Serving God as a Family
As told by Otto Rittenbach
CAROL and I were married in November of 1951. The following year our first child, Brenda, was born. In the next six years we had five more children—Rick in July 1954, Rhonda in June 1955, JoDene in May 1956, Wayne in June 1957, and Kenan in July 1958. By then I was still only 27 and Carol just 23. Indeed, heavy family responsibilities for a young couple!
Today, we are thankful that all of us are united in God’s service. Rick serves at Bethel, the world headquarters of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Brooklyn, New York. Carol and I, along with our younger sons Wayne and Kenan, are at Watchtower Farms about 95 miles (150 km) north of Brooklyn. And Brenda, Rhonda, and JoDene each graduated from the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead and are now missionaries—Brenda in the Middle East and Rhonda and JoDene in Colombia, South America.
Never in our fondest hopes did we envision that our entire family would have these grand privileges of service. We were just a young couple with a bunch of kids who tried our best to keep up with the directions that we received from God through his Word and visible organization. It wasn’t always easy. There were difficult times. But we all agree that keeping God’s service our first priority has resulted in our living rich and rewarding lives. Let me tell briefly about our background and the rearing of our family.
Learning Bible Truth
I was born in 1930 on a farm in the prairie area of North Dakota, the 13th of 14 children. The Nylens, another farm family, lived about four miles (6 km) away. They were known in the community as Jehovah’s Witnesses, even though they were not baptized and did not regularly attend congregation meetings.
In the course of taking care of farming business, I made frequent visits to their farm and became acquainted with Carol Nylen. Our relationship grew, and soon after Carol graduated from high school we were married. Two months later, early in 1952, I was drafted and spent two years in the army, including 14 months in Germany.
After I returned from Germany, we rented a farm about a quarter mile (.4 km) from the Nylens. We had practically no money so we had to get FHA (Farmers Home Administration) loans to buy a herd of milk cows and some farm machinery. Farming was very time consuming in those days. Yet, with encouragement from Carol and my in-laws who by then were active Witnesses, I accepted a home Bible study. It was faithfully conducted with me by Carol’s brother Roland. With additional spiritual help from visits of circuit overseers and other Witnesses, I eventually made a dedication to Jehovah and was baptized in August of 1956.
A Hardworking Companion
Life on the farm in those days lacked many modern conveniences. Our rented farm house, for example, had no running water or indoor plumbing, so all the water had to be carried from the well, and we had to go outside to use the toilet facilities. We had few home furnishings, but we made do with what we had and what was given to us. Carol became so adept at home decorating that even the owners said the place was like a doll’s house. She also made all the kids’ clothes, mainly out of old garments given to her. And she often gave me a hand outside with the chores, including milking the cows, which we did by hand.
During those years Carol, whose mother had been a schoolteacher, did a marvelous job training the children. In addition, reading the Bible and Watchtower publications had impressed upon us the value of training our children from infancy. (2 Timothy 3:15) So, regularly, each morning from about 9:30 to 11, one end of our small kitchen became a school. Among the earliest memories of all the children is sitting in little red chairs in a semicircle around a blackboard. Today, these instruction sessions are recalled by the children with fondness. The ones that were yet infants would learn to sit quietly and fold their hands for up to an hour. Afterward they were ready for their regular forenoon nap.
By the time the children were about a year and a half old, they were active participants. Carol taught them the alphabet and how to read and write by use of homemade flash cards. She also helped them to memorize key Bible texts, as well as the names of the apostles, and related to them Bible stories along with the practical lessons that these taught. It was intriguing to watch how easily and how much our children were able to learn at an early age. Some may find it hard to believe, yet they were able to recite the names of all 66 books of the Bible by the time they were a year and a half old, and by the age of two or three each of them could read.
In addition, we had a regular family study during which we would prepare with the children the lessons to be studied at our regular congregation meetings. Of course, this meant breaking the material down so that they could understand it, especially when we were studying the book “Your Will Be Done on Earth,” and later “Let Your Name Be Sanctified,” as well as lessons in the Watchtower magazine. This training helped the children not only to progress spiritually but also to excel in school.
Dealing With Problems
Yet, despite all our efforts, not everything went as smoothly as we would have liked. For example, when Brenda came home from her first day at school, we excitedly asked her about her day. One of our questions was about the flag salute. She answered, “Oh, no, I didn’t salute the flag; I just pledged allegiance.” Something, obviously, had been missing in our instruction!
Then there was the occasion when a turkey dinner was served in the school cafeteria just before Thanksgiving vacation. Rick, who was in the first grade at the time, refused to eat it. Only after persistent explaining by the teacher that it was not Thanksgiving Day nor a real Thanksgiving dinner, and after a phone call to Carol, did Rick’s conscience allow him to eat that meal.
There were also problems of another kind, ones we could hardly believe would arise, but which illustrate the wayward inclinations of youth. (Genesis 8:21; Proverbs 22:15) Rhonda seemed intent in the third grade to have a ready-made, store-bought coat. So she fabricated the story that the teacher said she had to have one by May 1! She almost had us convinced.
Then there was the matter of stealing. When Wayne and Kenan were in the second and first grades, they took candy from the teacher’s desk. When we learned of this, we reasoned with them, trying to draw out of their hearts what motivated them to do this bad thing. We had them make retribution by buying candy and presenting it to the teacher and telling her what they had done. We tried to root out bad motives from our children’s hearts once these were discerned and tried to replace them with good and pure motives by reasoning with them.
Full Attention Required
Very early on we realized that rearing a family in Jehovah’s service is a career that requires full attention. We found that children need to be kept busy, to be given a sense of order and scheduling. They need to know when to get up in the morning, when nap time is, when it is time to eat, and so forth. All of this needs to be inculcated while they are yet infants and carried through and expanded as they grow older.
We began teaching our young ones obedience in infancy. When we asked them to do something, even if it was as simple as, “Fold your hands,” or, “Sit down,” we expected and received immediate compliance. We made sure that each command was carried out. Wholesome control and guidance from infancy to adulthood drastically reduces problems at a later date. One practice that we exercised in their infancy was to wrap our children in a swaddling manner when it was time for them to sleep, even as Jesus was wrapped as an infant. (Luke 2:7) This helped them to feel secure and to go to sleep almost instantly.
From a very early age we also taught the children to work. Under the watchful eye of my wife, they learned to pick up things, to wash dishes, and to fold clothes. Later they learned to darn socks, to sew on buttons, to make bread, to plant and weed the garden, and to help with the canning and freezing of its produce. Both the boys and the girls learned all these things. They also learned to make minor repairs around the house, to do painting, and to keep the yard looking attractive. We taught them to be thorough at whatever they did, to do a good job, and we saw to it that they did. It took time, but it really paid off in later years.
We also recognized the need of recreational activities. These, however, seldom included watching television. In fact, our family made a combined decision NOT to have one. Our recreation mostly consisted of doing things together—playing games, having picnics, enjoying congregational activities, and going to assemblies. Often, in connection with travel to the assemblies, we scheduled vacation trips to interesting places.
We always placed priority on spiritual activities. At first we had to travel 55 miles (90 km) each way to the Kingdom Hall, and North Dakota winters can be severe. But by taking reasonable precautions and being blessed with relatively good health, we seldom missed a meeting. Circuit assemblies were real highlights in our lives, sometimes involving a trip of 250 miles (400 km) to share in a three-day program back in those days.
The field ministry was a regular feature of every weekend, regardless of -20° F. (-7° C.) weather. Some people may think it extreme to have young ones out in such weather, but it helped to impress upon the children that nothing should stand in the way of our service to Jehovah.
Keeping Kingdom Interests First
In 1961 we were faced with a big decision when the farm that we were renting came up for sale. Should I buy the farm, or should I seek different employment? Farm life was good for the children, and as the boys grew up it could become their means of livelihood. However, to do it justice, farming would take most of our time, and we reasoned that it could become a snare to us. Earlier my dad had given me some land, which was really not large enough to farm. I sold this and bought a backhoe and related equipment and went into excavation work.
We moved to the nearby town of Butte, North Dakota, population about 200. I excavated basements and installed farm sewers, and I learned to lay cement blocks and to do plumbing. To supplement what was a rather meager income, I also drove the school bus. Yet we always could feel Jehovah’s concern and help for us as our family put spiritual things first. Despite our being a large, relatively poor family and our having to contend with severe weather at times, we always managed to attend congregation meetings and assemblies, and also to share regularly in the field ministry.
In time we were able to buy an old house and, with the generous help of Carol’s father, remodel it into a very attractive but modest home. A congregation was formed in our area, and we had the privilege of helping to build a small Kingdom Hall. As a result, we now had to travel only 15 miles (25 km) instead of 55 miles (90 km) to get to the meetings. Since the congregation was small, we had parts on the meetings every week, which kept us busy preparing for them.
In so many ways we felt Jehovah’s watchcare. To illustrate: In March of 1965 I was invited to attend the Kingdom Ministry School in South Lansing, New York, which at the time provided a month-long course of instruction for Christian elders. But the car we had was old and not dependable enough for my family to get to the meetings and a circuit assembly while I would be away. So we went to the biggest nearby town to look for a car. We had looked unsuccessfully most of the day when, about 45 minutes before I had to return home to drive the school bus, I stopped at one more dealer.
The salesman took me to a dark underground garage and showed me a car that I thought would serve our purposes. A test drive revealed that it ran well, but the salesman said the price was $300, much more than I could pay. As I was about to leave, the salesman said to wait while he asked the manager what was the least he could take. The manager stalled, pondered, and reluctantly said, $150. We made the deal and drove the car home.
Later that spring, money was tight. I had just returned from the Kingdom Ministry School. It was too early to start outside work as the frost was still in the ground. I had a job coming up right across the street to dig a waterline and sewer and put in a bathroom and plumbing. It would be a month or more before I could do it, but one day, to my surprise, our neighbor called up. He said he would like to advance me $500 on the job!
In 1967 I received a job offer in a town about 100 miles (160 km) away. I decided to accept it. One reason was that my excavating business was taking me farther and farther away from home, and it was at the point where I would need to expand and become more involved with the business at the expense of spiritual activities. So we sold our house and moved to New Rockford, North Dakota, where I became a bulk fertilizer salesman for a farm store. Although this new job did not allow me the freedom that being self-employed did, I decided to take it since the children were now older and well established in the Christian way.
A Happy Family in the Full-Time Ministry
Because the children turned down scholarships upon their graduation, their teachers and others in the community thought their scholastic abilities were being wasted. Yet, despite pressures to continue their secular education, on completing high school each of them started in the full-time ministry as a pioneer.
Brenda started pioneering in 1970, followed by Rick in 1972. He then went to Bethel that December. The following year both Rhonda and my wife began pioneering. In 1974 JoDene and I joined them in the pioneer work, and the following spring Wayne brought the number of pioneers in the family to six. In 1976 Wayne went to serve at Watchtower Farms, but Kenan graduated and kept the number in the family pioneering at six.
When I decided to pioneer, my employer refused my request for part-time work, so I quit the farm store. I was subsequently hired as a fuel-truck driver, but when my employer insisted that I become involved in dishonest business practices, I quit there also. However, I was by this time pioneering with Carol and the children, the desire of a lifetime, so nothing could now deter me.
Within a week of quitting my job, I was called by another employer who asked me if I could work two days a week during the winter servicing furnaces. Amazing? Not really, for hadn’t we been promised that if we put Kingdom interests first, we would be cared for? (Matthew 6:33) The children by this time each had part-time jobs, and their contributing to household expenses made possible our pioneering together as a family.
Then, in June 1977, Carol and I along with Kenan were invited to Watchtower Farms. Being a mother and leaving behind our home and three darling daughters tugged at my wife’s heart. But she reasoned that it was Jehovah’s leading and truly an inestimable privilege. The girls viewed it that way, too, and urged us to go. The following summer we returned on vacation, sold our house and other material possessions, and helped our daughters move to their first special-pioneer assignment about 100 miles (160 km) away.
While the girls were serving as special pioneers in Grand Island, New York, they were called to Watchtower Farms in August 1981 to work along with us until they entered the 72nd class of Gilead School commencing that October. The following March they graduated, and soon all three were on their way to a missionary assignment in Colombia, South America.
Rhonda and JoDene are still in Colombia, but Brenda married a Gilead classmate in March of 1983 and joined him in the Middle East. Then, in March of 1984, Rhonda married a Gilead graduate who joined her in Colombia. Also, each of the boys married lovely pioneer girls who are now serving with them either at Brooklyn Bethel or at Watchtower Farms. So our pioneer family has grown to 13, including my wife and me.
All of us are truly happy to be in the full-time service of our God, Jehovah, and as a family we know that to continue enjoying these privileges of service, we must behave in a manner worthy of the good news. (Philippians 1:27) We are grateful for the fine counsel that Jehovah has provided through his visible organization, since it has been the application of it in our lives that has resulted in our now enjoying as a family our present glorious treasure of service.
[Picture on page 24]
JoDene, Brenda, and Rhonda learned Bible stories at an early age
[Picture on page 25]
Wayne, Rick, and Kenan—now all in Bethel service
[Picture on page 27]
Part of the Rittenbach family today—all in full-time service