Rev. Frank (Francis) Ritchie, a familiar voice to many, wears several hats. The Wesleyan Methodist Church minister, radio personality and media chaplain loves a good coffee and chat.
He sat down with Jeremy Smith to discuss what it looks like to be salt and light in New Zealand’s media landscape.
Tell us about your family…
I’ve got an amazing wife, Melva. We’ve been married nearly 17 years. We have a 14-year-old daughter, Selah.
Love your daughter’s name!
It’s from the Psalms. My full name is Francis Anderson Ritchie. Growing up, I fell in love with what my name means. Francis means ‘free’, Anderson means ‘courageous’ and Ritchie means ‘powerful ruler’. Growing up in a single parent home with a mother on the DPB, I didn’t have much of a sense of what my life could be. My name helped provide a sense of identity.
God naming people in the Bible is a big deal. In doing so, He gives identity. So, I think names can be significant. When my wife and I were coming up with names, we thought about it long and hard. She loved the word ‘Selah’, which appears throughout the Psalms. Traditionally, Selah is understood to mean “an invitation to pause, be silent and reflect on what has been”. Selah’s middle name is Grace. Her full name means “pause and reflect on the grace of our powerful ruler”. My wife and I are a little proud of that.
How did you come to know Christ then?
I grew up around faith, but my early life was really, really hard. My father was an alcoholic who left when I was a few months old. Mum lived with mental health conditions which weren’t initially diagnosed. In the early 1980s, mental health was poorly understood. Due to her particular mental illnesses, she struggled to read social situations, which led to her moving from church to church.
That meant that when I was young I experienced the breadth of faith – Catholic, a short stint in the Mormon church, and Baptist and Presbyterian to name a few.
In my very late teens, some circumstances and a question from me led to some older Christians I had been spending time with encouraging me to read the Gospel of Luke. I remember thinking there wouldn’t be anything new in there because I’d grown up listening to sermons, reading the Bible and going to church stuff. But this time as I read it, and I can only put this down to the Holy Spirit, I began to see Jesus as I’d never seen Him before.
I had put myself out on the margins of life. But I saw Jesus intentionally directing Himself towards people who were there too. The passages about the Garden of Gethsemane and the crucifixion and resurrection led me to process the idea of what God would put Himself through in the midst of the human struggle – it hit me. In the Gospel story, the people Jesus had pulled in from the margins were now the centre of the Kingdom and I thought “wow, if He’s going to do that for me, I’ll follow”. It was that simple.
So, you went on to study theology?
When I made that decision to follow Jesus I knew that it meant committing myself to a Christian community. I lived in Te Aroha at the time and Eastside Apostolic Church – now called Activate in Hamilton – had planted a church in Te Aroha called Mountain View Apostolic Church. I walked in there for their second Sunday.
Essentially, through conversations with the Minister, he eventually encouraged me to think about studying Theology. That totally changed my trajectory and I did a diploma in Theology through the Bible College of New Zealand in Hamilton.
I failed everything in high school, but did extremely well in Theological study because I think it opened up another part of my brain that lit me up. When I finished the diploma the dean said to me, “You should think about doing a degree – you think like a theologian”. I have no idea if he knows how much that statement impacted me, but saying that to someone with my background that was significant. I then did a degree in Applied Theology at Carey Baptist College.
As a kid back in the day, I heard you on Life FM’s ‘The Green Room on Sunday evenings…
Yeah. I’d dreamed of being a radio announcer during high school. But I thought I’d stuffed around too much so that dream fell off the table.
A friend from church in Te Aroha had gone through broadcasting school, moved to Auckland and was producing the Green Room. They used to have a rotating panel, so initially he asked if I would come up and join one show as a guest, talking about men’s issues. Then, they asked if I’d be a regular guest and, eventually, one of the hosts. When the show shifted to one personality they asked if I would be willing.
I still think I was a little bit crazy! There I was in my early 20s and they gave a microphone with a nationwide audience to someone with no radio experience.
I was still living in Te Aroha, studying, and milking cows to pay my way through the Theological studies. It was an internship, so I was also doing hours for the church. The show was on a Sunday night in Auckland from 9pm until 11pm – then I’d drive home and get up early on Monday mornings to milk the cows.
I did the Green Room for about eight years. During that time we moved to Auckland and I hosted the night show on Life FM for two years, and then the drive show with Di Campbell for two years.
And you fielded some pretty difficult listener questions didn’t you?
Definitely. For the vast majority of my time there, I loved it. There were of course some people who didn’t like the show, and there were regular complaints.
My aim was to direct the show towards people who were at University age – those in their late teens or early 20s.
As they encountered critical thinking, many of them for the first time, my sense was that they were probably applying that to their faith and that for some, that was a difficult experience. I wanted the show to speak to the space they were in – to be a safe place to flex critical thinking and to ask questions they maybe felt they couldn’t ask elsewhere. But, they needed to know that the host had a solid faith and we could have the discussions and still land back at Jesus, even if there was a diversity in what we were thinking. A lot of the complaints were probably because some people didn’t like the tough questions, or simply disagreed with what I was saying. I’m hugely grateful for that time because it built resilience in me.
You’re still in radio – on Newstalk ZB’s Total Recall – what do you most like about being on the airwaves?
Radio gets everywhere – into plenty of places I wouldn’t normally be. Listener interaction makes it one of the most personal forms of media.
I’ve done music shows, but I adore talkback. During lockdown level four, the listener engagement on our short show on Newstalk ZB shot through the roof. There were a lot of lonely people, and radio was right there with them in a way no other medium really was.
Jax van Buuren and I host our Newstalk ZB show every Sunday night from 6pm. It’s a lot different from the Green Room – which was all about faith. What we do on Newstalk ZB is a lot lighter. Faith still does come out simply because that’s who we are. The audience knows they’re interacting with a minister – but hopefully one that doesn’t match some of their preconceptions.
Is it different working in radio in both Christian and non-Christian environments?
The difference is vast. If I’m talking about faith on Newstalk ZB for instance, particularly when we do our Christmas and Easter shows, I’ve got to be mindful of the fact that I have an audience for whom faith might not be their thing. I’m not interested in ‘crowbarring’ Jesus into conversations, but where my faith may be relevant to a conversation, I want to communicate it well. So, I’m constantly considering how it gets communicated whenever faith comes up, so that it’s not foreign to the audience. That challenge encapsulates much of my life, both on the microphone and away from it.
Good segue. These days you have a unique role as a media chaplain with Media Chaplaincy New Zealand, a service of the Christian Broadcasting Association, (CBA) How would you describe your role?
Towards the end of 2014 myself and some of the team at CBA sat down, took a look at the media landscape and asked “what’s needed here?”
We could see a serious lack of care. And we, as people in the media ourselves, believe in the media. We believe in its importance and its significance in shaping New Zealand’s sense of identity. We believe that healthy media personnel create a healthy media industry – but we could see a lot of people struggling.
Journalists would do hard stories and move on. So, we asked ourselves, “what would it look like for Christians to reflect Jesus in the media space – to serve without trying to influence? To genuinely love, serve and to bless the media, even if, at times, we disagree. In my mind that approach of love and service reflects the one who went to the cross for me.
The work just started with me identifying media personnel I thought were struggling, getting in touch and saying “hey, want to have coffee?” and then genuinely listening and seeking their wellbeing, regardless of how Christians might be feeling about their work
Talk to us about the experience of being in Christchurch after the tragic mosque shootings…
I flew down the following morning and, wearing my clerical collar, simply walked into a couple of media huddles near the mosque where they were waiting for information.
I went to the media huddles because I know that journalists in many cases in that situation – in that instance it was both New Zealand and some international media – won’t eat or drink because if they duck away they might miss some important information.
So I knew that one of the simplest ways to serve them was to simply ask if they had had food or water, and if not, I offered to get it for them – Media Chaplaincy New Zealand would cover it.
A few people took me up on the offer, others didn’t, but just wanted to talk. I think there was a lot of good will built by simply having a Christian presence there with no agenda other than to help and to serve.
Wow. What an amazing opportunity you have to speak into the lives of people in the media. How do you prayerfully approach that opportunity?
My fundamental worldview is that God’s Spirit is at work everywhere, all the time. He’s whispering to every person in various ways. My job is to be so close to Him that wherever I am, I’m recognising connecting, celebrating, naming, and participating in what God’s already up to.
When I sit down with a person, my sense is that God is already there somehow and it’s my job to be in tune with His voice. Sometimes, in conversation, that means naming a person’s experiences as God at work, and sometimes it doesn’t. But it always means listening well and putting aside any agenda I might have.
We hear a lot that the media has a ‘bias’. What do you think about that?
Just as we know some people have perceptions of Christians because of what some do, the same goes for the media. Yes, some of the media is biased. But, by and large, what I’ve encountered is good people trying to do a good job with limited and decreasing resources. They are wholly interested in truth and see a cause in what they do. But they are under the pump, and when you’re under the pump the work may not be as good as it could be.
That doesn’t mean that all media personnel are perfect – just as we Christians aren’t – but It’s not my job to stand up and critique them. My job is to get alongside them in support. It’s my job to demonstrate love and care. I’m not there to correct everything others have a problem with.
Are there hard parts to your role then? What about when you do media interviews?
I mean, research has shown that the least trusted people in society now are politicians, religious leaders and the media – and I hit two of those! I like to think I can be trusted though.
I’ve had to get to the point where I don’t feel like I need to speak for the whole Christian community. We’re too diverse for anyone to represent the breadth of our community.
I do know that because I’m a different voice to some other high profile Christian leaders there are people who, at least in their head, set me against those other leaders. I don’t like that so much, even though I will at times be a different voice to some of what other Christian leaders might say. I prefer to be known for what I’m about rather than how I differ from others.
My biggest challenge though, is not measuring the strength of my faith by the work that I do – God’s work. It’s too easy for us ‘professional Christians’ to think we’ve got it covered through what we do. The whole point of the faith is our unity with God – everything else flows out of that. So my biggest challenge is constantly coming back to the space I have with God away from microphones, conversation with others and the limelight – and being reminded that His love for me and my love for Him are the chief aim and foundation of my life.
How important are strong Christian ‘voices’ in the media?
There’s something here we need to grapple with. I think many of us need to realise we’re only one voice among many in a very diverse culture. We can’t expect that people should simply listen to us. We need to be willing to offer that respect to others even when we strongly disagree. In New Zealand the table has many varying voices present, we’re only one of those voices.
When we first started media chaplaincy, one of the things we knew was there weren’t many voices representing faith publicly in the media sphere. So one of the things I think we have accomplished is just simply having another voice in that space. It has been an outcome of seeking to serve. Behind the scenes now, from time to time journalists will come to me with questions if there’s a story about faith that they don’t understand. It still won’t lead to perfection, but it demonstrates their desire to get it as right as they can.
Talking of Christian voices, there are quite a number of people of faith working in the media. CBA runs a group called Salt. Through Salt we aim to encourage them in their faith and vocation.
I read that you also worked for Tearfund?
Yes. My role was to help educate Christians and churches regarding a deeper theology of justice and how Tearfund’s work related to that. And then also to help Tearfund understand, use and apply the Bible in everything the organisation did. Interestingly, the speaking engagement opportunities that came with the role allowed me to encounter much of the silent majority for whom the Green Room had been really formative. I have an ongoing deep respect and love for the work of Tearfund and many other Christian organisations working in the area of community and global justice.
You have a very full plate, what’s your advice for Christian men living busy lives who want to be intentional about slowing down and carving out time to spend with God?
We need to find those places where we set aside the noise and remember that the foundation of our life is our unity with God – we need to be pursuing that. We live in the paradox of having been found by God, but we need to cultivate our seeking of Him as well.
In 2012, I was in the Holy Land with Tearfund.. I remember sitting in the Church of the Nativity towards the end of that trip – it’s one of the greatest churches on the planet – the place where tradition holds Jesus was born. As I sat in that space, in the middle of conflict, I remember thinking I should pray about the conflict, but I had nothing. So, the moment became what it was – just sitting in silence with God. It’s probably one of the most powerful things I’ve done and it re-orientated my whole faith as I had encountered my own ‘uselessness’ and inability to change the problem. That encounter with my uselessness, frailty and mortality was extremely healthy and drew me deeper into God. It made silence and prayer central in my faith journey.
For me, silence as intentional time with God is now such a big part of who I am. My wife would tell you that she knows when I’ve gone too long without those moments with God. My irritability and lack of calm and patience will surface more when I don’t do it for a while. My life also feels a lot busier when it isn’t happening. The ability to cope with my many hats decreases. I may not see anything changing, but my wife does.
Hamilton was recently voted Most Beautiful Large City in the Keep New Zealand Beautiful’s 2020 “Beautiful Awards”. What do you like about living there?
Rightly so I reckon. It’s often known as the city of the future, but it’s the city of ‘now’ these days. My wife and I lived in Hamilton – before we shifted in 2004 – we returned in 2016 and it has certainly been in an identity shift of sorts in that time. It’s becoming a vibrant, humming city in its own right.
I think a big part of that is thanks to a guy called Matt Stark – he has a real vision for the CBD and re-shaping it. He’s had a hand in things like Victoria on the River – an amphitheatre style park in the CBD, the new inner-city Kmart, a whole lot of vibrant stuff. Tainui is also playing a significant part in shaping the city for the better.
Then there’s the Waikato River – and the sense of identity that comes with being a river city. I love getting up early in the morning and walking along the river. There’s a spirituality to being able to walk along the river that I really appreciate.
I love visiting lots of other cities in New Zealand, but in terms of calling one home, Hamilton’s definitely it.
You also pastor a church – tell us about it…
I was ordained as a Wesleyan Methodist minister in 2012 and we planted our church community, Commoners, in 2016 as a prophetic response to a noisy culture.
We use liturgy – spoken call and response – and there’s silence in our services. The intent is to slow down for a moment.
For me, it was taking my DNA and what I learned out of the 2012 trip to the Holy Land and asking “what does it look like for me to plant a church that is faithful to that, rather than simply doing what’s usually expected? What does it look like for the church to provide sanctuary for people, to help them slow down and reconnect with the presence of God, rather than trying to cut through by being ‘noisier’?
We don’t do live music and I don’t write sermons. Rather, we discuss a Gospel passage of the day determined by the Revised Common Lectionary. I probably sit with the passage of the week in a more devotional framework. It’s not a model that works for everyone – and I don’t expect it to – but it works for some people. If people want great singing and soaring sermons, there are other wonderful churches in Hamilton doing that. I felt a need to try something different – something simple.
What does a perfect day off with your family look like?
My wife works Saturday, so I look after my daughter. I work Sundays with our church service and my radio show, and my wife and I take Monday’s off, but Selah is back at school. So actually, a day when we’re all off together is rare.
Those rare days will sometimes include trips to Raglan, little days trips here and there, and we really like Waihi.
I love tramping, but my wife and I have a slightly different DNA when it comes to recreation! My daughter is a bookworm and devours books so we regularly go to Browsers Bookshop on a Saturday morning, or to a cafe somewhere together.
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By Jeremy Smith
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