Photo: Roger and Cynthia Neufeld Smith. Photo provided.
Fresh out of seminary in their early 30s and married just the previous year, Roger and Cynthia Neufeld Smith left Chicago for their first co-pastoring assignment at Southern Hills Mennonite Church in Topeka, Kansas. They knew they wanted an urban church, and Cynthia wanted to apply her training in worship and music in a congregational setting. How to find a Mennonite church in the city with a pipe organ, they wondered. Some churches were hiring husband-wife co-pastor teams, giving women entrée to the pulpit. Roger and Cynthia each received a half-time contract.
It was 1988. Before children. Before the first gray hair. Armed with the Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary emphasis on practical peace and justice theology, they arrived at Southern Hills on the cusp of the 1990s, when the United States believed itself to be leading a new world order. Southern Hills, a church established in 1957 by 1-W workers who remained in the city, was searching for renewal. The music and peace heritage was strong, and the congregation maintained a strong anti-war emphasis. A good match for the Neufeld Smith team? It must have been. They leave Southern Hills this summer after three decades of service.
Southern Hills was a young congregation. In those early years, the Neufeld Smiths rarely performed a funeral service. After Cara was born in 1990 and Micah in 1992, they identified with the young families at Southern Hills. Cynthia’s desire to become a better organist and her lessons at University of Kansas led to her pursuit of a doctorate in church music that took her 11 years as she juggled babies, studies and church responsibilities.
The church was flexible with their contracts. At one point, Cynthia went down to 10 percent of full time. In recent years, Cynthia has been at 40 percent of full time, with other music involvements outside the church; Roger has been 80 percent of full time. They remember with gratitude what it meant for Joyce and Virg Funk to come to them when the children were born, saying, “We will sit with your children every Sunday while you lead worship and preach.” This continued until Cara and Micah were old enough to sit with the other youth. The Neufeld Smiths socialized with other young parents as their children played together, talking parenting as well as organic farming and living the simple lifestyle.
In some ways, roles divided themselves naturally without complications, according to their interests: music for Cynthia and pulpit ministry and administration for Roger. At a funeral service, for example, it fell naturally to Cynthia to plan the music and order of worship, while Roger chose Scriptures and offered a meditation. Cynthia’s role with music versus preaching and administration sometimes gave her a more traditional role in the church. “I was sometimes bothered by that,” she says, “thinking of the cause of women’s advancement into more power and visibility; yet, in order that we be true to our identities and not duplicate each other’s roles, for efficiency sake, I sometimes accepted the more traditional role.”
Over the past 30 years, Cynthia and Roger say they have watched a generational change in national culture as well as in the Southern Hills congregation. Since Southern Hills is in the Kansas capital city of Topeka, many in the church have state- or government-related jobs; the congregation is attuned to politics and cultural issues. The pace of life has changed over the years, they say. Many in the congregation are serious professionals with demanding jobs that leave them struggling to give time to the church and its community life. Family life has changed too. Church members struggle to have time for family and the church community. Extra-curriculars such as sports, theater and music take so much of a family’s life together that the Neufeld Smiths ask themselves, “Can church attendance and its community life still be a priority?” People today seem more stressed by these competing claims on their lives and time, they say.
Regarding challenges in leadership over the years, Roger points to a primary concern of his ministry: What does community look like? Where and when does the community meet together? The small groups that once thrived at Southern Hills are less cohesive or nonexistent. The Sunday school groups that once functioned as social groups have disintegrated. Folks from Southern Hills have competing social groups, don’t hang out together like they once did, don’t go camping or to Rocky Mountain family camp. The youth in the church seem less cohesive and don’t sit together as they once did on Sunday mornings.
Cynthia says that although Mennonite music in worship has changed in recent decades and filled some churches with difficult choices, she has not experienced the worship wars at Southern Hills. She has taken joy in the resources she has had at Southern Hills, such as attenders who are first chair musicians in the Topeka Symphony. She has tried to find meaningful worship experiences in music that use both professionals and novices.
Initially, Cynthia was a contract accompanist at Washburn University in Topeka, but by now has a staff position to accompany the choir, which gives her more contacts in the Topeka music world. Cynthia notes that it is good for a married couple in a co-pastoring assignment to have separate spheres in addition to the joint assignment. For her, training at University of Kansas and then being a staff member at Washburn served her need for her own identity and friends. Roger’s separate worlds included a stint in leadership at Western District Conference and more recently at the local community level, organizing an interdenominational justice ministry in Topeka, JUMP. He has also provided leadership with interfaith ministries.
Roger says other trends that have influenced church life include “the rise of the nones,” or those who mark “none” on a form to declare religious affiliation. The rise of skepticism. The fact that more and more the religious right defines the face of religion. Numbing endless war perpetrated by the United States, leading, ironically, to a dissipation of anti-war energy and the dissolution of an Anabaptist distinctiveness that brought seekers to the Mennonite church, for example, during the Vietnam War and after 9/11. There exists today a general distaste for organized religion, perhaps a broadening anti-institutionalism, Roger says.
Roger and Cynthia point to the camaraderie of the I-70 pastors’ group of churches as significant in sustaining their long ministry, along with repeated attempts to reimagine and revision the life of the church and themselves as pastors.
What is the wisdom of 30 years of service within one congregation? Roger: “Perhaps Phyllis Tickle (The Great Emergence) is right that every 500 years the church ‘cleans out its attic and has a giant rummage sale.’” Roger and Cynthia both wonder aloud whether it is time for wholesale change in the church, painful though this process may be. Denominational structures are becoming de-institutionalized. What will that mean for congregations like Southern Hills?
Raylene Hinz-Penner of Southern Hills Mennonite Church, Topeka, Kansas, conducted an interview on May 18 with Roger and Cynthia Neufeld Smith.
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