This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Caught in the middle, leaders have a hard task

I have known James M. Lapp since we were children; of Bishop John E. Lapp’s sons, he was the closest to my age. In 1994, Southside Fellowship in Elkhart, Ind., accepted me as a gay member and subsequently had their vote in Indiana-Michigan Conference suspended. Shortly after the Germantown congregation was expelled from Franconia Conference (of which James was conference minister), James visited Southside. Greeting him, I said, “As a former political scientist, I’ve always had tremendous empathy for persons caught in the middle of conflict.” He gripped my hand a little tighter in silent appreciation for my extending him grace.

It’s all too easy for both “consistent” conservatives and “pure” progressives to criticize as “wishy-washy” moderate leaders tasked with trying to hold a church together in the midst of tension. As James notes (Letters, May 25), leaders sometimes need to subordinate their personal opinions to their group responsibilities. Of course, they could always resign, but their replacements might be much less effective. Historical context is important; as views change over time, good leaders try to avoid being too far ahead or too far behind their people. As my friend Marion Lehman of Goshen, Ind., told me a few years before he died: “Dan, it’s crazy, some of things we Mennos believed 70 years ago!”

As a child, I was awed by James’ father; he was big and powerful but had kindly eyes, a gentle voice and a warm handshake. As an adult, my admiration for his “political” skills only increased over the decades as I observed him operate (usually from a distance) in various church settings; he had a firm faith but always with a growing edge.

In 1983, shortly after coming out gay, I visited him in retirement at Souderton Mennonite Home, introducing my then partner as a “friend.” As our visit ended, he asked, “Is there anything else you would like to tell me?” I knew that he knew I’d come out, but I simply couldn’t discuss it openly with him, so I replied, “No.” Walking to our car, my partner rightly chastised me — “Dan, you coward” — but Bishop Lapp had the grace not to press the issue.

Over a similarly long career, his son James has the same firm faith, clear-headed concern for the welfare of the whole church and, most of all, a warm pastoral heart, as did his father.

Dan Leatherman
Fort Collins, Colo.

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