By Jim Nieman
Back on May 20, 1979, during his first Sunday as senior minister with Hazelwood Christian Church in Clayton, Ind., Steve Ranson had no idea it would be his first of 2,000-plus Sundays there.
He was unaware the church had had 31 ministers since its founding in 1910—a span of 69 years. That’s a new minister every two-plus years.
“It wasn’t trending well,” Ranson deadpanned.
But things worked out, though Ranson now confesses that, early on, he was occasionally at a loss for topics to preach about.
“It wasn’t like it is today, with the Internet and so many resources. I’d pray, ‘Just give me one more sermon.’ I’d gone from Genesis to Revelation . . . maybe I need to preach through the maps or something. I’d said it all and I didn’t have anything more to say.”
Statistics, trends, and inspirational challenges aside, Hazelwood was “a wonderful place, very loving” for Ranson.
“They gave me time to grow. They didn’t expect perfection from me.
“I met five of the 31 pastors [who preceded me]. They were all good men. It just happened to be a good fit for me.”
This coming Sunday, 40 years after he started, Ranson, 64, will preach his final sermon at HCC. He will hand over the lead role to Tim Gephart, who served most recently as a campus pastor with Plainfield (Ind.) Christian Church.
Ranson said he and his wife, Kim, “are going to take a few months away, but we look forward to being back. We’re going to do some traveling and spend time with the kids and grandkids.”
FROM WEST VIRGINIA TO KENTUCKY
Ranson grew up in St. Albans, W.Va. He has two older brothers who went into ministry before him. Oldest brother, Rick, preaches at the Marmet (W. Va.) Church of Christ, which he has served since 1992; while Jeff retired from Gateway Christian Church in St. Albans in 2016, after serving there a dozen years.
During the brothers’ formative years, the Ranson family attended what was then called Gateway Church of Christ. Ranson’s father was an elder. Most of the church’s ministers had attended Kentucky Christian College in Grayson, Ky., about 70 miles away.
While Ranson was in high school, some guys at his church formed the Watchmen Quartet (it became part of Operation Evangelize). When the group’s members ended up at KCC, they soon received scholarships, much to Ranson’s surprise and delight.
The school approached the group and said if they would “carry the banner of KCC” it would give the members “full-ride scholarships.”
“My entire education was provided for through Operation Evangelize, and we didn’t have to change a thing,” Ranson said. “We had the best gig in the world.”
The group included Ranson’s brother, Rick, and several others: evangelist Dave Lucas, bass player Fred Klatka, piano player Vicky Warren, and singers George Draper, Sam Batten, and the Ransons. Steve Ranson was song leader (“We didn’t know what a worship leader was in those days”).
“We traveled to churches and held revivals for many years and also worked in Christian service camps and did many of the things that the college recruitment teams were doing,” he said.
While at KCC during his sophomore year, Ranson met Kim, a new student, and they were married about a year later, in 1974.
Childhood friend and fellow KCC student Steve Wyatt played a role in their meeting. Steve’s father, Tom, had lived and ministered in St. Albans before moving to a church in Flora, Ill., which was Kim’s hometown.
“Tom [Wyatt] married us, and both Kim and I are very good friends with Steve Wyatt to this day,” Ranson said.
FROM KENTUCKY TO INDIANA
Ranson was in the Watchmen full-time for seven years, including two years after college. When the couple had their first child, the Ransons decided they needed to settle down, and Ranson said God made arrangements for them to end up with Hazelwood.
The Hazelwood church is “at an intersection of two county roads in the middle of nowhere,” Ranson said. There hasn’t been much change in the demographics or population of the immediate area during Ranson’s 40 years there, but the Lord has blessed.
The church was averaging about 60 when Ranson arrived. Back then, he was the only minister/staff member.
“In a couple of years, we were at 100. In five years, we were at 200,” he said. The church built a new auditorium in 1985, and almost immediately discovered “we built it too small.” There have been four additional building programs, as the church continued to grow steadily, reaching an average of about 750 five years ago. Attendance has dipped a little since then but is likely to average more than 700 this year, Ranson said.
As the church grew, it added staff—there are now five ministers—and most of them stay on for years. Ranson is quick to thank and give credit to his fellow ministers and church staff.
How does a country church enjoy four decades of near uninterrupted, steady growth?
“When people come to Hazelwood, they just feel the presence of God,” said discipleship minister Gary Cornwell, who has known Ranson since 1981 and has served with HCC for 12 years. “We’re a team unlike what you ever see at a church.”
Ranson leads with consistency—“He’s been the same person since I met him,” Cornwell said—and his example permeates the staff and the church.
“I’ve known a lot of ministers, but Steve is the most genuine and kind-hearted,” Cornwell said. “He has a big heart for people.”
Rita Barker joined Hazelwood in the late 1970s, a year or two before the Ransons came; she has been Steve Ranson’s secretary for about 30 years, serving initially as a volunteer.
Barker said Ranson’s people skills and communication skills are exceptional. “He’s very personable; he visits a lot; he keeps in touch; he writes a lot of notes.” He connects with young and old.
“Once you meet them [the Ransons], you’re family.”
“Through the years, they have been a consistent example of the John 13 servanthood Jesus demonstrated for us,” said lifelong friend Steve Wyatt, lead pastor of Christ’s Church at the Crossroads in the Phoenix area. “Hazelwood has been blessed beyond measure to have such a humble pastor and such a godly pastor’s wife.”
During their time in Hazelwood, the Ransons raised three children: Chad, 40, graduated from Florida Christian College and serves on staff at Mt. Pleasant Christian Church in Greenwood, Ind. Aaron, 38, graduated from Kentucky Christian University and now serves with the Danville, Ky., campus of Southland Christian Church. Daughter Amber passed away in 2017 at the age of 34. She was a registered nurse, like her mother.
Kim Ranson graduated from KCC in 1977. She resumed her studies after their children entered school and became a nurse. She retired May 14 [the day this article is published]—five days before her husband—after serving 27 years with Hendricks Regional Health in Danville, Ind.
Steve Ranson didn’t point to any singular achievements through the years with Hazelwood, but instead prefers to focus on friendships in the church, the growing staff, the baptisms, the children who have gone off to Bible college, the Timothys, and the weddings and funerals he’s performed for multiple generations of the same families.
He’s confident in Gephart, his replacement. At the same time, he looks back on his early days in the pulpit, aimlessly searching for sermon topics, and chuckles.
“If I had 40 more years, I’d have so much more to say.”
Jim Nieman serves as managing editor of Christian Standard.