COOKIETOWN, Okla. (BP) – Arbuary Ritter has led Union Valley Baptist Church in Randlett in southwest Oklahoma for 60 years. Many believe him to be the longest-tenured pastor among Oklahoma Baptists and perhaps in the whole Southern Baptist Convention. He announced his retirement earlier this month.
At his retirement service Sunday (Aug. 22), Ritter’s family and leaders from the Comanche-Cotton Association, area churches and the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma honored the pastor’s faithfulness.
James Swain, associate executive director of church relations for Oklahoma Baptists, said Ritter’s long tenure at Randlett Baptist is “a testimony to his and his wife Jane’s faithfulness and the graciousness of the Union Valley church family.”
“He demonstrated the shepherding leadership of 1 Peter 5:3 by not lording over the flock but being an example to them.” Swain said. “He is definitely worthy of the honor received, and I am praying for God’s richest blessing on him in the days to come.”
Ritter reflects on God’s faithfulness
In a story published by the Baptist Messenger in 2018, Ritter talked about God’s faithfulness during his ministry service. Both he and the church have stood the test of time.
“There is absolutely nothing in town but the church anymore,” Ritter said when asked about Cookietown.
Ritter grew up in Marlow, Okla., and made a profession of faith in Christ at age 15. It wasn’t long, he said, before he felt the Lord calling him to preach, so he told the pastor at his home church, Eastside Baptist in Marlow.
“He told me, ‘OK, you’re surrendering to preach. You get to preach next Sunday,’ and that’s when I started,” Ritter said with a laugh.
As a high school student, Ritter pastored his first congregation in Denton, Okla., from 1955-57. He was ordained March 29, 1956. He even preached his own senior class’ baccalaureate service.
“It was an honor to be asked to do that because it was proof that my classmates noticed, since I gave my life to Christ, I had been living for the Lord,” Ritter said.
In the years that followed, Ritter graduated from the Univeresity of Oklahoma, got married, had children and preached at two other Oklahoma churches before coming to Union Valley 60 years ago.
Much of the time, Ritter has been bivocational, holding many other jobs in the community in addition to pastor.
He was a teacher and eventually a school superintendent in Belleview, Texas.
“It was 66 miles from Cookietown, and I drove it every day,” Ritter said. He also served as a police chaplain for the Oklahoma Highway Patrol.
After Ritter finished his master’s degree, he accepted a position as superintendent of Big Pasture Public Schools, and many Big Pasture students attend church in Cookietown today. He has lived and worked in that community for 58 years now.
“The Lord has blessed us, and we have expanded and grown, even though almost no one lives in Cookietown anymore,” Ritter said. The growth has included a new youth building a few years ago and plans to build another basketball pavilion.
Ritter said the question many have when hearing of his long tenure is, “How?” How does a pastor stay at a small-town church for 60 years, when such churches often seem to have a revolving door for pastors?
“It’s not just a preacher who has been at a church for years,” he said. “A lot of it has to do with a church that has kept a pastor for years.”
The congregation at Union Valley is not made up of only farmers or ranchers like one might assume of a rural church. Ritter said there are teachers, engineers, a pharmacist, government workers and more who come from surrounding areas to Union Valley to worship as a body of believers.
“The Lord has just blessed us,” Ritter said. “You follow the leadership of the Lord and don’t run off on your own. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to serve here full time, part time and bivocational through the years. I’ve never felt the Lord calling me anywhere else.”
When asked what piece of advice he would give a new pastor, Ritter said, “The biggest blessing comes from being at the church where God wants you. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the biggest church. I was going to be an evangelist, but instead God permitted me to be a pastor, and a lot more responsibility comes with that.”
Ritter, who will turn 83 in October, said he has learned a lot in his long ministry, but the biggest lesson is humility.
“Don’t aspire to greatness or think ‘I need to go to a bigger, better church,’” he said. “Just follow where He leads, and He will make your path straight.”