This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Minister of worship

Marlene Kropf, denominational minister of worship, retires this month after 27 years of promoting worship and spiritual formation.

As a 30-something high school English teacher in the late 1970s, Marlene Kropf had a revelation during a Sunday morning worship service that changed the trajectory of her life. During the last three decades, it has also changed worship practices in Mennonite congregations.

“One morning at Portland Mennonite Church,” she says, “I thought, If this were my classroom, I would be worried. It felt like worship was way too passive for so many people. Everything was happening up front. That’s where my interest in renewing worship began.”

Marlene Kropf teaching a class at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind., on July 16. Kropf will continue to teach at AMBS through the 2010-2011 school year. Photo by Everett Thomas

While other young adults may have come to the same conclusions in their Sunday morning worship services and done nothing about it, Marlene took action. Looking for ways to renew congregational worship, she first visited other congregations. But it was a 1977 trip to Woodland Park, Colo., to visit the Fisherfolk community that she and some friends found a place to start.

“They were doing the liturgical-charismatic Episcopal liturgy and interesting things with music and drama,” Marlene says.

After returning to Portland, she helped start a Sunday evening service that drew from liturgical and charismatic streams combined with Anabaptist traditions.

“We began with vesper services during Advent, with a lot of experimental things,” Marlene says. “We started inviting unchurched friends to vespers. By the end of the year there were about as many people attending as in the morning service. That created tension. I learned some things about dealing with conflict.”

Ken Nafziger and Marlene Kropf at Laurelville Menno-nite Church Center, Mt. Pleasant, Pa., in January 2009 at the annual Music and Worship Leaders Weekend. Photo by Brian Paff
Ken Nafziger and Marlene Kropf at Laurelville Menno-nite Church Center, Mt. Pleasant, Pa., in January 2009 at the annual Music and Worship Leaders Weekend. Photo by Brian Paff

During those young adult years, Marlene was also given leadership opportunities in the (former) Pacific Coast Conference. Through her conference involvement, Marlene was invited to be part of a silent retreat sponsored by the national Women’s Missionary and Service Commission (WMSC) and led by Mary Herr.

“Something happened that weekend that renewed my relationship with God,” Marlene says. “As we prayed the Scriptures, I heard a personal hearing of God’s voice. Mary said, ‘Go home and pray the Scriptures for six months before you talk about it with anybody.’ So I did. This personal hearing of God’s voice was happening over and over again.”

Marlene eventually began telling people about her experience. A neighborhood group asked her to take them on a retreat, teaching them what she had learned. Not all members of the group were Christians, but they practiced contemplative prayer. Soon members of the congregation were interested, and she and her pastor, Marcus Smucker, began leading retreats together.

Marlene is rooted in Oregon. So how did she end up in Elkhart, Ind., in 1983? “I came to Indiana because my experience of God was outstripping my theological foundation,” she says.

Marlene first said no to a 1983 invitation to join the staff at the (now defunct) Mennonite Board of Congregational Ministries (MBCM). Several months later she realized she had made the wrong decision. The half-time position was still open, and she could begin taking classes at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart.

Marlene and Stanley on the 2010 Celtic Pilgrimage standing in the nunnery ruins at Iona in Scotland (celebrating their 46th anniversary). Photo provided
Marlene and Stanley on the 2010 Celtic Pilgrimage standing in the nunnery ruins at Iona in Scotland (celebrating their 46th anniversary). Photo provided

In the meantime, Stanley, her husband, had been invited to serve as the Mennonite Church’s finance secretary. So Marlene and her two young children moved to Elkhart in August 1983, while Stanley stayed in Portland to sell their house and his business. Both sold within six weeks; Stanley moved to Elkhart in October.

Because AMBS had almost no courses in worship or spiritual formation, Marlene was able to take the classes she needed at Notre Dame (Ind.) University and have the credits transferred to AMBS. She finished her degree in 1988.

“I felt like I had received the gifts I needed most,” she says.

Since 1983, Marlene has been a key leader in the creation of Mennonite worship resources and spiritual formation material and has helped lead six spiritual pilgrimages and numerous music and worship retreat weekends. She has introduced a variety of spiritual disciplines across the church. “The main focus of my interest in worship transformation,” Marlene says, ‘has not simply been a conversion from passive to active behavior in worship but rather toward a more active encounter with God.”

At the end of September, Marlene will retire from her work with Mennonite Church USA. She plans to teach one more year at AMBS, or perhaps longer, until they sell their Elkhart house. Then she and Stanley will move back to the Northwest. Several years ago they purchased a building lot in Port Townsend, Wash.; their cottage plans are drawn and waiting to be built.

“I needed some sense of personal call to this stage of life and this new place,” Marlene says. “After we visited churches in Port Townsend, I sensed a call to be a Mennonite where there are no Mennonites. The Mennonite church has known me as a public figure for several decades. [In Port Townsend] I will get to discover and experience the church in that place as an ordinary, interested lay member. We do expect to attend and be members of either Seattle Mennonite Church or Portland Mennonite Church. But we will find a local church home in Port Townsend.”

Marlene says she and Stanley researched “the rule of life” that can shape daily activity during their retirement years. The rule includes work, prayer, leisure and service.
“After such a structured life for so many years,” she says, “it will feel good to live life as it comes. There is a need to discover who you have become through the work you do. Hopefully, who I am is more than my work.”

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