When the Rev. Karen Rice Ratzlaff was in third grade, she gathered all of her stuffed animals and one doll, lined them up on the side of her bed, and delivered her first sermon.
“Because God can do anything, God became a little tiny baby,” she recalled of her bedroom homily.
She left the room, shut the door on her menagerie and imagined a “Toy Story”-like revival where they shared the good news.
“I believe that Love Incarnate had the power to work miracles,” she said. “And I still do.”
Rice Ratzlaff followed that career path into various forms of ministry over more than 25 years and started her appointment as the Salina and Hutchinson districts superintendent July 1. She was formally installed into the position in a music-filled ceremony Aug. 15 at Salina First UMC.
Her bedroom, she told the 135 people gathered for the installation, was one of her refuges from an abusive biological father. The other refuge was the second row of the balcony at Goodland First UMC.
There, she found “people who saw me and saw my gifts,” Rice Ratzlaff said. “Obviously it’s named Good-land for a reason, right?”
Being seen was among the themes of Rice Ratzlaff’s installation sermon. In just six weeks on the job, she has visited all but two of the 52 churches in the Hutchinson District and 59 churches in the Salina District.
Rice Ratzlaff said she was impressed by the work done by each church, including prayer chains, blessing boxes, food pantries and many other community outreach efforts.
She was also impressed by the physical features of each church. Before her sermon, a photo from each church in her districts — their chancels, stained glass or other unique attributes — were featured in a slide show. It was accompanied by her son, Luke Ratzlaff, at the piano.
Music played a big part in the 90-minute service, including serving as touchstones for Rice Ratzlaff’s pastoral career.
Most of the praise band was from McPherson UMC, where she was associate pastor from 1997 to 2003 and pastor from 2012 to 2019. A three-piece trio version of the bluegrass band Brutal Bear included Rev. Adam Barlow-Thompson (executive director and co-founder of the Neighboring Movement, where Rice Ratzlaff spent a year as experiment coordinator and church coach), Rev. Ashley Prescott Barlow-Thompson and Rev. Michael Marion, deacon and senior pastor, respectively, of Wichita Calvary UMC, where Rice Ratzlaff was an associate from 1993 to 1997.
Rev. Keith Anglemyer, pastor of Beloit UMC, and Rev. Richard Fitzgerald, pastor of Salina First UMC, provided a duet on organ and piano, and musicians from Salina First provided the preservice music.
Before the service, plastic glasses were distributed to those attending, with Rice Ratzlaff having the congregation put them on near the end of her sermon, reminding them to see the good around them and the gifts of others.
Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. said the superintendency committees of the Salina and Hutchinson districts, in looking for a successor to the Rev. Dee Williamston — named as director of clergy excellence and assistant to the bishop at the conference office in Topeka — needed a person who was familiar with the communities, had experience working with the poor and underserved, had experience in large churches and deeply cared about the life of the community.
“Karen became the obvious person and choice,” the bishop said, particularly praising Rice Ratzlaff’s work with the Circles anti-poverty program while in McPherson.
Bishop Saenz praised Rice Ratzlaff as a relationship builder and said she already was making a difference on the cabinet.
“I think she’s going to complement who’s already at the table,” he said.
Rice Ratzlaff is the fourth of five new district superintendents to be installed this summer. The final DS, Rev. Dr. Charles Murithi, will be installed in a portion of the Elkhorn Valley District at 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 28, at Bassett UMC and as DS of the Prairie Rivers District at 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 29.
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