By Rick Kern
Heaven became richer and we much poorer Sunday, June 11, 2017 as the President of Family Life Ministries, Richard “Dick” Snavely was ushered into the presence of the Lord he loved. Snavely, whose iconic service to God, family, and community changed countless lives, lived by the creed, “To God be the glory, great things he has done!” He leaves a remarkable legacy across the Western Finger Lakes region that only eternity is capable of revealing as we here, continue to reap its benefits.
Recently, we had the privilege of interviewing his son Rick, current president and CEO of Family Life Ministries, and go deeper into the legacy of this extraordinarily humble Christian visionary he called his father. As Rick Snavely reflected on the enduring spiritual heritage his father left him, it became clear that though we may have lost a local legend, Dick Snavely’s love, influence, and tireless labors would continue to glorify God, impact eternity, and change lives far beyond the consummation of his own.
The Good News: Your father’s achievements are considerable — clearly driven by a deep love for God and passion for His will… Where would you say that it came from?
Rick Snavely: My grandfather began our spiritual heritage in our family. He got saved when he was 41. My dad saw such a change in his father’s life, that at the age of 19, he went out on a date with a young lady, as he told it, and she had the audacity to talk to him about Jesus, and that ended up leading him to the Lord. He just became on fire for the Lord and ended up going to Bob Jones University and had a heart to win people for Christ because he saw the changes that it made in his life — when he graduated from school he ended up taking a church in the hills in West Virginia. It lasted six months and they kind of ran him out of town and he wound up telling people that he realized, “It wasn’t my calling.”
So, he went back home to Lancaster County, PA and was waiting to see what the Lord had in store. Well, there was a guy at that time that was heading up the Youth for Christ program in Rochester, NY who had gone to college with dad and there was a group of layman who were in the southern tier of New York that wanted to begin a similar type of program. And so, they contacted this guy and he said, “Well, I know of a guy who might be interested”, and so they connected and they told dad, “We’re not sure if we can pay you but you’re the guy.” So, he moved our family up to Naples, New York, to begin with in 1957 and started a Youth for Christ branch.
For the first couple of decades, the ministry pretty much targeted teenagers and literally, hundreds of young people came to know Christ as a result of my dad. He would drive all over the area, meeting before school, after school, in the evenings, doing Saturday night rallies. As kids, we just loved going with him as many times as we could and every opportunity he had to lead somebody to the Lord, he did that. So many individuals have commented about those early days and the fact that their spiritual lives are what they are today because of my dad. He’s always had a passion to lead people to Christ. And so, the ministry has always had that passion too because we followed his leadership.
The Good News: What role did prayer play in your father’s achievements?
Rick Snavely: I have some pictures of some of the early board meetings that the ministry had when it was a real fledgling youth ministry with board members on their knees, going to the Lord, asking for His wisdom and direction and quite frankly, that has continued to this day. We start every board meeting with prayer, we have staff meetings every week with prayer, management meetings start with prayer. We know that prayer moves the hand of God, and even to this day, there are many things that happen as a result of prayer. So, that was a foundation of not just the start, but the continuation of what is taking place here at Family Life even now.
The Good News: As a son, without a doubt you saw your father in a number of pressurized situations– was he the same man privately as he was publicly?
Rick Snavely: Absolutely. One of dad’s favorite sayings was, “I’m so glad it’s the Lord’s ministry because He has to worry about the finances and He has to worry about this kind of stuff.” Dad was, a lot of times, people will say, a jack of all trades, a master of none. Dad was a master of many things. He was a great people person and that carried over to his parenthood. He was a great father. He taught us many things. He was a disciplinarian, but he did it in love. For somebody who grew up in a family that really wasn’t a Christian family in his formative years, and they didn’t have all the books and self-helps and what-have-you for parenting as we have today. My parents did a great job. They got four kids who love the Lord and serve the Lord and dad was just a great people person. He was a good businessman. He really knew how to handle the finances. He was a good upfront speaker and he was good individually. So, what people saw upfront, was what he was on a personal basis; just a loving, caring man who loved God.
The Good News: Can you describe your father’s conversion and some of the ways it changed him and your family?
Rick Snavely: Well, I wasn’t born when he was converted. He was 19-years old at the time. His passion to lead people to Christ passed along to his kids. Some of the fondest memories I have would be sitting with my dad late at night, and just him coming home from a meeting maybe and talk about maybe some young person that he witnessed to or someone that he lead to the Lord. One of the things that we did as a family, we would always have what we called “The Target,” that every morning as a family, we would pray at the breakfast table for this person and that the Lord would come.
One of the ones that I will never forget, Charlie Alsheimer, who is a national wildlife photographer and speaker, who goes all over the country. Charlie, who lives in our area, and we as a family, prayed for him for quite some time and I will never forget the night my dad called me from his office and said, “I just had the privilege of leading Charlie to the Lord.” Just growing up in the director’s home and watching him deal with people; how he handled people and witnessed to people, it was just natural and it was something that I told people, “If I could be half the man my father was, I feel the Lord has really accomplished some things for me.” He was a great man.
The Good News: He had a significant role in starting Youth for Christ in the Western Finger Lakes Region, which eventually grew into FLM… where did his passion for reaching youth come from and how did it grow? Describe his heart for teens!
Rick Snavely: He loved kids and I think probably because he grew up and hadn’t heard the Gospel as a teenager. Not until he was 19, did he really hear the Gospel, they went to church but it was a very, very strict, regimented type of a church. But he never really heard of the forgiveness that God had. When the lightbulb went on spiritually in his life, and when he went to college, he sat under the tutelage of Bob Jones, Sr., who really was an evangelist at heart and had a passion for winning souls. He just imparted that passion into my dad’s heart. To the day he died, he witnessed to people. Even on his death bed, he’s talking to people about Jesus.
The Good News: How did his relationship with Christ impact you and your walk with the Lord?
Rick Snavely: My dad was someone that all of his children, in some form or fashion, wanted to emulate. I’m the oldest son of the three boys. I have a sister who is a year older, but I am probably most like dad in different areas. My dad was always my hero. I wanted to be just like my dad. When I went off to college, I just had this great sense that the Lord was calling me back to this ministry because I wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps. I wanted to be able to walk with the Lord and do the exciting things like working with teenagers and people and leading them to Christ. That was always my goal.
I had opportunities in my first year here; I had two offers to go other places and make a lot of money and I was successful in college at sales and a company wanted to hire me and told me I could retire at the age of 35. I remember I went to dad and I said, “So what do you think about this?” and he said “Well, it’s very important that you follow wherever the Lord is leading you.” I knew the Lord was leading me to serve in ministry.
Even though the dollar signs are tempting when they’re thrown in front of you, I tell people if I had taken that, I would have missed out on so much of what the Lord has done in the last number of years. My dad was my inspiration. We’ve been here for 41 years, so I got to work with him for pretty much 40 years and we would sit and chat and talk about things of the Lord and the ministry and he’d give me input and I’d give him my ideas. It was a very, very close relationship and as a result of that, I wanted to follow in his footsteps in doing whatever I could to lead people to Christ.
The Good News: What were some of the greatest challenges he faced as a believer — how did he handle them and how did his approach to them impact you?
Rick Snavely: Well, dad never really got down. There were times when there were pressures of the ministry, and pressures of trying to raise the budget. There were times when we had issues with staff members that were heartbreaking and dad was one who was willing to trust the Lord through it all. Of course, watching that, it’s the type of thing that you learn. It’s like a baseball player who watches and takes advice from a hall of famer. You learn how to handle things like adversity. You learn how to handle things when they don’t go according to what your wishes are and that’s why I go back to the statement again when dad would say, “I’m glad it’s His ministry.” It’s God’s ministry because He’s the one that would have to be concerned about these things. Dad was always trusting the Lord, always trusting the Lord and as a result of that, of course, that wears off in those he had impact with.
The Good News: What do you admire most about your father and why?
Rick Snavely: Boy, that’s a tough question because there are so many things I could say with regards to that! Dad’s pecking order of importance was the Lord, his family, and the ministry. He loved the ministry, but he loved his family and it was interesting at his memorial service, where one of the guys who spoke was a county judge and he said, “I was talking with Dick one time and we were talking about investments and stuff and Dick made the statement, ‘I’m investing in my family.’” and then the county judge looked at the four children and said, “Obviously that investment paid off.”
He was a family man. We had fun. He loved my mother. Paul Harvey used to say the greatest thing that a father can do for his kids is to love their mother. He just loved our mother. In all our years growing up, we never once saw my parents fight or argue. My mom said, “Now that doesn’t mean we didn’t do it!”, but dad would say, “Wait until the kids go to school and we’ll duke it out!” He just set a wonderful example in leadership and his faith, in his working with people and in loving his family. There are just so many things that I could say about my dad. He was a good man.
The Good News: Can you describe his legacy as: a believer, a leader, and a father?
Rick Snavely: He was a man of great faith. He was a very humble man. Our theme at the ministry has been, “To God be the Glory” and he would preach over and over again, “As long as we keep giving Him the glory, He will keep blessing.” He rejected offers from people to nominate him for the County Hall of Fame and he would say, “Listen, the thing that scares me the most is that we would take any glory from the Lord. We never want to get out from under this spigot of His blessing and we never want to look at ourselves as the reason why the success.” His comments were always motivated by those words, “To God be the Glory.” So, that’s his legacy as far as from a spiritual standpoint.
From a leader standpoint, dad knew how to empower people. The staff loved him, even to his last days here. He’d sit in staff meeting and wouldn’t say a whole lot and every once in a while, he’d throw out a joke and the staff would just roar in laughter. Christmastime, he would go around all the offices with eggnog; he loved eggnog! He would offer everybody eggnog and the staff still talks about it to this day.
He was very good, not perfect, but very good discerning the abilities and talents of people and how to utilize them. He was a good leader from the standpoint that he prepared well. In fact, somebody said that Moses was a great leader because he had Joshua ready to go when he stepped down. Joshua didn’t have anybody and that’s why they ended up with the Judges. Dad was a good leader. He prepared me well and he gave me an example of how to prepare others as well.
As a father, dad would always look for something that he could praise his kids for. I remember one time, my younger brother was going through some tough times and wasn’t doing very well in school and what have you, and dad said, “I had to search and search for something that I could praise him for.” But he was always looking. My dad always put my sports calendar in his calendar when it first came out and made sure that he was at every game that I played that he could make it home. I will never forget in my sophomore year in high school, he had a meeting and we were playing a big game, with both teams undefeated. I got to start because our first baseman was injured. Long story short, I hit a walk off home run, first home run I ever hit. My dad had showed up the inning before and so he got to experience that with me. It wouldn’t have been the same if my dad hadn’t been there. But he was always making an effort to be there when his kids were on an athletic field or some speech contest or whatever it might be and he was just an encourager. He was also a disciplinarian. There would be times when he would say, “Someday, you’re going to thank me for this.” We didn’t think that at the time, but he was right.
The Good News: Your father lived by two mottos: “To God be the Glory, great things he has done, and great things he is doing. And, Lord, I don’t know where you’re leading me today, but help me hang on.” Have they become guiding lights for you as well? Why?
Rick Snavely: Help me hang on! We’ve experienced that many times. When we were at the radio station in 1983, we had no idea that it would turn into what it is today. We thought that would be the only station that would be on the air with and today, we are on 65 signals. Over the years, people have asked dad, could you have ever imagined? His answer was always, “Never. Never.” The Lord’s blessing is what has made this ministry what it is today and yeah, help us to hang on. This is going to be quite a ride Lord, so help us to hang on.
The Good News: Have those become guiding lights for you as well?
Rick Snavely: Oh, no doubt, no doubt. We just had the group “Sail,” like Todd Smith and the gang and they just produced a song exclusively for Family Life on our 60th anniversary. They did a remake of the hymn, To God Be the Glory. It’s a great, great song. I’m sure they’re going to release it sometime on a later album, but we have it for at least the first year here to utilize it and it’s a great song. That’s the theme that we live by; To God Be the Glory. Everything that’s accomplished, He has to get the glory.
The Good News: Can you describe your father’s vision for this ministry? Do you feel God is leading you to continue it? How?
Rick Snavely: Dad wanted to do whatever would reach people. I remember the first two decades was primarily for young people and in the late 1970’s, when I joined the staff, I remember a meeting one time and Dad said, “You know, we’re seeing more and more of the breakdown of the family…” and he really felt that if we were going to continue to reach teenagers, we’ve got to do some things to help the family as well. So, that was kind of the beginning of some of the other entities that Family Life is now known for. Radio, performing arts, our biblical counseling department… All of those things were kind of an outgrowth of this desire to reach the family and that’s ultimately when we changed our name to Family Life Ministries because it was more indicative of what the ministry does. My dad had always envisioned me taking the reins and the Board basically told him whenever you’re ready to step down, you make the call. But I think all of his adult life, from my college years on, he was seeking to groom me because we thought so much alike.
Oh, it was crazy! We would end each other’s sentences sometimes because we were so much on the same wavelength and it was really kind of interesting because the weekend he died, I’m sitting there by his bed and he reached out and grabbed my hand and he just started praying. He had a hard time talking. He whispered most of the time, but this prayer, he spoke out. When he got done, I felt almost like Isaac, passing the blessing onto Jacob. My wife is sitting there and Sherry said, “Your dad just gave you the blessing.” It was one of those moments I will never forget. He just committed me and my leadership and the ministry to the Lord and it was almost like, “Okay, I’m signing off now Lord.” It was quite a moving moment.
The Good News: Is there anything else you want to say?
Rick Snavely: Well, I think the thing that Dad would most like to be remembered by was the title of his book, An Ordinary Guy with an Extraordinary God. I told people that my dad was a good man who served a great God and as a result, God did great things through him. The second thing would be back to our theme, “Nothing that I have accomplished, but to God be all the Glory.” My dad could say along with the Apostle Paul, “I have run the race, I’ve finished the course, I have kept the faith.” He did well right to the very end.