Legacies of Faithfulness: Jim and Jan Ruff

For half a century, this missionary couple has demonstrated exemplary devotion to the work of the Lord in Japan and abroad.

From Message magazine issue "Transformed: Lives Changed Across the Globe"

From the beginning of their missionary career, Jim and Jan Ruff committed to following the Lord’s leading.  

Over the last 49 years, they have faithfully followed that sovereign guidance through each stage of a surprising journey. Starting as ABWE missionaries in Japan, they and their teammates established a Bible school and planted two churches. When health issues prompted their unexpected return to the US after 20 years of ministry, God provided a unique opportunity for Jim and Jan to launch the training department of ABWE. Even after their official retirement in 2013, Jim continues to teach the next generation of missionaries, preparing them to follow their Lord into the harvest. 

Q: How did your journey to missions begin? 

Jan: I became burdened for missions while studying religious education at Baptist Bible Seminary in New York, pursuing my lifelong dream of becoming a teacher. At first, I resisted the idea of serving as a missionary, feeling unqualified and concerned about serving as a single. I eventually surrendered to God’s will and was appointed as an ABWE missionary to Japan in 1966. 

Jim: Meanwhile, I was serving in the Army Security Agency, and, in 1967, deployed to a small base in southern Japan. Although I enjoyed Japan, my mind was set on a career in the sciences and on my engagement to a woman back home. However, while in Japan, I received a “dear Jim” letter ending the relationship. In my disappointment, I accepted an invitation to attend a Bible study in the base chapel, where I heard the gospel for the first time—despite years in the Lutheran church and even serving as the choir director for an army church. Over the next several weeks, the Lord overcame my staunch belief in evolution and flooded my heart with the realization that I needed Christ as Savior. I trusted Christ at the home of an evangelistic friend in November 1967. 

As I was discipled, I came to three realizations: first, I needed to follow the Lord in baptism; second, I was surrounded by millions of people in Japan who did not know Christ; and third, I knew that God intended for me to return to Japan as a missionary. 

When I received my next assignment, the ABWE missionary who had baptized me in Japan gave me the phone numbers for two churches near my new base in Baltimore. The church that I called was Jan’s home church.  

We met, fell in love, and were secretly engaged before Jan left for Japan and Jim finished his term of service in San Francisco. We married in 1969 and moved to Japan as ABWE missionaries with our three children in 1977. 

Q: What is a highlight from your ministry in Japan? 

One highlight was the way the Lord burdened us and our teammates, the Holritz family, separately and simultaneously to begin a church plant in Kokubu, Japan. Finding that we shared an interest in reaching the people in Kokubu, we prayerfully agreed that the Holritz family would move near Kokubu, and we would commute from our Bible school ministry to work with them. We prayed together at a park overlooking the community, asking the Lord to raise up a church in that area. With our teammates and several Japanese contacts to whom the Lord led us, we started Hayato Baptist Church, which just celebrated its 40th anniversary. 

Of course, the greatest highlights appeared through watching God bring the light of salvation to so many who had known only darkness, and then seeing these new believers walk in truth. This is joy! 

Jim Ruff (left) conducts the first baptism service at the church plant in Kokubu-Hayato, Japan.

Q: How did God use your transition back to ministry in the US in your lives and in the lives of others?   

Two major lessons came out of that transition. First, we learned that God can and will redirect his servants both locationally and chronologically according to his will. Second, we must always be willing to step out and do what God wants done, and then he will provide the information for the next step. Our invitation to help start the training division of ABWE did not come until we had informed our team in Japan that we had to leave. 

Q: From your 25 years of experience in training new missionaries, what advice would you give someone considering cross-cultural ministry? 

  1. You must surrender completely to the will of the Lord. Even a short-term, exploratory ministry should not be attempted if not motivated by love for the Lord and a desire to serve others wherever the Lord directs. 
  2. If married, both husband and wife must completely agree in their decision to serve the Lord together as missionaries. 
  3. Make sure to study and prepare in every way possible to fit in as a guest in your host culture. 
  4. Devote yourself to learning the language. 
  5. Recognize that transition stress (culture shock) is a real experience that must be endured prayerfully and with help. Prepare your sending church and supporters to prayerfully assist with this during your first months on the field. 
  6. Commit that, by God’s grace, you will be a blessing to all you work with. 
  7. Ask the Lord to help you to meet and fall in love with the people you serve as quickly as possible—even if that means limiting your communication with the folks back home.