Life is a series of transitions, sometimes hard and unexpected, other times perfectly natural. For Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon (EMO) President Jan Musgrove Elfers, the decision to retire presents a bit of both. She is ready for her life’s next season but will find it hard to say goodbye to the work she loves.
Elfers has held many roles at EMO. She started as an intern in 2003. She was completing her master’s degree in Applied Theology at Marylhurst University and was looking for an opportunity to put what she was learning into praxis. The war in Iraq was just beginning, so her interest in peacemaking took her to EMO, where she wrote the “Peace Resource Guide.” Elfers’ research for the guide involved interviewing interfaith leaders in the state who were engaged in local and national dialogue and relationship building between religious traditions. Later that fall, she was hired as the Peace Program associate for EMO.
Elfers later became EMO’s director of Membership, forging relationships with individuals and various communities of faith. Many of those connections would later form the core constituency for her tenure as president. Following her time as the director of Membership, Elfers became the director of Public Policy Advocacy. Here she fashioned many relationships with lawmakers and civic leaders across the state, again bolstering EMO’s network in a way that would serve EMO well during her presidency.
Following the resignation of David Leslie in 2015, Elfers became the interim executive director for EMO. After a nation-wide search, she was hired as the permanent executive director (the position was later retitled president).
When she took over the reins of leadership, there were a lot of challenges. After a very difficult and deep recession, EMO was struggling financially. Elfers and colleagues Howard Kenyon (vice president) and Jillann Johnson (director of Finance), plus a very engaged EMO Board of Directors and committed donors, were together able to stabilize the finances. In addition, particularly under the Trump administration, EMO’s refugee and immigrant resettlement programs struggled to survive.By strengthening partnerships with other service providers, the programs were stabilized and continue to thrive today.
Elfers’ leadership style brought an empathic and listening approach to EMO’s work. Thanks to her leadership, EMO is in a very positive place, poised to flourish as never before in the years ahead. “I would frankly not leave this role if I thought that we were not in a good place,” says Elfers. “I have never seen EMO more stable, led by such talented, compassionate, gifted leaders. I am one of many leaders who are so committed to this work and so capable of taking this to another level.”
Elfers’ decision to retire during this moment is layered and complex. With the COVID-19 pandemic, it has been an exceptionally challenging time to lead a complex organization like EMO, as the numbers of clients needing services in some programs has increased exponentially.
Additionally, racial justice has long been a passion for Elfers, and she has been intentional about learning during this moment. She has taken a deep dive into questions about diversity, equity and inclusion. Alongside the EMO Board of Directors, she has been leading the staff and board into this profound and difficult, but necessary, work. It has had an impact on her personally.
“I’ve seen how an organization like ours, whose top management has been white since the beginning, needs to change, it’s time,” says Elfers. “As I discerned and prayed about this, it’s time for me to make space for a person with a different perspective and different life experiences to step into this role and run this organization.”
The EMO Board has determined to first hire an interim president while a national search is conducted for EMO’s next long-term president. The interim search committee is being led by The Rev. Linda Jaramillo, former co-chair of EMO’s Board of Directors and current board member. It’s unclear how long the interim will be in place, and much depends on how the national search comes together.
For both positions, the board is looking for a wise, empathetic and passionate person of faith. There’s no doubt there are some real challenges ahead, and the person leading EMO in the transition and in the long-term position will need to be an exceptionally gifted leader.
For her part, Elfers is looking forward to spending more time with her family and getting some well-deserved rest. Fortunately for EMO, she is planning to stay connected. “I’m not going anywhere. I love Portland, I love this state, I am more committed than ever to the work of justice, compassion and equity,” says Elfers. “I am retiring, but as I step outside of this role, I’m praying about what God has next in store for me. I love this organization deeply. It is a part of my story in so many ways, and I will continue to be involved in some way to support EMO and its greater mission.”
If you would like to express your gratitude to President Jan Elfers, cards can be sent to EMO (245 S Bancroft St., Suite B, Portland OR 97239) or emails can be written to firstname.lastname@example.org.