John A. Lapp, an accomplished historian, seasoned administrator and leader who shaped the work of Mennonite Central Committee as executive secretary from 1985 to 1996, died Dec. 5 in Goshen, Ind. He was 90.
Steeped in history, with a lifelong habit of reading extensively, Lapp had a gift for looking, and encouraging others to look, deeply at MCC’s work and connections to churches, both local and global, said Ron Mathies, MCC executive director from 1996 to 2005.
“He always saw the big picture, which not everybody did, then he made the big picture available for people,” Mathies said. “He was deeply, deeply committed to the church. He was always asking, ‘What impact does this have on the church? What can we learn from the church?’ ”
That dedication to the church and to his Mennonite faith — paired with an intense interest in religious and cultural movements and how the work of the church intersected with the work of the world — was a deep seam running through his life.
“John took all of his gifts and talents — and they were many — and humbly put them at the service of the church for his whole life,” said Nancy Heisey, MCC’s associate executive secretary from 1989 to 1992 and later president of Mennonite World Conference.
Lapp was born March 15, 1933, in Lansdale, Pa., to John E. and Edith Nyce Lapp. He graduated from Eastern Mennonite University in 1954. He married Mary Alice Weber on Aug. 20, 1955. They moved to Cleveland, where he was a hospital orderly as an alternative to military service and worked on a master’s degree in history.
He returned to teach at EMU and got his own look at history-making events in 1963 when he and others from EMU traveled to hear Martin Luther King Jr. speak on the National Mall during the landmark “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” He earned a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1965.
From 1969 to 1972 he led MCC’s Peace Section and then was selected to serve as academic dean and later provost at Goshen College.
“His global perspective, honed through wide travel and history training, and his personable nature made him highly respected across the campus,” said Vic Stoltzfus, president emeritus.
He returned to MCC as executive secretary in 1985. His pattern of reflection and openness to change was his legacy, said Ann Graber Hershberger, executive director of MCC U.S.
Coming from an academic tradition, he thought deeply about the hows and whys of MCC’s work and urged others to do the same, often by asking questions. “He’d turn his face to you, a twinkling in his eye, with a provocative question that helped you get clearer,” she recalled.
He was open to being challenged. But, Mathies noted, “You did that carefully, knowing his understanding of history and voluminous reading.”
Gracious, welcoming and humble, Lapp “always had time for everybody,” Mathies remembered. During each orientation, the Lapps would invite the new MCC workers to their home, a tradition Mathies and his wife, Gudrun, would continue.
He traveled extensively and pointed to visits with partners and workers as a highlight of his service: “It is truly inspiring to see these people — in Atlanta, Mindanao, Damascus as examples — serve others, to see them incarnate Christ’s love.”
After finishing as executive secretary in 1996, he and Alice served with MCC in India until retiring in 1997.
During his time as executive secretary, MCC made a “jubilee gift” of $600,000 to Mennonite World Conference as part of the celebration of MCC’s 75th anniversary.
Lapp’s connections to MWC continued after retirement as he directed its five-volume Global Mennonite History Project. “John helped to orchestrate a masterpiece, recognizing the power of storytelling to shape our theological identity,” said John D. Roth, Goshen College professor emeritus of history. “He leaves a legacy of wisdom and faith.”
Lapp served on the Mennonite Weekly Review Inc. Board of Directors from 1991 to 2003.
He was preceded in death by his wife of 67 years, Alice; and is survived by his children, John F. (Sandra Shenk Lapp), Jennifer Lapp Lerch (Robert A.) and Jessica Lapp (Phil Hertzler); six grandchildren; two great-grandchildren; and siblings Mary Swartley, James, Daniel, Joseph, Sara Kolb, Ruth Lapp Guengerich and Rhoda Lapp.
A memorial service will be held at a later date at College Mennonite Church in Goshen. Information is at yoderculpfuneralhome.com. Memorial donations may be made to College Mennonite Church in Goshen, Mennonite Central Committee, Goshen College or Eastern Mennonite University.
Goshen College contributed to this report.