This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Q&A with Marlene Kropf

When you began, what needs in Mennonite worship patterns and spiritual formation did you want to address?

In both arenas, the central need I discerned was the lack of a direct encounter with God. There was too little scripture and too little prayer in corporate worship. We were content to talk about God and reluctant to encounter God personally and corporately. Though we loved to sing, we didn’t realize that singing is more than a horizontal, community-building experience; it is our most significant way of praying together. The absence of the arts in worship kept many doors closed to encounter with God. Our fear of ritual kept other doors closed. We were far too dependent upon words. Too much of the action was centered on the front, and too little of it directly engaged people in the pews.

In terms of spiritual formation, we were not teaching people to pray. Nor were we offering an adequate path of spiritual formation—an intentional, sustained process for growing our faith in the midst of a secular, postmodern world. Young people were growing up without hearing and knowing the voice of God, both personally and in the context of corporate worship or witness. Adults lacked structures for relationships and accountability, such as spiritual friendship, effective small groups, or spiritual direction.

All these needs required a more careful look at the church’s deep traditions of worship and spiritual formation—patterns and practices that went all the way back to the first Christians and the early church. We also needed a thoughtful assessment of current renewal movements: How were other churches nurturing a livelier awareness of God? What paths were bringing new life?

What needs to be addressed now?

What has changed dramatically since I began my work in 1983 is an increased openness to the world of the Spirit. We’re no longer afraid to anoint one another and pray for healing; we’re coming to the Lord’s Table more often; we can create rituals for joyful occasions or for times of lament and sorrow when we need them; we can even dance! In effect, we’ve lost our fear of sacraments and are at last ready to acknowledge that God works and speaks in material ways, in words, silence, relationships, symbols, mystery—in fact, in any way God chooses.

What we need to do now is take our worship into the world. We have enormous and precious gifts in our tradition that the world around us is hungry for, but we haven’t yet discovered or received the freedom to offer those treasures beyond ourselves. To put it simply, we need to follow the Spirit into the world and see where God longs to put those gifts to work. Our singing, stories and prayers, rituals of healing, and the bounty of the Lord’s Table belong in the world as well as in worship. We’ll be changed by such encounters—but it will be an exciting ride!

What have been the greatest changes in Mennonite worship and spiritual formation during your tenure?

Certainly a major change has been the advent of more variety in Mennonite worship and spiritual formation. We have borrowed freely from other traditions—charismatic, evangelical, liturgical, and other free church resources. Sometimes we’ve discerned and chosen wisely; at other times werve been less discriminating.

We use more scripture today in our worship, perhaps because of the influence of the Revised Common Lectionary. We’re more attentive to the seasons of the Christian year, and so we’re telling the Jesus-story in more creative and substantial ways than in the past. We’ve enlarged the role of praise and confession in worship, largely because of the way these acts of worship have been ordered in Hymnal: A Worship Book, but also because we’ve discovered a deeper need to recognize and name who God is and who we are in worship. The altar-call of past generations has been transformed into a variety of rituals of response. We’re far more emotionally expressive in many congregations than in the past, though there are still times and places where emotion is suspect. And in many congregations, the arts—especially music, drama, dance, and the visual arts, have a far more central role than before.

A significant change in worship that might be overlooked is the shift from male-led to female-led worship in many congregations and area conferences. When I first began leading public worship, I was often the only woman involved, except for the children’s leader. These days when I’m leading worship, I have to double-check to make sure there are enough men involved. When I’ve asked men about this retrenchment, they tell me they don’t feel as comfortable leading worship when creativity and spirituality seem to be required.

During my tenure as denominational minister of worship, we’ve lived through the infamous “worship wars,” which were basically either power struggles or disagreements about musical taste. Thanks be to God that so many congregations have quit fighting and are finding their way to more creative solutions! Our two hymnal supplements, Sing the Journey and Sing the Story, have been partly responsible for this shift—the remarkable variety of styles in those books has given congregations permission to sing whatever will help them authentically express their faith and encourage them to worship God “in spirit and in truth.”

What do you consider your greatest achievements through your denominational assignments?

Three things stand out as pivotal—but none was my work alone. The first was the development of what came to be called the “Congregational Discipling Vision,” an organic way of looking at the church as a worshiping community of disciples in mission. That vision shaped the way I taught, preached, led worship, and offered spiritual direction. Even though I didnt always speak of this vision directly, its Trinitarian focus was the center of everything I did.

The second achievement was the resounding success of Hymnal: A Worship Book and the two supplements that followed, as well as the extensive use of church-wide worship resources published first in Builder and then in Leader magazine. When I hear congregations sing a song like “Nothing is lost on the breath of God” as though they’ve known it all their lives, or I hear children and youth belting out “We will follow, we will follow Jesus,” and I know those songs have only been in our repertoire for a scant three years (since the publication of Sing the Story), then I know something truly remarkable and soul-shaping happens with the development of thoughtfully-discerned church-wide resources. Or when I see the multitude of ways congregations contextually interpret the visual suggestions offered in Leader worship resources, I recognize the enormous creativity that is set free when a central office provides just enough guidance to get people started on a good path. The resources we use in common do more than bind us together in the present; they also create a vision that will shape who we become in the future. And whether or not the church’s worship resources are worthy of such trust is a matter not to be taken lightly.

The third achievement is the expanding network of spiritual directors who now serve the church. Twenty-five years ago we could count on one hand the number of trained spiritual directors in the Mennonite church. Now there are probably close to 200 spiritual directors available for ministry. And while their one-with-one ministry is deeply significant, what is even more important is the way spiritual direction has served as leaven to renew the spiritual life of the whole church. Church councils, committees, and even groups like the Executive Board now pause to “dwell in the Word” or practice a variety of forms of prayer as they engage their work. The separation between work and worship has diminished, a development for which I am profoundly grateful.

What have been disappointments?

I don’t leave my work with a sense of disappointment, but rather with gratitude. Certainly, there have been times of discouragement, but the generous people I’ve worked with and the compelling vision that has guided us has been stronger than any defeats along the way.

If I carry away one disappointment, it will be that I could not do more. I had hoped for a team of area conference leaders across the church who would be in place by now and who would care for leadership training in worship, music and spirituality in the future. I don’t see that happening soon.

Will someone pick up the work you’ve been doing?

The answer is “no” if you mean someone in an office known as “Denominational Minister of Worship.” During the past seven years, however, I’ve worked hard to train and mentor people to carry on specific tasks—such as overseeing the development of worship resources for Leader magazine, creating hymnals, or providing support for spiritual directors. That work will continue, even though there will be no one to answer the many calls of pastors and worship and music leaders who want to talk to a trusted leader about their questions and concerns. Though that shift of denominational priorities disappoints me, I trust that something new will rise from this season of dying.

How have you balanced your passion for the work with a contemplative life?

Those who know me well know I’ve worked too hard during my tenure. It’s difficult not to keep saying “yes” when one loves the work and there’s so much to be done. And unfortunately it’s still true that women feel pressure to work harder and better than men. On the other hand, I’ve also known that prayer and rest and contemplation are absolutely critical for my work.

As I look back, I recognize that several key practices have sustained me: one is a congregational small group I meet with weekly that nurtures and challenges my faith; another is a spiritual friendship that has endured for more than twenty years; another is regular meeting with a spiritual director with whom I can be utterly candid and who holds me in love and prayer; another is the ongoing Sunday worship of Belmont Mennonite Church.

Beyond these corporate practices, I’ve been drawn to centering prayer in recent years and find this wordless way of praying a path to clarity and peace. I take regular retreats —a day and a night at a nearby retreat center where I sink into God’s presence and find myself loved, healed and renewed.

Perhaps the most important balance has been my spouse—who loves to sail and persuades me to go along, and who cooks such extraordinary food that anyone would be a fool not to stop and savor the good gifts of the earth every morning and every night. When we pray together at mealtime from our Celtic prayer book, the tensions from my work world recede, and all is well.

Has the dialogue with Catholics enriched Mennonite worship life?

I had no idea what a rich friendship would develop among Mennonites and Catholics in Bridgefolk. Though this grassroots ten-year friendship hasn’t been without pain, the gifts have far outweighed the challenges and difficulties. From Catholics we’ve learned so much about the sacramental life—about prayer and ritual. But Catholics also long for the life of community, discipleship and peacemaking that Mennonites take for granted. Our friendship, while bridging a historic divide, does more than destroy an old enmity; it brings both Catholics and Mennonites closer to Christ—which is what really matters in worship and spiritual formation.

Some point out that your leadership has been of value primarily to white congregations. How do you respond to this suggestion?
It’s likely true that resources such as hymnals and supplements as well as worship ideas in Leader magazine are used more often by white congregations. Many racial-ethnic congregations are less tied to the mainstream of Mennonite worship or to paper resources in worship. We do, however, always invite racial-ethnic leaders to participate in resource development projects and find their perspectives challenging and enriching.

I’m impressed, however, with what happens when a resource, such as the Minister’s Manual, is translated into Spanish and then is taught and promoted by Hispanic leaders. It takes bridge-builders like Gilberto Flores (and others) who can interpret the importance of such a common resource and then train people to use it who make a difference in whether or not the whole church uses a resource.

Gordon remembers a workshop you did with Steve Cheramie Risingsun about Celtic and Native spirituality and how they share many traits. Can you describe the traits?
I well remember the night I drove Steve to an appointment in Elkhart and how delighted we were to discover common ground between Native and Celtic spirituality. In both cases, our Anabaptist commitments have been enriched by the companionship of another spiritual tradition.

As pre-Christian traditions, both Native Americans and Celtic peoples have been described as having “an Old Testament faith.” When the Christian faith was proclaimed to them, they quickly made connections with what they already knew about God. Both claimed the Psalms and their vivid experience of God in the created world. Both were drawn to the figure of Jesus – his teaching and healing ministry and his refusal of violence. In both traditions, “little prayers” were important—small pauses at dawn or at dusk, in the midst of work, or at mealtimes to recognize the Source of Life. Both traditions loved story, art, music and ritual. Both understood the importance of kinship, fidelity to relationships, and justice in the community. They shared an understanding and experience of the “communion of saints,” the unseen hosts who cheer us on our way to faithfulness and to union with God.

A major difference between the two traditions was that missionaries who came to Celtic lands honored and respected local traditions. Looking for places of connection with the faith that was already practiced, they evangelized through a process of inculturation rather than confrontation. Native Americans, instead, experienced a rejection of their spirituality and rituals and suffered enormous losses, even death, at the hands of conquering Christians.

One of my most cherished memories of these years in ministry is leading a workshop on healing prayer rituals with Steve at a biennial gathering of Native American leaders. The Spirit was truly present—and it made no difference that a Native American pastor and an Anglo woman minister were leading the event.

You have been more influential than any other leader in changing worship and spiritual formation patterns in Mennonite congregations. Who have been your primary co-laborers?

I’ve been blessed with extraordinary co-laborers: many pastors, worship leaders, artists, musicians, and spiritual directors who stay in close touch, help me interpret the church’s needs, and give me feedback about what works and what doesn’t. Some folks send me photographs; others send sermons, songs, worship orders, or rituals created for special occasions. Some challenge me with complex questions and inspire me to dig deeper than ever before.

In the worship world, I’ve often collaborated with Ken Nafziger, a music professor from Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Va., with an extraordinary imagination for interpreting music and an amazing gift for calling forth the church’s song. Both of us read voraciously and observe worship whenever and wherever we can—and then we talk, compare notes, and try to discern what can be brought to our people. After writing a book together, Singing: A Mennonite Voice (Herald Press, 2001), we jointly addressed the Hymn Society in the United States and Canada. Every January at the Laurelville Music and Worship Weekend (and in numerous other weekend events across the church), we try out what we’re learning and experiencing and listen to the stories of worship and music leaders from across the United States and Canada. Both Ken and I have admired and worked with John Bell of the Iona Community (Scotland) and been deeply influenced by his vibrant, creative, justice-oriented approach to worship and spirituality.

Other musicians, such as Marilyn Houser Hamm and Randall Spaulding, along with all those who worked on creating the hymnal supplements have been significant conversation partners along the way. My husband Stanley, who has been a congregational song leader all his life, is another voice I always hear in my ear whenever I teach or do worship planning.

Many of my seminary faculty colleagues have influenced my work in the denomination —people like Mary Oyer, June Alliman Yoder, Rebecca Slough, Daniel Schipani, John Rempel, Alan Kreider and others. Working together on the book, Preparing Sunday Dinner: A Collaborative Approach to Worship and Preaching (Herald Press, 2005), with my colleagues June Alliman Yoder and Rebecca Slough was an intense experience of creativity and discernment.

Seminary students from near at home and around the world—Indonesia, Colombia, Ethiopia, Northern Ireland, Syria, India, the Netherlands, and elsewhere—have also been significant collaborators behind the scenes, shaping and enlarging my vision of worship and spirituality in the global church. Two students, Karmen Krahn and Rosanna McFadden, have been especially important collaborators as we’ve worked together to lead the AMBS seasonal Advent and Lent Planners for congregational leaders.

In my work in spirituality, my most important collaborator was the first person I worked with—Marcus Smucker. Together we hammered out a Mennonite theology of spiritual formation that sustained our teaching and training of pastors and spiritual directors. Area conference leaders—people like Beulah Steiner, Clayton Swartzentruber, Dorothy Harnish, and others—who initiated spiritual formation training programs were absolutely critical to the development of my thinking and practice. By inviting me to teach in these local programs, they kept me engaged in lively conversation between the academic world and the daily life of people who worked in congregations and wanted to love and serve God with heart, mind, body and soul.

Finally, I’ve had the good fortune to have had good bosses in the denomination—Gordon Zook, Everett Thomas, James Waltner, Jim Schrag, and Ron Byler—leaders who respected my work, provided good critique, and gave me freedom to guide the church. Without their trust and support, I couldn’t have ventured where I did. I salute them!

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