Now celebrating 25 years as the pastor of Westerly Road Church in Princeton Borough, Ristuccia reflected on his path to the ministry and his life since, an experience that he said has been deeply rewarding.
“I had grown up going to church, but it never really meant anything,” he recalled. But one day, a group of his friends urged him to join them for services at Westerly. There, he discovered an approach to Christianity that he could connect to.
“At Westerly Road Church, the people who were there wanted to be there,” Ristuccia said. The church also took a theological approach that engaged the English major. “The sermon was really relevant and involved understanding the Bible as a text, much like English lit,” he said. He began attending Westerly services regularly and even taught Sunday school classes.
Outside of church, Ristuccia also became more involved with Christian groups on campus, as a member of the Princeton Evangelical Fellowship and the Chapel Choir. He said that he enjoyed the University’s “engaging intellectual environment” and formed many “deep, abiding friendships.”
The most important friendship Ristuccia formed was with his Sunday school co-teacher and fellow English major, Karen Holditch ’75. The two met during their first semester of freshman year in gym class, which was a requirement for freshmen at the time. “I immediately liked her,” he said.
Karen — now Karen Ristuccia — echoed that statement, saying, “Over time we became good friends. That friendship was to grow until our senior year, when we began to see each other in a romantic light.”
By the time he graduated, Ristuccia had moved past his initial apathy toward the University — he chose Princeton after being rejected from Harvard and placed on Yale’s waitlist — but he still had no idea that he would return to the area for most of his adult life.
“When I was driving away,” he said, “I remember thinking, ‘Ok, that was Princeton. It was nice, but I’m glad it’s over ... I won’t miss New Jersey.’ ”
Ristuccia headed to Grace Theological Seminary in Indiana, where he received his Master’s in Theology, and then to Dallas Seminary for his Doctorate of Ministry, where he wrote a dissertation on pastors’ children that combined psychological, sociological and theological approaches.
Only three years after leaving the University, Ristuccia returned to work with PEF as a campus chaplain, alongside his wife, in 1978.
Since they were living in town, they continued to attend Westerly. When the pastor at Westerly announced his resignation in 1985, congregants suggested that Ristuccia take the position as senior pastor.
“The people asked me to consider being the pastor of the church ... At first, I didn’t want to,” he said. But eventually, he agreed.
Andrew Bocarsly, a chemistry professor at the University and a member of the elder board at Westerly, helped recruit Ristuccia for the position.
Decades later, Bocarsly said he is confident that the congregation made a good choice.
“Both Matt and Karen are truly a gift from God to WRC and Princeton,” he noted.
Karen said that her husband initially looked at being a pastor as just a career. But that has changed. “Now it is his identity, his life, his calling,” she said.
According to research by Westerly, Ristuccia has tied John Witherspoon for the longest tenure as a pastor in Princeton, Christina Keddie ’03, a church spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.
David Keddie ’04, now a ministry intern at PEF and a member of the church, said that Ristuccia is “the main reason people come on a Sunday morning.”
Students added that Ristuccia — or Pastor Matt, as congregants call him — connects to them with his sermons and experience at the University.
Victoria Hewitt ’11 said that his sermons “are centered on a text from the Bible and apply the truth found in scripture to our daily lives. And this is done in a genuine, loving way.”
Ian Flaniken ’10 said he especially appreciated Ristuccia’s ability to make Biblical lessons applicable to students’ lives. “As a Princeton graduate, he understands what Princeton students are going through academically and socially,” he said.
Ristuccia has also continued to be involved on campus. He recently helped the Manna Christian Fellowship with a retreat for University students.
He has counseled people outside of the University community as well, including New York and New Jersey Port Authority police in the aftermath of Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and he has led ministry trips to Africa.
The best part of his job, he said, is the opportunity “to empower others and help them accomplish what they’re meant to do.”