Paul Lederach: A Spiritual Oak on our Horizon

Paul Lederach
Paul Lederach joins in discernment with the conference community at the 2013 Conference Assembly this past November. Photo by Bam Tribuwono.

by John Ruth, Salford congregation

The passing of  Paul Mensch Lederach (1925-2014) on Monday morning, January 6, brings to an earthly close one of the most admirable, valuable and lengthy life-stories in the three-century history of the Franconia Mennonite Conference.  Not only Paul’s wife Mary (Slagell) and their children and grandchildren, but the Dock retirement community, the conference, and the Mennonite Church USA are now saying farewell to a far-reaching presence and influence.

Born as the oldest living child of a young mission-worker couple in Norristown, Paul grew up in an epicenter of Mennonite life, whose themes captivated his soul.  Ordained a minister by the casting of lots when only halfway through his years at Goshen College, the tall, handsome nineteen-year-old could electrify a traditional Mennonite audience.  The respect the aging bishops had for this newcomer was such that only five years later, when he was 24, and a graduate of a Baptist seminary, they could endorse him in the office of bishop.  I myself, at the age of 20, was ordained by the laying on of his hands at Norristown in August of 1950.

Paul’s completion of a doctoral degree in Christian Education had led immediately to a call to work in that field at the Mennonite Publishing House in Scottdale, PA. This was another epicenter, this time of the wider church.  But his second ordination called him back home, where the bishops asked him to help the Blooming Glen congregation through its recovery from the loss of members to the recently born “Calvary Mennonite” (later independent “Calvary”) church.  One of his tasks in this role, he found, was to persuade members to remove wedding rings.  Many years later he would observe that he had never seen a decade without major debate in the church on one issue or another.

But the wider Mennonite Church renewed its call for Paul’s exceptional training and gifts, with the result that shortly before marrying Oklahoma-born schoolteacher Mary, he returned to Scottdale.  There too he would serve as a bishop in the Allegheny Conference, while supervising the Christian Education work of our entire denomination.  For a quarter century, with four children growing up in Scottdale, Paul’s name was increasingly synonymous with curricular themes and projects in not only our own churches, but those of related denominations.

Some twenty-plus titles from Paul’s pen are still available on Amazon.com.  One with which every member of our Conference should be familiar is his little classic of 1980, A Third Way.  Written at the close of his Scottdale career, it placed in simple language the key insights and convictions of the Mennonite faith tradition and shows how deeply Paul, no follower of fads, was rooted in scripture.  The breadth of this biblical orientation became overwhelmingly evident in his commentary on the book of Daniel, now spread to over 500 libraries nationwide and beyond.

Though not narrow in mentality, Paul represented insight into the reasons for being the kind of Christians implicit in our tradition.  When a respected sister in our conference began to wear a cross necklace, describing it as a spiritual ornament, he asked, “Would you wear an electric chair?”  When in 1995 at a historic and somewhat tense meeting in Wichita, Kansas, the Mennonite Church and General Conference jointly accepted our groundbreaking “Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective,” Paul soberly counseled, just before the vote was taken, against a demonstrative, triumphant response that would insult those who in good conscience voted negatively.

In his return to the Franconia Conference area Paul not only served as an appreciated elder statesman, but poured his talents into a sequence of pastoral interims and major historical writings.  A quarter-century later he was still growing spiritually, confessing that his mind was  changing under the influence of the Gospel he loved.  And, on the day before his sudden final illness, he was back at Norristown, encouraging a plan to support the congregation into which he had been born 88 years before.  His legacy will continue initiating and steadying our life as a Christian fellowship.

Paul Lederach passed away on Monday, January 6.  Relatives and friends may call after 1:30 p.m., Saturday, January 11, 2014 at Blooming Glen Mennonite Church, 713 Blooming Glen Road, Blooming Glen, PA 18911. A Memorial Service will follow at 3:00 p.m. Interment will be in the church columbarium.

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