yoder has been here. For the past 17 years, she has been noticing gradual shifts in EMU’s mission.
A previous focus was finding students who were “compatible with our Mennonite beliefs,” she says. “Now we want to bring in students who are qualified, who have a desire to be at EMU, but what is more important than who they are when they come is who are they when they leave and what kind of values they have embraced as a result of their experience at EMU.”
One of the changes that both Yoder and EMU will face this year is the presidential transition. Among other responsibilities, Yoder will be involved in archival work that documents the previous presidency, but she’ll also help to organize events to celebrate Swartzendruber’s presidency and give students, faculty and staff a chance to say goodbye. She’ll also be a key organizer of events to welcome and provide orientation to the new president.
Once she helps EMU make this next important step, Yoder has no definitive plans for the future. “I’m very open. Right now I have a lot of peace about being here through the transition, and then I’m open for whatever God has in store for me after that.”
This article is re-printed from the Sept. 24 edition of the Weather Vane.
Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect the correct number of years of service. [10/15/15]