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The Impact of a Pastor: Reflecting on Things I’ve Learned from Matt Ristuccia as He Retires from Princeton, New Jersey Church

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Matt Ristuccia, Princeton '75 speaks during Respect for Life week

Editor’s note: The following article was reprinted with permission from The Bee Hive, a blog that “reflects on Christianity, the Christian life, the church, and culture with thoughtful and ‘gracious words’ that are sweet ‘to the soul’ and bring ‘health to the body.’ (Proverbs 16:24)

By John Beeson

Last month Pastor Matt Ristuccia retired after 35 years of pastoral ministry in Princeton, New Jersey at Westerly Road Church. I met Matt seventeen years ago on a Sunday morning in August. Matt stepped up behind a modest wooden pulpit in a navy blazer and baby blue tie and then came to life. From the elbow of that odd L-shaped sanctuary, he pivoted to the left and right, holding the physically split congregation of Westerly Road Church (called Stone Hill Church today) together by sheer force of will. Animated and winsome, he had my attention.

I was a new seminary student at Princeton Theological Seminary, and my young bride and I were trying to find our way in this strange new land of ivy. Ahead of me was a journey of theological and character formation. I was an evangelical at a mainline seminary, unsure whether I would land in academia or pastoral ministry all while looking for a church that was a fit in heart and mind.

Angel and I approached Pastor Matt after the service and introduced ourselves. He was just as lively in person as he was behind the pulpit. Over the following ten years, I would become an attendee at Westerly Road Church, then a member, an intern, ordained, and finally a pastor. Matt would dedicate both of our children and would become one of the most influential mentors in my life.

Looking back on those formative years under Matt’s pastoral leadership, these are the top seven lessons I learned from Matt:

Keep learning: Matt was always a student. He never climbed into the pulpit unprepared. He never winged a response to a theological question. Matt studied broadly and deeply.

Be wary of technology: I began pastoral ministry in 2006, the year before the birth of the iPhone. The iPhone has shaped not only life but ministry today. While not a Luddite, Matt always had an appropriate suspicion of technology. Before it was in vogue to talk of digital detoxing and parenting our devices, Matt cautioned that technology would impact the depth of our thinking and spiritual formation.

Foster your imagination: Matt’s undergrad degree was in literature, and he loved the written word, fiction and non-fiction alike. I essentially abandoned reading fiction after college, thinking that non-fiction was more important for my intellectual and spiritual growth. I was wrong. It was through Matt and others’ influence that I eventually would pick up the habit of reading fiction again. I’m so glad I did. Fiction fosters the imagination and strengthens the spiritual life. Unsurprisingly, Matt’s excellent first book (I’m hoping it won’t be his last) was on the topic of imagination.

Know your limitations: Matt is aware of his limitations. Whether understanding his administrative capacity or how to manage friendships, Matt always had a strong sense of what he could and could not handle. Matt knew how to ask for help and draw others around him who were competent in areas he knew were outside of his strengths.

Longevity is a gift: Matt came to Princeton University as an undergrad when it was still an all-boys school. Having received Christ not long before he came to Princeton, Princeton Evangelical Fellowship (now Princeton Christian Fellowship) and Westerly Road Church Christ formed him spiritually. At Westerly Road Church, he sat under the founding pastor, Ed Morgan, who articulated the gospel of Christ with clarity.

Matt would return to Princeton after receiving his MDiv and would minister there his whole professional life. No one knows Princeton like Matt knows Princeton. He knows the university, the seminary, the trees and birds, the best Italian and Chinese food, and the best tailor in town (who doesn’t even hang a sign outside of his house). And he loves Princeton. There is power in pastoral longevity.

Every year as Princeton grads return to Princeton for reunions, they filter back to Stone Hill Church. Cloaked in his crazy Princeton Tiger reunions jacket, Matt hears what God has been doing in their lives and prays for them.

Your wife is your most important partner: Karen Ristuccia is a quiet force. Dean of Instruction at Wilberforce Christian Academy, Karen is an exceptional educator and thinker. She and Matt are a perfect match, Karen more introverted and reserved, Matt more extroverted and fiery. They are one another’s sounding board, and there has never been a hint of disunity between them.

Let your hope be evident: Weeks after I began my pastoral ministry at Westerly Road, one of our elders died. Matt and I walked with the family through the grieving process, but Matt was unable to be present for the funeral due to a family trip. As I prepared for the funeral, I walked into Matt’s office, overwhelmed by the task.

I had been thumbing through volumes on funeral homilies and was overwhelmed by the responsibility of conducting a funeral at 27 years old. In my mind, the graver I could be, the more I could comport myself with somber restraint, the more I could bestow the occasion the dignity it deserved.

“John,” Matt said, smiling. “Be more hopeful and joyful than you think you should be. This is the funeral of a saint. He is with Christ and glory, and those who attend need to hear your joyful confidence.” I’ll never forget those words. They didn’t just change the way I did that first funeral; they ring in my head every time I do any memorial service. “Be more hopeful and joyful than you think you should be.” If I believe in the gospel, then my hope ought to be evident in all I do. Matt manifested that.

Thank you, Matt, for your gospel ministry and your Christ-exalting legacy. I’m one of many who you have deeply impacted. Well done, good and faithful servant of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

John Beeson is the editor of the Bee Hive and Co-Lead Pastor at New Life Bible Fellowship in Tucson, Arizona.