A perfect partnership
The Rev. Ben Saathoff and his parishioners make dreams a reality
When Ben Saathoff threw his hat into the ring at the Tonganoxie Christian Church 25 years ago, he had no idea his stay would last so long.
The average stay for a pastor is two years, he said. Giving his bright smile, Saathoff paused, then explained his longevity: "The people have put up with me."
If that's what it's called when people let a pastor preach to three and sometimes four generations of families, when they literally build buildings with him and when they support him in starting up a private Christian school, then the phrase "put up with me" has been taken to new heights.
As he talks about the growth of the church during his 25-year tenure, Saathoff always remembers to share the credit.
"We have good leadership within the church," he said. "And we try to do the right thing. What I mean is to live a faith that is genuine and to try to have the kind of integrity to know what it is that we really need to do."
Priorities are important, he said.
"I don't think that's magic or anything," Saathoff said. "I just believe it's staying on task."
When Saathoff and his wife, Margaret, married, they didn't plan to live in Kansas. They were both from Wyoming, and Saathoff had graduated from a Christian college in Scott's Bluff, Neb.
They assumed they'd settle near the mountains.
"Originally, we said we'd never move to Kansas," Saathoff said.
When they did arrive here, Saathoff said, they assumed their stay would be temporary.
"We knew the church wanted to move and we figured we'd be here long enough to build the building and then go back," he said.
But fate had something else in store.
The Saathoffs ended up raising their three children, Michael, Shelly and Lenay, here. And today, Tonganoxie is where their five grandchildren come to visit.
As Saathoff looks back on his years in Tonganoxe, he said he and his family had been blessed.
"We're thankful for this particular community and for this particular church where there are people who make a difference," he said.
This is important to him.
"The Lord's work and the people are what matters," Saathoff said, a twinkle in his eyes, laughter in his voice. "After all, we can always go and visit the mountains."
One might say that in a way, the parishioners moved mountains when the church was built in 1978 on Washington Street.
It started March 19 with a yellow Caterpillar earth mover on the hill.
"And we moved in this building and had our first service here on August 27," Saathoff said. "And we did most of the work ourselves. Now to do that in five months that's phenomenal with volunteer labor."
Parishioners who were in the construction business and in any other kind of work that could help provided their professional expertise. And those who weren't in the business joined in anyway to do what they could.
"But we didn't do the brickwork ourselves," Saathoff said with a dry chuckle. "We didn't have any brick people in our church."
In 1986, church members built an addition to the church. And in 1993, another addition was added.
Through all of the building processes, Saathoff said he had an idea in mind to start a Christian school.
Margaret Saathoff said, "It had been something that we had thought about for several years and wanted to see happen."
And this was why he pushed to include eight-foot corridors in the new building.
"So that it would be a facility capable of school use," Saathoff said. "Of course we would have needed it for church and Sunday school use anyway, but at the time I really had to work hard to convince our people that we needed that kind of a corridor out there."
Did they know he had a school in mind?
"Not many of them did," Saathoff said. "There were some that did some of the elders did. But to me it was kind of a dream."
His dream has resulted in not only a preschool, but also in the Genesis Christian Academy, a private school started three years ago that educates children from preschool through the sixth grade. Today, more than 120 children attend the school, many of them from other school districts.
The Saathoff's daughter Shelly Gossett, Shawnee, is the school principal.
The next project for the Tonganoxie Christian Church is yet one more addition a two-story multipurpose facility on the building's southeast side. The church has about one-third of the funding already in place. This time, though, church members won't be doing as much of the construction themselves, in part because it is a two-story building. But they will be doing much of the interior finish work, Saathoff said.
And thus the work and working together as a church continues.
Indeed, it has been 25 years of successful endeavors and strong leadership marked by Saathoof's quick smile, the twinkle in his eyes, his easy laughter, comedian's sense of timing and seemingly boundless energy.
Margaret Saathoff said their day begins at about 5:30 a.m.
"He moves right along all day," she said. "He's always been an early riser."
When he's not working for the church, he's likely to be found at home in his garage where he's rebuilding a 1950 Ford.
So, once again, the topic arises: What is the secret of his success?
His wife says it's his sincere love for people.
"He's always enjoyed his work with the church, and also for the people," she said.
And again, it might have something to do with his sense of humor, which Margaret Saathoff describes as "dry."
Saathoff grins again, pauses, and then says as seriously as a man carving words in stone:
"I think that in order to do anything successfully you have to have a sense of humor. I don't think you can do without humor. You've got to be able to laugh at yourself and laugh with others and have a good time. I don't think the Lord meant for us to be all sober-faces all the time."