After a Lot of Prayer and Spade Work

by Sharon Kraemer
(Article written June 1, 1989)

Trinity Presbyterian in Charlottesville, Virginia, may well be the only PCA congregation that was “co-founded” by a Baptist! Joseph “Skip” Ryan hadn’t even entered seminary when Daryl Richman began to visit the gym at the University of Virginia for the purpose of getting to know the undergradu­ates. At that point in time the yet all-male campus had not been penetrated by a single parachurch organization. God burdened Richman’s heart with a concern for the students. After building bridges of friendship by lifting weights in the gym, he started Bible studies in the fraternities and graduate schools. His popular Bible study for undergraduates became known as “Action Ministry.’’ Eventually Richman felt led by God to give up his two small country churches and move his family to Charlottesville where he concentrated on developing a campus ministry. He regularly invited men like Ryan and Ed Clowney to address the groups. According to Barbara Ryan, Ryan’s wife, the end result was “a strong core of mature Christians, yearning for a Reformed Bible-pro­claiming church with a strong emphasis on wor­ship, who were ready to support the church-plant­ing effort” when Ryan graduated from seminary in 1976. Mrs. Ryan sees in Richman the most dramatic evidence of “the Lord’s incredible plan and wonderful provision for Charlottesville.” He got the soil ready, she stated.

Ryan was a Young Life staff worker before seminary. After graduating from Harvard, he worked with young people in Richmond, Virginia, and Washington, D.C., for two years. Some of his students ended up on the Charlottesville campus in Richman’s groups. They requested that he be invited to talk to them. Ryan got to know Clowney at Westminster Seminary and often served as his chauffer for out-of-town speaking dates. It was on one of those drives during his senior year that Clowney suggested that Ryan plant a church in Charlottesville. Literally days before his gradua­tion Ryan met with twenty-two people in a home there to discuss founding a new church.

After moving there in June, Ryan held the first Wednesday night Bible study in July. The eager core group planned their first worship service for the first Sunday in August at the Baptist Student Center on the campus. One hundred ten were present that morning; by the following July, 350 were occupying space intended for 200. For five more years, the Trinity families worshipped at three other temporary locations before joyously taking possession of their own building early in the fall of 1982. Regular attendance was around 700 by then; but 1,000 attended that first service in the new building. An understatement in the church history notes: “It was quite obvious to the session that Trinity was not going to be a small church!”

Doxological Evangelism

Ryan did not leave seminary with a fully con­ceptualized philosophy of ministry – in church growth jargon. Rather, he had two “operating hunches”: the centrality of worship and ministry by the body. The emphasis upon worship is one of Trinity’s distinctives. Ryan believes, “We are fully and completely the Church when God’s people gather to worship.’’ Leading worship is his favorite pastoral function. He is very excited about the blend in their service which he summarizes as “freedom within tradition.” Form with freedom, structure with spontaneity, traditional music with beautiful chorus songs and liturgy with infor­mality are the components.

It is Ryan’s conviction that outreach flows from worship. “As God’s people are caught up in prais­ing Him, others get drawn by the rhythm, excite­ment and reality of what is going on. As we praise God, people hear the Word and are ministered to and are intrigued by it.’’ During that hour, they put the spotlight on the Lord, he said. Immediately afterwards they “go all out” to greet guests and make them feel welcome.

The ministry of the body is Ryan’s other pas­sion. His wife says he “consistently and thor­oughly” encourages others to use their gifts. She does not feel like – or even think about – being “the pastor’s wife.” Rather she sees herself as a member of the church, “a regular participant,” with the freedom to use her gifts in the body as the Spirit has led and opportunities have arisen. Mrs. Ryan believes teaching, administration and orga­nization are ‘her gifts. She also enjoys having weekend company and over the years has had a number of long-term guests.

Mrs. Ryan has had to cut back on all fronts because their third child was born eighteen months ago with neurological deficits. Becah Claire’s physical therapy is very time-consuming. Christopher is almost six and Carey is three. When Mrs. Ryan arrived in Charlotte in 1977 to enter law school, Trinity was about a year old. Ryan knew some of her classmates, so their initial contact was very casual. They began dating in 1978 and mar­ried in the spring of 1979 when he was thirty-two. She graduated in 1980 and practiced law with a general firm for three years before Christopher was born. Now Mrs. Ryan accepts one case a month which involves eight to ten hours of work. Her specialty is representing the interests of chil­dren in lawsuits.

She believes her husband is “ideally suited” to be a church-planter – though he has no desire whatsoever to do it again. In her assessment he brought strong preaching, leadership skills, vision and dedication to the task. During his bachelor years and the four years before their first child was born, he gave “extraordinary amounts of time and energy to his people and to the ministries during their formative stages,” she explained. Ryan recalls preaching fifty-four Sundays in a row before taking a weekend off.

The Trinity Staff

Ryan has strong convictions about team rela­tionships. He said the common plague of a multi-person staff is the mindset that everyone has to be alike. He believes in appreciating diversity and publicly affirming others. For example, since he tends to be very intense, he is grateful that God has given him a couple of associates who have a keen sense of humor. Ryan is adamant about the neces­sity to keep short accounts and deal with relation­ship problems quickly. “If there’s never any con­flict, something is wrong,” he stated. “Conflict can be very constructive; the issue is how we deal with it.” He also encourages teams and staff members to “build in some fun’’ – to plan regular times for just relaxing and enjoying one other.

He has deliberately fostered a sense of extended family among his sixteen-person staff, and Ryan is grateful for Clowney’s contributions in this area. The former Westminster Seminary president and professor teaches classes and “generates countless ideas” which help to shape the ministries. As teacher-in-residence, Clowney has written three books in the four years he has been on the Trinity staff.

Mike Sharrett and Tony Giles are also associate pastors. The former was on the staff for three years before attending seminary. Last year Trinity asked him to return and oversee the Young Adults and Outreach ministries. Trinity has “a significant number’’ of members and visitors in the 22 to 35 age group. Youth and college ministries are Giles’ responsibilities. Missions’, which Ryan considers another Trinity distinctive, is “a very important part’’ of the youth ministry. He said Giles has done “tremendous things’’ in equipping the young peo­ple to do this. Fifty to sixty Trinity members go overseas every summer.

Tom Darnell directs family ministry and discipleship. He presently is working with a layman to rethink the functions of small groups. Ryan feels fellowship and assimilation are areas on which Trinity still needs to work. Sunday attendance is 1,200 to 1,300 now with an annual turnover of about 25 percent because of graduations and trans­fers. Ryan hopes small groups will be the way they can “do a better job” in these two areas.

Trinity is both a sending and an equipping church, Ryan emphasized. Their desire is not just to raise up foreign missionaries but also to prepare families who will move on after a few years. For example, a lawyer who attended Trinity for three years is now in Moscow as a part of the first American law firm invited to open an office there.

Serving Others

Diaconal ministry is Trinity’s third distinctive. According to the senior pastor, “The deacons have done a wonderful job of focusing our congregation on mercy, beginning with felt needs.’’ An exten­sive “Helps and Needs Network’’ of volunteers is supervised by the deacons who work closely with the contact persons for nine types of assistance. The Helps and Needs Network primarily ministers within the church family (food, baby-sitting, transportation, etc.)

Nineteen service opportunities or peer groups for fellowship are listed as “Lay Ministries.’’ This category includes such things as Jail Minis­try, International Students and the Sanctity of Human Life Task Force. Two years ago the task force added post-abortion ministry to the components of prayer, political action and support of a crisis pregnancy center. Ryan said the Post-Abor­tion Bible Study is “a wonderful ministry, a real place for healing.” Church members are encouraged to collect aluminum from their neighbors for recycling with the proceeds going to pro-life min­istries.

When asked what thrills him the most about his congregation right now, he replied, “The new ladies’ prayer group that meets on Fridays at noon.” He frankly admitted, “We’re just beginning to work on praying.”

His highly diverse congregation “in a very traditional town’’ ranges from professors, doctors and businessmen to wealthy dairy farmers and tradesmen with graduate students, nurses and interns in between. Most of his households are traditional families in their thirties and forties. Typically the men are in their first or second jobs.

Richman, whom Mrs. Ryan calls “an angel,” no longer lives in the area; but he and his wife will be returning to Charlottesville for the second consecutive summer to minister on the Trinity staff. Ryan says anyone who tried to write a job description for Richman would be wasting his piece of paper: “He just does the Lord’s work.”

Over the years Ryan has observed, “Trinity is best in crisis.” In times of tremendous need, he explained, “The expressions of the Lord’s love are unbelievable.” After Becah Claire’s birth, he and his wife met God in a fresh way through the kindnesses and support of their congregation. “We are extraordinarily thankful for the love and care of that body in the midst of a very strenuous, very stressful year,” he said. Ryan himself was described by a friend of eighteen years as “a loving and extremely gifted guy whose vision and hard work were honored by God in an incredible way.’’

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