MCC marks retirement of J Ron Byler as executive director

Mennonite Central Committee U.S. marked the retirement of executive director J Ron Byler Oct. 17 with virtual gatherings, board meeting

Ron Byler in Kathmandu, Nepal, in 2019. Photo: MCC MCC photo/Jim Wiegner

Oct. 17 marked a transition in Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) U.S. leadership as Executive Director J Ron Byler retired, and Ann Graber Hershberger moved into the role.

The leadership shift reflects a plan determined a year earlier. Hershberger, who served as associate executive director since 2019, is anticipated to lead MCC U.S. as executive director through 2022.

In this time of the COVID-19 pandemic, staff and board members said farewell to Byler in virtual gatherings and a mostly virtual board meeting leading up to a livestreamed, national event commemorating MCC’s centennial year, Celebration 2020. Some staff and board members were present in Akron, Pennsylvania, observing local public health guidelines for gatherings.

During Celebration 2020, which Byler co-hosted with Hershberger and U.S. board chair Gwen White of Philadelphia, Byler said, “My understanding of the world and what it means to follow Jesus has been forever shaped by MCC staff, supporters and partners around the world and here at home.”

Byler had led MCC U.S. since July 2010 and was a board member from 2006 to 2010. In the staff role, working in the past year with Hershberger, he oversaw all MCC U.S. programs and operations and, with his Canadian counterpart Rick Cober Bauman, all MCC international work. Byler also led the network of MCC regional office executive directors and worked closely with the supporting denominations of MCC U.S. and with associations of nonprofit organizations.

In his first years as executive director, Byler was instrumental in guiding MCC U.S. through New Wine/New Wineskins, an MCC-wide re-envisioning and restructuring process. As he departed, he also was recognized for his determination to draw MCC and the churches that support it into closer communion. Hershberger said, “Ron loves the church and nurtured MCC’s relationship with the denominations. He leaves this legacy.”

Byler lives in Goshen, Indiana, and is a member of Eighth Street Mennonite Church. He and his wife, Mim Shirk, have one adult son.

Prior to her staff role, Hershberger had served on MCC boards since 1996, including chairing the MCC East Coast board and later the MCC U.S. board. In 1983 she and her husband, Jim Hershberger, were MCC workers in El Salvador. They were MCC representatives in Nicaragua from 1985 to 1990 and served there again with MCC from 1999 to 2000.

Hershberger taught nursing and cross-cultural studies at Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in Harrisonburg, Virginia, for more than 30 years. She was founding director of EMU’s master of science in nursing program and taught in the EMU and Goshen (Indiana) College collaborative, online doctor of nursing practice program.

The Hershbergers live in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and are parents of three children and grandparents of five. They are members of Mount Clinton Mennonite Church, where Jim serves as pastor.

Praised and thanked by the board for his compelling storytelling from visits to MCC program work with partner organizations, Byler shared a few of his “most vivid memories in my 10 years with MCC”:

  • Visiting a village in Odisha state, India, where a new water system brought clean running water for very first time. “Women said they no longer had to walk a mile for water. There was enough food to eat; enough to sell in the marketplace.”
  • Receiving “effusive thanks” from the Chaldean Catholic sisters who operate Kids’ House preschool in Ankawa, Iraq, which cares for children displaced by war. “A few years later these sisters turned down a grant from MCC. They felt others could use it more.”
  • Hearing Cassien Ndikuriyo of MCC partner Help Channel Burundi speak at a distribution of MCC canned turkey to returnees who had earlier fled turmoil in that country. Ndikuriyo, who had visited the MCC Material Resources Center in Ephrata, Pennsylvania, shared about the story of the canned meat and the people who made it possible. Byler recalled Ndikuriyo saying, “This is not just a can of meat. This is a can of love from Christians in North America.”
  • Visiting Pichilin village in Colombia, where most community leaders had been massacred as a result of decades-long conflict between armed groups and the government. “They said (MCC partner) Sembrandopaz (‘Sowing Peace’) was the only organization that came to help.”
  • Hearing from former MCC board leader Bill Braun of the community-building power of a blessing service at Willow Avenue Mennonite Church in Clovis, California, for MCC kits prepared for people detained at the Mexico/U.S. border. Braun told Byler, “Thanks to MCC for including us and making us a better congregation.”

Braun told Byler of the prayer that the pastor prayed at the service: “Breathe in and receive God’s love. Breathe out and share God’s love.”

Byler said, “For me that describes MCC at its best. Motivated by our love of Jesus, we share God’s love with others. Breathe in and receive God’s love. Breathe out and share God’s love with people in our own communities and with people around the world.”

by Cheryl Zehr Walker, director of communications for Mennonite Central Committee U.S.


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