Banking on their faith

A growing bank near Elk River is part of a movement that melds conservative Christianity into the workplace.

The day Riverview Community Bank near Elk River opened its doors, co-founder Chuck Ripka says he got the word from the Lord.

“He said, ‘Chuck, if you do all the things I told you to do, I promise you I will take care of the bottom line.’ “

The voice went on to say the Lord would make the bank such a hit that Ripka, now senior vice president, would be invited to “tell the truth about what God is doing here.”

Sure enough, Riverview has expanded faster and reached profitability sooner than its peers. And this businessman who found God at an Amway convention is emerging as a high-profile figure in the national movement to meld religion into the workplace.

Ripka claims his bank’s spiritual accounts are even more impressive than its financial success.

Since Riverview began doing business in March 2003, Ripka said 77 people have “invited Christ into their lives” at the bank — mostly bank employees or customers. More than 70 “physical healings” have taken place there, he added.

Riverview’s vision statement and strategy call for it to enhance the well-being of its stakeholders by using “Christian principles to expand Christianity.”

The enthusiastic rhetoric of Ripka and other evangelists sometimes alarms people of other faiths, concerned about maintaining religious diversity in the workplace. And others question whether religion should play a role in a business strategy at all.

But there is little doubt about the growing impact of workplace ministries such as his.

Others are following suit. A second such bank, Lakeview Bank, opened early last month in south suburban Lakeville. Founder Larry Ihle, who is a director at the Riverview bank, described his Lakeville institution as a godly bank and said Wednesday that he plans to launch another bank like it in Minnesota next year.

Ripka has been a spiritual adviser to Minnesota Twins owner Carl Pohlad. He is also a leader in broad alliance of church, business and community leaders that helped turn around the troubled Elk River School District.

The coalition includes Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer, who is a director of the Riverview bank’s parent holding company and has been active in evangelical prayer groups in that area.

A series of suicides and financial problems plagued the sprawling, quickly growing school district in the late 1990s. The alliance helped the district pass a large bond issue in 2000 and designed student intervention strategies to halt the tragic deaths.

Last week, the New York Times took notice, touting Ripka in a cover story of its Sunday magazine as a prototype for the workplace ministers who have been emerging at employers in recent years.

The article and the discovery two days later that conservative moral values and faith were key in re-electing President Bush have focused attention on Ripka and his evangelical friends.

“Chuck’s very special,” says Os Hillman, a leader in the global movement to bring faith into the workplace. “Chuck’s probably more bold with his faith than most people.”

The Riverview bank is in Otsego, a rapidly growing outer suburb just across the Mississippi River from Elk River.

At first glance, the bank’s Christian tilt is not apparent.

The words “In God We Trust” are etched into the cornerstone by the main entrance but in small type. No huge crosses or other highly visible symbols of Christianity are in evidence. The business cards of the bank’s officers do not have “Christian bank” stamped on them.

Probably the most obvious sign of the bank’s unusual mission is a large picture of Jesus meeting with two businessmen that hangs in the office of Duane Kropuenske, Riverview’s president and CEO.

At the end of September, 19 months after Riverview opened, the bank reported assets of $72.5 million.

Peter Dahl, president of the Crown Bank in Edina, called that showing very impressive, noting it’s about $6 million better than Crown, the runner-up in growth among new banks.

Kropuenske said Riverview had profits of about $250,000 for the first 10 months of this year and expects about $300,000 for all of 2004. That, too, is unusual.

Scott Hutton, CEO at the Drake Bank in St. Paul, said typically a new bank doesn’t become profitable until its third year. “They’re doing quite well,” Hutton said of Riverview.

Hutton, the immediate past chair of the Independent Community Bankers of Minnesota, said he didn’t know of any other banks with Christian mission statements.

Kropuenske and Riverview Executive Vice President Bill Endres attributed the bank’s growth to experienced and committed staffers, most of whom have worked for them earlier at other financial institutions, and to the region’s rapid population growth.

They also cited the bank’s focus on evangelism.

Endres said the bank finances church projects. It also has two loan production offices. One, on University Avenue in St. Paul, helps Asian immigrants get home loans. Bank officials said a modest amount of deposits have come from religious organizations beyond Minnesota.

The bank has many fans. Some are moving to the area near the bank, partly because the region has become a center of Christian evangelism.

Suzy Nelson, a member of the Church of the Resurrection in Brooklyn Park, said Ripka helped her and her husband arrange their finances so they could buy a home in the Elk River area. They will move there in February.

“I think people feel if the spiritual atmosphere of the city is good, that’s an element that could make this a really pleasant place to live,” she said.

Ripka, 45, was raised a Catholic. He got married when he was 20. He and his wife live in Big Lake. They have five children, two of them employees at the bank, and two grandchildren.

After he graduated from high school, he attended a chef school at a technical college in Mankato and worked in carpentry, delivery and sales jobs.

He said his evangelistic journey began in 1980 when he accepted Christ at an Amway conference in Arizona. Soon, he said, “The Lord spoke to me and said, ‘Some day, you’re going to pray with a customer.’ “

That happened first in the early 1980s when he was a salesman at Levitz Furniture Co. in Little Canada. Out of the blue, he asked a customer to pray with him.

“He began to explain the hardships of his life,” Ripka recalled. ” ‘Why am I telling you this?’ the customer said. ‘I came in to buy a mattress.’ “

The customer bought the mattress and, said Ripka, “the Lord said, ‘I’ve just proven that you’re going to do ministry and prosper at the same time.’ “

Ripka worked for Pohlad’s Marquette Banks in the late 1990s. In 1998, he lunched with Pohlad and suggested they pray together. They did, he said, and that meeting has led to about a dozen more with Pohlad.

Ripka said his movement is reluctant to get into politics when he is asked about last week’s election. But he added, “President Bush does believe strongly in the things we believe in.”

Since the New York Times article, Ripka said speaking invitations and requests for media interviews — from a French television network, HBO and a wide variety of other outlets — have tumbled in.

“People are calling to say, ‘Can you teach us how to start a Christian bank?’ ” he said. “You’re going to hear more and more about faith in the workplace.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Pioneer Press, USA
Nov. 11, 2004
Dave Beal

Religion News Blog posted this on Thursday November 11, 2004.
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