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Stiffney now the subject of his own transition

3.12. 2018 Written By: Sheldon C. Good

Karen Lehman, incoming MHS CEO, and Rick Stiffney, outgoing MHS CEO. Kenneth Krehbiel/Imageworks Photography

Over the past 40 years, Rick Stiffney has advised countless organizational leaders and boards of directors on how to navigate transitions. His core recommendations are to be clear about your deepest-held convictions and to find ways to adapt effectively to constantly changing contexts.

Now Stiffney himself is transitioning, and he’s seeing his recommendations in a new way.

“For many of us who are starting to step away from our daily professional life, we’re in this space called ‘never been here before,’” Stiffney, CEO and president of Mennonite Health Services (MHS), said in an interview on March 9. “It’s an opportunity to breathe deeply and determine who I am and whose I am, to refine my sense of identity and purpose as a professional, husband, father, grandfather and, hopefully, a loving human being.”

As a seasoned executive and consultant, how is he going to adapt in this season of transition?

“The answer right now is, to be honest, I don’t know,” he said. “And you know what, that’s how a lot of organizations in transition feel.”

Stiffney plans to take four months without work – he’s reluctant to use the word “retirement” – and then perhaps engage in some consulting and teaching, though at a little slower pace and with greater focus.

More than 100 colleagues and friends celebrated Stiffney’s service during an event at the Mennonite Health Assembly – Stiffney’s last as MHS CEO – held March 8-10 in Pittsburgh. Karen Lehman will become CEO on May 1.

At the gathering, Laurie Nafziger, MHS board chair and president and CEO of Oaklawn, a mental health and addiction treatment organization based in Northern Indiana, said one of the keys to Stiffney’s leadership was his ability to use the gifts of his team members.

“No one is good at everything, and Rick understood this,” she said. “He could spot talent and appreciated the variety of skills needed to make an organization run smoothly. Even with all his travel, the MHS staff spent time in retreat several times every year to ensure they were pulling together. Rick did his part, gave his team space to do theirs and was lavish in his praise of them.”

In his work with MHS over the past 20 years, Stiffney committed himself to identifying ways of incorporating Anabaptist values into institutions, especially within health and human service organizations. He became a go-to resource in organizational strategy, best practices in board governance, and leadership development from an Anabaptist perspective.

Under Stiffney’s leadership, MHS increased its network of 80 Anabaptist-affiliated health and human service ministries and grew its consulting practice serving Catholics, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians and Quakers, among others, who want to uphold both faith values and be effective.

“I’ve been to sacred places with a lot of people, but those relationships are in part changing, and there’s grief in that,” he said. “But I also feel the anticipation and the anxiety of the future. Boards and senior leadership teams often experience this same sense of possibility and anxiety in their work. “

Stiffney joined MHS as executive vice president in January 1998. He was appointed president and CEO in 1999. In 2004, he helped MHS restructure its governance structure with board seats for the membership and relating denominations.

Stiffney held various pastoral and church-related ministry roles prior to MHS.

He was on the pastoral staff of College Mennonite Church, Goshen, Indiana, from 1973 to 1978, and concurrently taught at Bethany Christian Schools in Goshen. For the next decade, he worked at Mennonite Board of Missions, now Mennonite Mission Network.

MHS board member Rolando Santiago, in a March 8 interview, recalled a time in 1979 when he was assistant director of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) U.S. programs and helped oversee more than 100 voluntary service workers living in units mostly east of the Mississippi River. At the time, Stiffney was managing voluntary service programs for Mennonite Board of Missions. Santiago and Stiffney traveled throughout Louisiana, visiting MCC volunteers supporting a federal recognition application of the Houma Indian Tribe and a gardening project with the Clifton Choctaw Tribe.

“Rick was interested in learning how MCC managed its voluntary service units, and that early experience with Rick left a deep impression in me,” Santiago said in an email March 8. “Rick displayed curiosity, interest and hunger for learning the unique organizational features of MCC’s Anabaptist-oriented service program. His hunger now has transferred to teaching and communicating Anabaptist ways of caring for health and human service institutions that serve with excellence, innovation and justice in mind.”

In 1980, Stiffney became Mennonite Board of Missions vice president of home ministries, working with conference ministers, church evangelism and church planting, urban ministry, and health and welfare services – the latter being his introduction into what would become the core of his next 40 years of leadership.

“There was a time when, by and large, the Mennonite church missiology – how we think of mission – was narrowed in a way that diminished the significance of health and human service ministry,” he said. “I realized that the center of my call was to remind the church that health and human services is a very important domain of the church’s ministry.”

Stiffney went on to work for Greencroft in Goshen from 1988 to 1998 as the first vice president of operations on a Mennonite senior living campus. During this time, Stiffney played a significant role in carrying out Greencroft’s growth into a multicampus organization with consulting services.

Lee Snyder, former MHS board chair and former president of Bluffton (Ohio) University, in a March 8 interview, called Stiffney “a great gift to the church,” not only because of what he accomplished but the poise with which he carried himself.

“Rick possessed that rare ability to engage with great effect on two levels at the same time: an understanding of practical approaches to the inevitable (and often unexpected) challenges and obstacles related to the health-care field, while never waning in enthusiasm in conveying the vision and mission of Mennonite Health Services,” she said in an email on March 8. “He is a listener, a team builder, a problem solver and a creative entrepreneur with a devotion to strengthening the faith values of our church institutions.”

When Leonard Dow was pastor of Oxford Circle Mennonite Church in Philadelphia, he and others imagined starting an organization that could more fully meet the needs of their neighborhood. After years of planning and praying and fundraising, they birthed Oxford Circle Community Development Association.

“Rick was one of the first Mennonite leaders who was able to see and affirm our entrepreneurial endeavors as both professional and Spirit led,” Dow said in a March 8 interview. “Over the years Rick was one of the few who said publicly that what we were implementing via our church and nonprofit was a model not only for ‘urban centers’ and ‘people of color’ but also a needed national model for the entire church.”

Dow, who now works as stewardship and development specialist at Everence Financial, called Stiffney “passionate, resilient and hopeful, a rarity in the church today.”

At the going-away celebration at the Mennonite Health Assembly in Pittsburgh, Stiffney had the last word.

Paraphrasing an oft-quoted African proverb, he noted, “It takes a village to raise a leader.”

“You who are here and many others over many years have been that village for me,” he said. “I feel profound joy and sadness as this work comes to a conclusion and many relationships inevitably change. But together we have accomplished much, and I am confident that my successor, Karen Lehman, and the MHS board will do great things in its next season.”

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