R. Reifsnyder Interview:
This is file # 14, cycle 3. Today’s date is Dec. 12, 2017. This is Jean McMillen. I am interviewing Rich Reifssnyder who was the Assistant Pastor at the Congregational Church under Charles w. Ranson. He is going to talk about his early life, his career in the church and anything else he wants to talk about. First we will start with the genealogical information.
JM: What is your name?
RS:My name is Richard W. Reifsnyder.
RS:June 11, 1947
JM:Your parents’ names?
RS:They were Robert and Ada Bowler Reifsnyder.
JM:Do you have siblings?
RS:I had two. I had an older sister Judy who had severe Cerebral Palsy and died as a child. I had a younger brother Rob. For all intents and purposes I was the oldest since you sister was very ill and in a special home for folks with Cerebral Palsy which was customary in those days. I was the eldest for most of my years.
JM:Where did you get your seminary training?
RS:At Yale Divinity School.
JM:When did you graduate?
RS:I graduated in 1971. I eventually obtained a PhD. in Religious History afterwards at Princeton Theological Seminary. I finished that degree in 1984.
JM:When were you ordained?
JM:When we talked before, you said that you were reluctant to join the ministry?
RS:Indeed, all through my college years at duke University as a History Major, I always intended to go to law school. I was extremely interested in the diplomatic relations of International Law. In contrast
to a lot of folks I came alive spiritually in college. I had already applied to law school and had gotten in and was unsettled about it. I talked to a faculty member who said to me, “Have you thought that maybe God is calling you to the ministry?” “No, it has never dawned on me!” I didn’t want all the baggage of ministers and what not, but he suggested that I apply for a Rockefeller Foundation Grant for Theological Education. They offered a grant for one year with theological education. There were 12 or 15 one year’s scholarships at a divinity school for supposedly promising folks who were interested in exploring the ministry. I got one of those. It turns out that Charlie Ranson was actually on the board of connected with that fund so he knew all about that program when I came to be here. That was one of the reasons why I was appealing to him.
JM:How did you come to this area?
RS:Because I did not initially start to become a minister, and the ordination process takes several years in the Presbyterian seminary. I am a Presbyterian. The first year I was using totally to explore whether the ministry was right for me. I didn’t begin the process. By the time I graduated from seminary, I still had a couple of things to do before making a serious commitment. I decided I was going to go off and work in the National Park Service which I had done in the Christian Ministry in a National Parks program where I had worked in for three summers. I was going to do that that summer and then get really serious about following through in the fall when my ducks would all be in a row. In the interim I get a call from Charlie Ranson who said that they were looking for an assistant minister and he wondered whether I would be willing to come up and interview? I explained my situation. He said that is fine but come up and interview anyway. It turned out that he had called down to the seminary when he had convinced the deacons and the trustees that he needed an assistant. He had called Charles Forman whom he had worked with in the theological education fund some years back as another missionary. He asked for a recommendation of a student to come. Charles Forman thankfully recommended me. I came here and interviewed. I confess that although I liked Charlie and I liked the people I met and there were a lot of positives about it, as I thought about it, “Gosh, do I really want to come to this small village working with largely seemingly privileged people?” I was into social action business, civil rights, the whole period of the anti-war movement and urban ministry and all that sort of stuff. I took off to California where I was working. I got another call from Charlie saying that they were offering that position to me. “Thank you very much, but I really think my call is elsewhere.” Charlie could be very persuasive. He explained all the reasons why this was a very good call that I should not be judgmental about assuming that I knew what the community was like on the basis of one visit. There were many important issues and challenges for people here as there were in every community. Then he indicated,” Plus my wife Barbara is very ill (whom I had met and I knew she was ill.) and she is not expected to live more than another month. I know that I will be emotionally drained and I need help. Could you not see your way to come here at least for a couple of years?” “If you give me a day or so to pray about it, I’ll get back to you.” My decision was really made at that point. I could not turn down that sort of plea. I realized that God’s Hand was in all this. This was absolutely the right place for me to be. We had a wonderful working relationship. Of course I met my wife Lyn here as well.
JM:That was a plus.3.
RS:That was a definite plus. There were a lot of good reasons to be here. We worked with wonderful people.
JM:You were Assistant Pastor for how many years?
RS:Just 2 from 1971-1973.
JM:What did you do as an assistant pastor?
RS:I had a lot of responsibilities. Obviously when Charlie made this request to the Board of Deacons or the Trustees (he was 68 at the time I came here) felt that he needed a younger person to relate to younger families and especially to the children. He wanted to have an active youth group program. One of my major responsibilities was to work with the youth group. We developed an ecumenical youth group working largely with the Methodist Church with Jerry Pollock for both of the years I was here. That was a very congenial relationship which worked very well. I loved getting to know his kids (Susan, Nancy, Heidi and Christopher) as well as some of the other Methodist youth. I did that and I taught the confirmation class for our kids of the Congregational Church. I was pretty heavily involved with pastoral care and visitations. I did a lot of calling on people. I did a fair amount of counseling with some individuals and some of the youth as well. I was involved in Bible study, leading that. I developed and taught a Christianity and Literature course. I thought that would be fun to do. I have taken a Christianity & Literature course in college. So I did that. I was involved in the community. I remember having a debate on the issue of abortion with the Catholic Priest Father Forte and a couple of others. Actually he was not one of the ones who took part in this discussion. I preached at the Ecumenical Thanksgiving service at St. Mary’s. The new kid on the block always gets that.
One of the things we did in the youth group was we always did the Easter Sunrise Service at the Grove. I was responsible for overseeing that. With the kids and Jerry’s group we went on a couple of trips including one memorable one after Hurricane Agnes which effected the North east with floods in Wilkes-Barre and Scranton and that area. We went for a weekend and did clean-up there. When I think about those two years, I was pretty heavily involved in a lot of things.
JM:You did a youth group field trip to Gould Farm in Monterey, Mass.
RS:Yes indeed which was great fun and an interesting experience. The kids were exposed to folks who obviously had some fairly serious mental issues. It was confusing because it wasn’t clear who were rational staff and irrational patients. They were not denoted as patients or staff. We had a lot of conversations with the kids during that weekend.
JM:When I interviewed Nancy Pollock (See file #58, Nancy P. Williams), she said her dad really wanted to expose the youth to a lot of different things which is, in my opinion, a very wonderful idea.
RS:Yeah that is exactly right. Some of these mission trips were a little far, service projects, Jerry was very service oriented. We were congenial in that way; we worked well together. We also discovered
that there are people issues all over the place. People have needs and hurts and woes. The good news is the Jesus is all over the place.
JM:and a compassionate pastor.
RS:Charlie was very good at encouraging a lot of the different areas. One of the things I mentioned before was that his wife was very ill. She did die before I arrived just a month or so before I came; one of the gifts Charlie gave to me was that he would get invited out as a new widower to dinners and he would always ask his hostess, “I would love to come, but we have this new young minister whom you really need to get to know. May he come with me?”
JM:That was a wonderful introduction.
RS:Oh yes it was a wonderful introduction. So I got to visit and know a lot of people. He was very serious; he wanted people to take my role seriously even though I was a young guy on the block. For that reason he was a tremendous mentor to me. I feel very fortunate. We had a very wonderful relationship; I learned so much from him.
JM:What else would you like to tell me about you and your position here in town?
RS:that probably gives you the basic flavor of my position here. It was interwoven with Charlie.
JM:You told me that Charlie Ranson was born in Belfast, Ireland?
RS:Right in 1903.
JM:Do you know when he came to the US?
RS:He came at various periods as part of his varied storied career in mission work. He basically went off to India as a young ordained person, fully expecting to spend the rest of his life and career in India. He got involved in several projects in India including an analysis and study of the Christian ministry in India. Remember this was the time of 1930’s and 1940’s when the Indian independence was clear that all these countries that had been colonies were going to be free and establishing their own independence. The churches were thinking about what were the needs of these churches that were going to be set free from their sending missionary organization. Charlie did this pioneering study of the Christian Ministry in India; as a result of that he eventually was appointed to be part of a Sociological and Educational Department of the International Missionary Council. This was a great umbrella organization of all the mission work in the world. After a couple of years of doing that, he got asked to be the General Secretary of the International Missions Council, in other words the head executive person. At the time that they asked him they were going to have a divided organization; some of the work was going to be done in London, some of the work was going to be done in New York, and eventually some of the work was done out of Asia. They asked him to commit himself to spending 5
years in the United States as head of the International Missionary Council. That was really how he came to the United States, not to Salisbury. He was living in New Jersey at that time. He came in 1948.
JM:What was his seminary training?
RS: He went to Oxford University in Oxford, England for his undergraduate work. I don’t quite understand how the theological schools work over there. He got some of his theological training in Belfast, Ireland, at a Methodist theological College. He had to get permission from the Methodist Bishop to work here, I think you said.
RS:That’s right. Eventually in 1960 he was asked to be the President of the Irish Methodist Church. He always considered that a great honor. He took seriously his ecclesiastical connections. He didn’t think much of these folks that sort of went off on their own and developed their own independent ministry. He was always talking about that with regard to missionaries. He said they are always great fund raisers or could tell these very heartwarming, emotional stories, but they were not always the best missionaries, or did not work within the confines of an ecclesiastical structure. He was a church man, not just an independent Christian.
JM:What did he look like?
RS:He was tall; he was 6’3”. He was daunting in some ways. He was a presence. When Charlie walked into a room, you knew he was there. He tended to tower over people; he had a very imposing voice. He was very erudite and had a wonderful sense of humor, good spirits and lots of joking and laughter. He definitely was a presence.
JM:You had a story about him asking your wife Lynn a question.
RS: I can’t remember how early in my time here was, but I had Lynn’s parents and Charlie and everybody up for an experiment as to how a bachelor could cook meals. Lynn told me this later on as I was not present for this. Charlie could always be formal. He was leaning toward Lynn and said, “Miss Rebillard, I have a question to ask you. Do you find me intimidating?” Lynn thought a moment and then said, “Yes, Dr. Ranson, I do a little bit and you are quite a presence. But I think you quite enjoy that!” Charlie just broke into a laugh and then he said, “You are your father’s daughter!” He had gotten to know Paul Rebillard (See tape # 1 a-d) very well. He knew Paul was somebody who called a spade a spade.
JM:Your wife is not a petite lady; she has a presence in her own right.
RS:Charlie really loved and respected Lynn and they had a great relationship. She said there was a moment there what do I say? I don’t want to get rich in trouble, I am his girlfriend.
JM:Did Dr. Ranson have something to do with the Hartford Seminary?
RS:Yes but later. There is another crucial element in his role before he came to Hartford Seminary. He was Head of the International Missionary Council and one of the things that he pioneered. Remember he was developing churches which became independent. They needed theological training for their indigenous ministers. He made a proposal to the Rockefellers-that was his connection to the Rockefeller Foundation Grants. He had the opportunity to meet with John D. Rockefeller Jr. to make his proposal for the Rockefeller Foundation funding for theological education in the developing world supporting especially theological libraries in their developing countries. As I mentioned Charlie was a presence; he said “John D. Rockefeller was indeed a presence!” Charlie was intimidated by that. He didn’t hear, and he didn’t hear and thought that was the end of that. All of a sudden they got a message that they were going to finance 2 million dollars which was a substantial lump for them to do. Charlie became the Executive Director of this Theological Education Fund, so was involved in something that supports several of these seminaries throughout the world. He had gone back to London after the first 5 years, but when he became Head of the Theological Education Fund, he came back to New York. He did that for four years until 1958 to 1962.
Then he became the Professor of Ecumenical Theology at Drew Theological Seminary which was one of the premier Methodist seminaries at the time. Within a year, the Dean who was Bernard Anderson, a rather well-known Old Testament scholar, wanted to retire from the Deanship. He proposed that Charlie become the Dean. Charlie was very hesitant about this because he did not have the same formal academic credentials that a lot of professors did. He was very conscious about that; he was extremely smart and erudite and knowledgeable individual. The faculty convinced him that he should do this. It turned out that this was a very difficult period in his life because there developed a conflict at the seminary which he had established first and then the university at Drew came later. There were issues of the independence of the seminary vs the university. A new President of the University came in and got into some conflicts over the role of the seminary, especially over the hiring of faculty. They had lost to a tragic death one of the preeminent theologians of the time called Carl Michaelson. They wanted to hire someone of that caliber. The University President vetoed that. It came to the point that all the faculty supported Charlie; there were student protests. Charlie was ultimately dismissed as dean. He had tenure as a professor. Charlie said that he did not want the seminary to fall apart. He encouraged all the faculty to stay put at least for a year to see what happened. It turned out that a lot of that faculty left after a year. Charlie had an opportunity to go to Hartford Seminary where they have a strong concern for International Missions.
While he was at Drew, he and Barbara bought a home on Lakeville Lake. I think the connection was due to Barbara’s good college friend Fran Wagner who lived a couple of doors up the lake. I think that is how they initially discovered this area. Barbara Buttonheim had been, like Charlie, had been recently widowed. She had been married to a doctor who died and they had had four children. Charlie’s first wife Grace had been killed in an automobile accident. Charlie and Barbara came to Salisbury weekends and summers; they attended the Congregational Church when they were here. He was a Methodist so I am not quite sure why they attended the Congregational Church. I never heard that part of the story.
Barbara may have been Congregationalist. Occasionally he got asked to fill in. Then they approached him about at least being Interim (1968) and perhaps considering being the pastor (1969-1975) I believe Hal Aller was the head of the search committee. Rod’s bother Hal, Hal and Julie they lived on the lake, was Chico Aller’s father. The search committee was aware that trying to call Charlie they were approaching somebody who was a world statesman in terms of church life. He knew all kinds of people. Charlie could more than hold his own with any of the strong, powerful personalities in leadership in the Congregational Church. They thought he was a really good person for this congregation. He was a very eloquent preacher with the ability to quote poetry extensively, theologically astute, and pastoral in his style. They wanted him to come as pastor. They hired him as Interim for a while and then they decided to make it permanent. When they decided that they wanted to make it permanent that was when he said that would be fine as long as they would try to hire an associate pastor so that he could do some of his other work. He said that because of his background experience, I do not need to take a full salary; I will take 50% of the salary you were going to offer me and the remainder of that salary could be used to pay the associate.
JM:I want to go back to the Hartford Seminary. I am not sure where that fits into his career path.
RS:It came after Drew University. Basically after he lost that position at Drew Seminary, he was approached by Hartford Seminary. He got the position there. I think it was the same kind of position, Professor of Ecumenical Theology. Again it was a mission oriented position. He told the Hartford Seminary that he had been approached by the Salisbury Congregational Church. The lead seminarian asked him to stay. He started there in 1967 or 68. He started in this part time interim in 1960, but it was 1970 when he was appointed the pastor of the church.
It was his first year when I first came. I think he was just finishing up his work at Hartford Seminary. One of the things that he said to me frequently and one of the things that I really appreciated about Charli was this: “I really value being back in the church.” He had not been in a parish setting for most of his life. He had done lots of mission work and other sorts of things, mission administration. He had preached a lot; he preached in the riverside Church in New York City. That is not the same thing as handling a parish. “There is a sacred bond which exists between the pastor and the people of his parish. The fundamental ministry of the church is the ministry of word, sacrament and the local congregation: all this other work that I have done builds on that core.” That was the thing that was so great for me to hear. That kind of message and at the same time hearing this extremely serious man share his thoughts with me and having an exposure to this person who was in world Christianity was a tremendous mentorship for me.
JM:God was very good to you.
JM:You had a wonderful story about being in a meeting. Will you share it?
RS:Charlie had a presence and as only a young early 20’s person right out of seminary could say. I thought I had it all figured out. We were in some meeting of the Trustees or Deacons or something and we were talking about mission work of the church. Various prospective were being voice and I was taking a point of view which was different than Charlie’s. After going on and pontificating for a while, If Charlie (you knew you were in trouble when your mother called you by your formal name?) used the Mr. Mrs. or Miss title you knew you were in trouble. He looks around the table and says, “I don’t know exactly what expertise and experience Mr. Reifsnyder has in the mission field, but let me tell you why I think thus. That perspective as not as helpful as the perspective I am giving you.” I knew I was being rebuked appropriately. It was kindly done, but effective.
JM:What was his theological style?
RS:There were people in the congregation who were looking for a warm fuzzy type; he would be very warm, but that is not how he would come across. He was in charge of classical theological studies as describing as Neo-Orthodox following in the school of a Carl Bart and Reinhold and Richard Niebuhr, those sorts of people were his theological ideals. That was the perspective of the International Missionary Council: in other words the centrality and importance of Jesus Christ. It is as if we needed a Savior. It was not just a “Gee, it is nice that God wants us to be good, loving and kind.” Charlie would get concerned about certain theological trends that he saw which he thought were a little too liberal. Some were a little too fuzzy for him. He was rooted in the biblical narrative; he knew the Bible well. That was what a sermon was. As Carl Bar used to say,”It was the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other.” They were connected to everyday life. You were proclaiming a given Gospel: it was not just a human striving after God. It was God revealing Himself to humanity. That was his theological perspective. He did this in very powerful ways.
I did not realize how intimidated I should have been preaching at the church with him sitting in the congregation. He believed that when you were the preacher, you took over the whole service. He would sit with the congregation; he did not provide the service. I would do that. They would print up Charlie’s sermons periodically and send them out. I thought WOW! I finally made it when Charlie came to me after one of my sermons. He said, “Now that is a sermon I think you should print up and send to the congregation.” That was a very big compliment.
JM:Did he critique your sermons?
RS:In gentle ways, he was not one to say gosh if I had done that, I would have done this or that. We would have theological conversations and he would say I was thinking it this way. It was more of that kind of thing, very positive. The only he really put me down was in the mission story.
He eventually married Lynn and I. He knew my personality pretty well and he had gotten to know Lynn pretty well. He did not do a lot of counseling with us. But he did sit us down and say” I know both of you pretty well, so there is just one piece of advice I would give you, ’Don’t over analyze about things.
Sometimes just celebrate, just enjoy each other’s company and don’t be too analytical.’” That was very good advice. He said that when he gave a little sermonette at our wedding.
JM:Is there anything that you would like to add to this interview before we close?
RS:No we have covered most of the things.
JM:Thank you so much.
RS:Thank you so much, Jean.