It was the day before spring break, and the weather had taken a remarkably cold turn for the middle of March. Half of the students had already left campus, and half of the remainder had decided class did not provide a worthy enough cause to brave the icy roads outside. That left approximately ten students who had trudged through the frigid wind and slippery frost to show up for Dr. Jeffrey Ritchey’s cultural anthropology class. They now sat in two groups casually discussing the topic the professor had given before stepping out of the room.
The door to the classroom swung open then, and the students looked up to see that Jeff Ritchey had returned. His height could be best described as average, and his build had that in between feel typical of middle-aged men who were no longer lean muscle but who had not quite let themselves go just yet. His brown hair parted neatly to one side, giving him a professional feel. His round face did not prove particularly memorable, but its most noticeable features were his eyes, which seemed to be forever twinkling with laughter, and his mouth, which looked prepared to leaps its boundaries and take on a life of its own. All in all, he seemed the sort of kind, jolly man that made a person wonder if perhaps that was what a young Santa Clause had looked like before time and an excessive love of cookies got the better of him.
On that specific day, Jeff Ritchey had on the traditional slacks and button-up shirt he wore to every class. In one hand he held a coffeemaker and in the other a stack of Styrofoam cups.
“I borrowed this from the office,” he said as his mouth spread into his usual infectious smile. “You guys want some coffee?”
While this specific instance took place on one particular day, such scenes play themselves out often in Jeff Ritchey’s classes. He places a large emphasis on relationships, which he often encourages through small group discussions. Discussions serve as his favorite teaching method, and he incorporates into his classes whenever possible.
“If it were up to me, this whole class would be just one big discussion,” Jeff Ritchey said on the first day of his career preparation for global workers class. He was sitting on top of an empty table at the time, something he regularly does when trying to elicit feedback from his students. The habit creates a more casual atmosphere that helps students to open up.
“My favorite thing about Dr. Ritchey is that he is so chill and fun to be around,” former student Jonathan Dougherty said of the professor. Other students expressed similar sentiments, describing him as laid back and extremely relational.
During his six years at Liberty University, Dr. Ritchey has taught classes predominantly geared toward preparing students to serve overseas as missionaries. Having served as a missionary himself in the countries of Croatia and Canada for a total of 15 years, Dr. Ritchey possesses prime qualifications to equip the next generation. His journey from college student to missionary to professor of future missionaries proves both heart-warming and inspiring.
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Jeff Ritchey grew up in Victoria, Texas, raised by Christian parents who loved the Lord and endeavored to instill that same love in their son.
“I went to church all my life, so I came to know the Lord at an early age,” he said. “My parents were very influential in leading me to Lord.”
After graduating high school, Jeff Ritchey went to college at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas to study music. (For a full listing of his education and professional experience, click here.) While at Hardin-Simmons, he met his future wife, Brigitte. She had grown up as a missionary kid from Zimbabwe, and her experiences, combined with a summer mission trip to Brazil, sparked Jeff Ritchey’s interest in missions.
His interest in Brigitte’s life overseas caused them to develop a deep friendship that eventually grew into something more.
“We were always together, and we became best friends,” Jeff Ritchey said.
At the time, Brigitte Ritchey was dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) brought on by some harsh events she had witnessed overseas. Jeff Ritchey’s willingness to help her work through her PTSD brought the two of them closer together.
“He listened, even though he didn’t understand about my traumatic background,” she said. “He was willing to hear me and help me work through it, just because he cared. So his caring through listening – even when it cost him, like missing a class – and then being there while I dealt with those memories helped me heal.”
Brigitte and Jeff Ritchey both felt called to missions while they were in college.
“I went on a summer missions trip to Brazil after I graduated from college, and that was the confirmation for me to want to do career missions,” Jeff Ritchey said.
He and Brigitte Ritchey were married shortly after he graduated. They then went to seminary together to get their master’s degrees, which were a requirement for serving with the International Mission Board (IMB). When they finally applied to the IMB, they were still unsure of exactly where they wanted to serve overseas.
“We didn’t know where, but a man I knew from when I was growing up was instrumental in describing Croatia and the need there,” Brigitte Ritchey said.
In 1994, Jeff and Brigitte Ritchey and their three children – Kristin, Kimberly and Kenny – finally moved overseas to serve in Croatia. The family had been tasked with helping to set up an institute to train leaders for the Croatian Baptist Union.
“That part of the world was just opening up, and they needed someone with my particular training,” Jeff Ritchey said.
Jeff Ritchey said living in Croatia proved to be both a challenge and an adventure. The family learned a great deal about how to adapt to other cultures while retaining their identities.
“I was surprised at how hard it was to learn a new language, but it was worth the effort,” Jeff Ritchey said. “Croatia is a beautiful country, and we loved living there.”
After nearly a decade in Croatia, Jeff and Brigitte Ritchey got a call from the Baptist seminary in Canada asking them to come teach there.
“We had finished our assignment, and the institute was being run by Croatian leaders,” Brigitte Ritchey said. “We felt God leading us to accept the position.”
In 2005, the family moved from Croatia to Canada. Jeff Ritchey said Canada seemed easier in some ways because the country had a more American feel and a higher standard of living than Croatia. However, the cold weather sometimes made life difficult.
“The challenge in Croatia was the language,” he said. “In Canada it was the long, dark winters. They were so cold!”
Brigitte Ritchey agreed that Canadian weather was the biggest challenge.
“The winter lasts forever, and there really isn’t much of the other seasons,” she said. “But life in Canada is so much easier than in Croatia, so it was easier to adjust to. Also, knowing God has led you makes any transition easier.”
Despite the weather, the Ritchey family continued to spread the good news of Christ. Brigitte Ritchey said the extreme secularism in Canada often complicated that task.
“Making progress with the gospel is difficult, much like in Europe,” she said. “But we did make friends, and we feel our time there was very productive.”
During their time in Canada, Jeff and Brigitte Ritchey attended a conference in New Mexico where they met Elmer Towns and his wife. Brigitte Ritchey was currently working on her masters in counseling through Liberty online, so the two couples spent some time getting to know each other. That relationship bore fruit a few years later when Elmer Towns called to ask if Jeff Ritchey would be willing to teach missions classes at Liberty.
It quickly became clear to the Ritchey family that God wanted them to move once again, this time to their home country. After fifteen years of serving as a missionary, Jeff Ritchey would now be returning home to use what he had learned to teach others seeking to enter the same field.
Brigitte Ritchey said the transition to the United States proved a bit complicated due to the fact that their family had not lived in the U.S. for fifteen years. She and her husband also had to make the transition from missionaries to professor and counselor. They drew strength from the knowledge that the Lord had indeed led them to make the move.
“God is the one who brought us here,” Brigitte Ritchey said. “He opened up this job which (Jeff) is very suited for. He loves the job and he loves teaching, so it’s a good fit.”
It takes very little time with Jeff Ritchey to see that he does indeed love his job. When he teaches, his eyes shine with a passion that cannot be missed.
“He shows that he’s passionate about missions by teaching classes using real life examples from his time on the field,” Dougherty said. “When he tells those stories, you can tell that he loved what he did, and he loves what he’s doing now.”
Dougherty, now a missionary in Asia, said he learned a great deal in Ritchey’s classes that successfully prepared him to serve overseas.
“One of the most important things I learned from Dr. Ritchey is that when you first get on the field, you have to be willing to learn from the culture,” Dougherty said. “You have to observe and understand before you react. That allows me to get to know people better and present the gospel in a way that’s most understandable.”
Outside of the classroom, Jeff Ritchey has also led several of Liberty’s global teams to countries around the world for short-term missions work.
“It’s been really rewarding to take students to a part of the world with which I am familiar,” he said of a recent trip to Kosovo. “This is an excellent opportunity to see ministry in all parts of the world and to expand students’ focus.”
Jeff Ritchey is currently preparing to lead a global team to Zimbabwe, the country where his wife grew up. He said he is greatly looking forward to the trip.
Aside from teaching and leading missions trips, Jeff Ritchey also loves his students. He cites them as his favorite thing about his job.
“I’m grateful for the different students I have had the opportunity to teach over the years I have been at Liberty,” he said. “I feel that I am multiplying myself in the students that I prepare for the mission field.”
He also greatly enjoys working at Liberty and said he is appreciative of all the university does to further the gospel.
“The mission of Liberty is ‘Training champions for Christ,’ and I see that emphasized throughout the campus,” he said.
It seems only too appropriate that the man whose interest in missions first piqued in college has now come full circle to help prepare the next generation of workers in a similar college setting.
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“Alright, guys,” Jeff Ritchey said, interrupting the flow of conversation in his classroom. “Looks like we’re out of time.”
Students looked up at the clock in confusion to discover that they had indeed spent the entire period discussing the assigned topic. In the process, they had also bonded with each other. The bright smile on Jeff Ritchey’s face made it clear that this was what he had really wanted all along. The class period had effectively illustrated what he constantly tells his students – “It’s all about relationships.”
It only took a moment or two for everyone to pack up their bags and head out of the room. Jeff Ritchey wished them all a safe break as one by one they left him alone with the coffeemaker. Soon the lingering smell of coffee and the smile on Jeff Ritchey’s face provided the only signs that the class was ever there.
There exists a saying that those who cannot do, teach. Jeff Ritchey proves this statement to be utterly incorrect. He most certainly can do, but he has also chosen to teach. In his own way he still serves as a missionary, ministering daily to students as he helps prepare the next generation to carry the name of Christ to the nations just as he once did.