By Annette Brill Bergstresser
ELKHART, Indiana (Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary) — Amid the resounding notes of organ music and a cappella hymns, Beverly Lapp, Ed.D., of Goshen, Indiana, was installed as vice president and academic dean of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Indiana, in a worship service Oct. 19 at the seminary’s Chapel of the Sermon of the Mount.
More than 125 people were present, including members of the AMBS community and board; Lapp’s family and friends; members of her congregation, Assembly Mennonite in Goshen; and former colleagues from Goshen College, where she served on the music faculty for 23 years prior to joining AMBS July 1.
“We’re grateful for the leadership Beverly brings to our community, which has already been confirmed in so many ways,” noted Sara Wenger Shenk, Ed.D., president, during her opening remarks.
The service, on the theme “Sing a new song,” focused on Colossians 3:12-17, read in Bantu Swahili and English by students Esther Muhagachi of Dodoma, Tanzania, and Jim Longley of Sydney, Australia. A vocal ensemble from the AMBS community sang hymns in Indonesian and English.
A mobile sculpture, “The Enigma of the Trinity” — created for the occasion by Lapp’s father, Samuel Lapp, out of fieldstone, wood and metal — sat on the altar table, its pieces catching the gentle air currents.
The transforming power of beauty
John D. Roth, Ph.D., professor of history at Goshen College and director of the Mennonite Historical Library and the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism, spoke on “The Holiness of Beauty,” encouraging his listeners to be attentive to “the surprising power of beauty and its capacity to transform the world.”
In the face of the challenges confronting the church, the violence of the world, and all that is “out of kilter,” “the task of the church — your task! — is to help prepare AMBS students to astonish the world with the beauty of the gospel,” he told Lapp.
Roth said that beauty is not “an add-on, or an extra, or a frill,” but is organic to who God is and the way God works: “Beauty doesn’t explain or defend or argue for anything; it is essentially noncoercive. It invites; it bears witness; it testifies; it simply reveals what is already implicit in every detail of creation. And when beauty breaks through the shabbiness and despair around us, we catch a momentary glimpse of God’s deep love for this world and the essential goodness of Creation itself.”
He noted that “the beauty of holiness” as described by Walter Brueggemann calls Christians not to condemn sin and sinners but rather to bear sins as an act of intercession, becoming fellow sufferers and participants in the sacrificial life of Jesus.
“Beauty is the trace left behind of a patient ‘entering into’ the mess of chaos and bringing together a new creation that leaves nothing out,” he said. “If our model is Jesus, then we will come to recognize holiness not as an escape from what is wrong, but as a deep, reconciling embrace of all that is broken and torn asunder in our world.”
In preparing for his message, Roth invited Lapp’s former colleagues in the Goshen College Music Department to share about her gifts. He was particularly struck by one testimony: “Bev enters fully into the music she is playing, and she carries the beauty of that music with her long after she has left the piano.”
“Bev, you are being called into a challenging position of leadership at AMBS not only because of your administrative gifts or pedagogical skills or musical abilities — though you have all of these!” he said. “You are called because your community recognizes in you an attentiveness to the deep movement of God’s spirit who is at work healing creation.”
Following Roth’s message, Lapp spoke, sharing examples of “unresolved dissonance” from her own life and the life of the seminary community. She highlighted a recent faculty debate that weighed the responsibility to teach historical context and critical scholarship in biblical and theological education against the belief that anyone can have a powerful encounter with Scripture — with or without this contextual knowledge.
“We ultimately recognized that, even as they are in tension, we can see truth on both sides and bring them together,” she said, reflecting, “As I sat among the exceptional AMBS faculty, I delighted in the intellectual confidence, theological generosity and collegial trust that enables healthy arguments.”
Lapp wove her reflections on the AMBS mission together with stories about her grandfather, John E. Lapp, a grocery store owner who was chosen by lot to be the minister of Plains Mennonite Church in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, in 1933, and in the same way four years later to be bishop of Franconia Mennonite Conference. Old Mennonites at this time believed in strict rules about separation from the world — including bans on musical instruments in church and competitive sports — and feared that higher education would prevent a simple reading, hearing and preaching of the Bible.
While Lapp’s grandfather never went to college or seminary, she said she remembered his study overflowing with Bible commentaries and books about theology and church history, and noted that in 1962 he had urged a young minister to stay in seminary, writing to him, “I feel that I have missed out in so much for my own life experiences, and for my service in the church because of my lack of preparation.”
Lapp told about encountering new expressions of worship and aesthetic richness when she visited her husband Dale Klassen’s home church, Alexanderwohl Mennonite in Goessel, Kansas, for the first time.
“My assumptions about the arts and beauty in Mennonite ecclesiology were jolted,” she recalled, as she described a congregation steeped in Russian Mennonite history.
As Lapp reflected on the distinct Mennonite traditions of the two seminaries that originally formed AMBS, she shared about a group of students who in 1968 objected to the board’s decision to add an organ to the chapel, asking how Anabaptists could spend money on an organ when the world was hurting so greatly. She said that Esko Loewen, then a pastor in North Newton, Kansas, urged the students to consider that rejecting the organ was not the way to activate against a society weighed down by materialism and greed.
“He wrote that a skillfully crafted organ is nothing less than a profound statement of faith, and that in order to transform our broken society, the musical and worship needs of a community must be met first,” she said.
As Lapp reflected on these tensions, she noted that her small part of the Anabaptist story merges with many other stories at AMBS and that the seminary is stronger for its growing diversity. Like the church at Colossae, she said, the AMBS community is called “to wrap ourselves in love and, if we have complaint, to be generous with each other.”
“We do the hard theological work of discerning which dissonances we need to resolve and which ones can linger in mystery and faith that God is reconciling all things,” she concluded.
Installation of the dean
Bruce Baergen, AMBS Board chair from of Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, led the installation portion of the service, noting that the dean’s role of providing visionary leadership and administrative oversight for the AMBS faculty and its curriculum is vital not only to the seminary’s mission but also to the church as a whole.
“The role of academic dean at AMBS is not simply a job, but a calling,” he said. “We are extremely pleased that Bev has responded to this call from AMBS on behalf of the Mennonite Church.”
Following Lapp’s acceptance of her call to serve, the AMBS board, faculty, staff and students, along with representatives from Assembly Mennonite, promised their support and prayer and offered encouragement through words from Scripture in a Litany of Installation written by faculty member Allan Rudy-Froese, Ph.D. Board member Miriam Book of Harleysville, Pennsylvania — who is also from Plains Mennonite, Lapp’s childhood congregation — gave a prayer of dedication.
Faculty representatives Rachel Miller Jacobs, D.Min., and Ben Ollenburger, Ph.D., presented Lapp with a framed print of the Beatitudes by artist Thomas Ingmire from the hand-written, hand-illuminated St. John’s Bible.
Rebecca Stoltzfus, president of Goshen College, offered greetings from the college, and Lapp’s supervisees and colleagues read greetings from representatives of Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario, Canada; Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada; Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia; and Mennonite Education Agency in Elkhart.
(l. to r.) Beverly Lapp, Ed.D., vice president and academic dean; and Sara Wenger Shenk, Ed.D., president; at Lapp’s Oct. 19 service of installation at the AMBS Chapel of the Sermon on the Mount. (Credit: Jason Bryant)
John D. Roth, Ph.D., professor of history at Goshen College and director of the Mennonite Historical Library and the Institute for the Study of Global Anabaptism, spoke on “The Holiness of Beauty,” at the Oct. 19 installation of Beverly Lapp, Ed.D., as vice president and academic dean at AMBS. (Credit: Jason Bryant)
Samuel Lapp, father of Beverly Lapp, Ed.D., created a mobile sculpture, “The Enigma of the Trinity,” for the Oct. 19 occasion of her installation as vice president and academic dean of AMBS. (Credit: Jason Bryant)
A vocal ensemble made up of members of the AMBS community sang hymns in Indonesian and English during the Oct. 19 service of installation for Beverly Lapp, Ed.D., vice president and academic dean at AMBS. (Credit: Jason Bryant)