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From a drawing on a napkin, support for a dividing church

12.14. 2015 Written By: Vanessa Hofer for TheMennonite 2,813 Times read

Photo: The Napkin Group, a group of diverse pastors in Lancaster, Pa., drawn together for conversation and spiritual support, was instrumental in planning a Dec. 9 service of lament and confession held at East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church in Lancaster. (Photo by Vanessa Hofer.)

In the spring of 2014, Stan Shantz, Todd Friesen and Brian Miller met, as pastors often do, to catch up.

Over a cup of coffee at Café One Eight, located in downtown Lancaster, Pa., the conversation drifted from day-to-day life to the pressing issues of their respective Mennonite congregations, Lancaster Mennonite Conference and Mennonite Church USA.

Suddenly, Shantz, pastor of James Street Mennonite Church in Lancaster City, had a thought. He recalled a diagram that Kathy, his wife, had brought home from a class she was taking through Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif.

“I said, ‘Let me show you something,’ ” Shantz recounts. On a clean napkin, he drew a horizontal line that divided the napkin in half.

“On this axis, [we note] whether you are liberal or you are conservative.” Shantz labeled the right end

Stan Shantz, pastor of James Street Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa., recreates the napkin diagram that launched The Napkin Group. Photo by Vanessa Hofer.

Stan Shantz, pastor of James Street Mennonite Church in Lancaster, Pa., recreates the napkin diagram that launched The Napkin Group. Photo by Vanessa Hofer.

and left end of the line with each term, respectively. “These days, I think there needs to be another access point.”

He added a vertical line from top to bottom, dividing the napkin into fours. He labeled the top end “open” and the bottom “closed.”

“A more important question,” he continues, “is how open are we to conversation or how closed are we to conversation? Can I have a conversation with you, even when I disagree with you?”

Then, indicating the diagram, Shantz asked, “Where would Jesus function in this?”

Communion amid division

Taken aback by the diagram, Shantz recalled, that he, Miller, then pastor of Sunnyside Mennonite Church, and Friesen, pastor of East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church, all in Lancaster, agreed they needed “to do something about this.” They invited Lancaster Mennonite Conference bishop Jason Kuniholm to join their next meeting and drew him the same napkin diagram.

And the Napkin Group began.

Meeting every six weeks in various locations around Lancaster, the group has grown to include around a dozen area Mennonite pastors. There are no significant preparations, no membership guidelines and no rules.

Kuniholm, who is bishop for many but not all the participants, serves as the spiritual director. A typical meeting will last around two hours and include conversation, prayer and, always, Communion.

“We were, and continue to be, a theologically diverse group,” Friesen explains, a point that has become particularly relevant leading up to and following Lancaster Mennonite Conference’s recent decision to withdraw from Mennonite Church USA.

“As events unfolded and the proposal came to sever relationships with Mennonite Church USA, we continued to meet and continued to speak and pray for that breaking of relationship not to happen,” Friesen says.

Dawn Ranck Hower started attending the Napkin Group meetings shortly after she began as pastor at New Holland Mennonite Church in August 2014.

“It’s been a great, safe place to be together, even though we’re on different sides of things. We don’t all agree, but it doesn’t matter at all,” she says.

Service of lament is organized

Emotional support, according to many members of the group, is one of the key components of the Napkin Group.

“I started my ministry in 1981,” Shantz says. “I have never seen so much stress and anxiety among my peers as I have over the last two years. We need these places where pastors can come and experience renewal and safety.”

Artwork on the program for the service of lament and confession held on Dec. 9. Photo by Vanessa Hofer.

Artwork on the program for the service of lament and confession held on Dec. 9. Photo by Vanessa Hofer.

Sensing a need for additional opportunities to acknowledge the emotions within the church, especially for pastors burdened with the current distress of church division, members of the group began questioning what more could be done.

Eventually, the framework for an evening worship service emerged, with Napkin Group regulars Friesen and Ranck Hower at the helm.

“We were talking about the need to lament, the need to confess, the need to have a place to say, ‘Let’s stop and think about the relationships that have been severed and how we feel about that,’ ” says Ranck Hower.

The resulting service, An Evening Service of Lament and Confession, was held Dec. 9 at East Chestnut Street Mennonite Church.

The service, attend by 125 individuals, looked to the Psalms for inspiration. It was divided into three parts—lament, confession and hope—each framed by song, Scripture and periods of silence.

Participants were invited to reflect on whatever was on their hearts, whether related to the recent church division or otherwise.

It was designed to be a safe, open space—similar to the Napkin Group. After all, of the eight pastors who led the service, six were regular Napkin Group attendees.

It was, in Ranck Hower’s words, “a place to bring the pain to God.”

The group continues

The Napkin Group will continue to gather.

“We’re meeting in January again,” says Friesen. “I suppose we’ll just keep on meeting and see if a next meeting is desired.”

“I haven’t heard interest waning at all,” Shantz adds, noting both the close friendships that have formed among members and their willingness to welcome others interested in joining.

“I suspect it will continue to be an important ministry around the area,” he says.

Listen to the closing litany from the service of lament and confession:

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3 Responses to “From a drawing on a napkin, support for a dividing church”

  1. Cindy Singer says:

    This is good that people are talking about the concerns in the church. I am pretty sure when you are talking about “stress” in the church you are alluding to the stress felt about including lgbt people in every way in your churches. Or maybe you are talking about people who have been abused sexually and in many other ways – especially spiritually in our churches.

    Once again unless you have made a concerted effort to invite these folks to your table to share their experience with you – I’m not sure you are lamenting in the right direction.

    When participants were invited to share – how many lgbt attendees shared. I’m sure lgbt people have something to share. Maybe this would not be the right forum for that. How can you lament when you may not really understand the issue. I am may be completely off base here. Maybe you did include lgbt people or people who have been abused by the church to share their pain. Maybe you did that. Maybe the stress you are discussing isn’t the stress I am discussing here. Maybe. But I have feeling this is the crux of the your stress.

  2. WJ Yoder says:

    The napkin group’s decision to promote conversation seems good amidst the process of Lancaster Mennonite Conference withdrawal from Mennonite Church USA.

    However, the napkin diagram needs revision. The crucial issue dividing “liberals” and “conservatives” is not whether the Christian community is open to critique and change but how both these groups should be conceptualized. Nor are the terms, “open” and “closed” inviting to all.

    For example, changes within a particular sport game have to respect the integrity of the game. Likewise, changes within the church take place in a similar manner. While the impetus for change may come from any quarter, change with integrity must be capable of being justified on terms “internal” to the church. When there’s a push for significant aspects of the Christian tradition to be left behind while new, never before recognized grammar and action are to be added, might this not pose a potential threat to the integrity of Christian practice?

    What we have are not open groups and closed groups, not liberal groups and conservative groups, not normal groups and deviant groups, but a clash of groups thinking and operating out of different major narratives. The church’s narrative cannot be embedded within either some apparently more fundamental narrative, such as that of democratic liberalism, or any other dominant narrative. Nevertheless, critique and change are always a part of church life but there are also clear limits in place.
    So, napkin group, keep up the good work!

  3. Nate Lehman says:

    When you can listen to someone you do not agree with, until he/she stops talking and then say in response; “You are saying that you believe….” and then say back to this person exactly what they said without adding any I or any of what you believe, or what you think; you have just put your own ego on hold and died to let this person live.
    If you do not wish to change, do not use this exercise for it is a Christ-like action and you will change. You will experience more love, forgiveness, and satisfying joy than you can imagine.

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