Remembering ‘Dr. Bob’ Meneilly
Monmouth College alumnus built nation’s second-largest Presbyterian church from scratch
MONMOUTH, Ill. — In 1965, when the Rev. Robert Meneilly ’45 delivered several sermons calling for the integration of largely white suburbs around Kansas City, Kan., it made front-page news and raised a firestorm of controversy. When an outraged resident told him over the phone, “I hope you go to hell,” Meneilly responded, “I wasn’t planning on it, but if I do, perhaps we can have lunch together.”
The remark was typical of Meneilly’s quiet yet passionate lifelong campaign for social justice that caused thousands of devoted Christians to flock to his Village Presbyterian Church in Prairie Village, Kan., during the 46 years that he served as its senior pastor. When he died at age 96 on July 20, the church that he had founded with just 282 charter members had grown to become the second largest Presbyterian congregation in the nation, at one time boasting more than 7,700 members.
Meneilly and his future wife had initially planned to go to China as missionaries after her graduation from Monmouth, but as they were getting their papers in order, the Communist Revolution closed the country to Christian ministries.
A native of suburban Pittsburgh, Meneilley finished a fast-track college and seminary career, graduating from Monmouth at age 20 (majoring in philosophy, psychology and biology) and from Pittsburgh Xenia Theological Seminary at age 22. While at Monmouth, Meneilly had become engaged to Shirley Dunlap ’47, also from the Pittsburgh area, and the couple was married following her graduation.
Instead of China, the United Presbyterian Board of American Missions invited the Meneillys to start a congregation in one of three communities: North Hollywood, Calif.; suburban Philadelphia; or Prairie Village, Kan. After visiting Prairie Village, the Meneillys decided it was the ideal place to raise their family.
While most new churches are founded in an existing facility, such as a hall or theater, Village Church would be a radical experiment — based on the premise “build it and they will come.” The Board of Missions, seeing the Prairie Village area as one of the fastest-growing regions in the country without a United Presbyterian denomination, invested an unprecedented $100,000 to construct a parsonage and a church.
The church would also be experimental in that it would be a community church for all denominations. Meneilly began going door-to-door, calling on prospective members, not knowing their religious backgrounds. As a result, Presbyterians were likely not in the majority in the initial charter of 282 members. At one point, 18 percent of the church’s members were Roman Catholic.
The newly ordained 22-year-old minister and his wife moved into the parsonage in the fall of 1947 and began supervising construction of the church. “The only qualification I had was that I was so young I didn’t know what I was doing, so I didn’t know what couldn’t be done,” Meneilly later recalled.
The first services were held in 1949, and within nine months a campaign to expand the facilities had begun. Two years later, membership skyrocketed to 600, with 700 children attending weekly Sunday school. By 1954, membership had grown to 1,600, and it was estimated that 4,000 persons visited the church each week for religious services or activities.
Donna Schliffke Sproston ’66 has vivid memories of growing up in Village Church.
“My folks bought the 40th home in Prairie Village in 1941, which at that time was in the middle of farm fields and no more than five blocks in each direction,” she recalled of the planned community. “My mother was raised in a Presbyterian church, and I remember her becoming so excited when she heard this young new minister was going to build a Presbyterian church right in our neighborhood.”
Sproston said they had been attending a Lutheran church five miles away, and her father, who was Lutheran, was reticent about joining the church, but six months after it opened, they decided to join.
When she learned of Meneilly’s death, Sproston’s memories came flooding back, particularly the memory of her mother’s untimely death following surgery in 1952. After having spent the previous night at a neighbor’s house, she saw cars lined up in front of her home, and when she walked in the door, there was the Rev. Meneilly. “He took me on his lap and said, ‘Your mom has gone to be with Jesus.’”
Sproston said that by the early ’60s, Meneilly was delivering three sermons each Sunday — 8:30 a.m., 9:45 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. — and auxiliary police were needed to direct traffic. She particularly remembers his youth sermons.
“Easter Sunday we expected him to hold up a baby lamb, a real one,” she said. “He always wore a white robe on Easter. One year, he had to change out of the robe after the lamb did what babies do.”
Known affectionately as “Dr. Bob” (he received an honorary doctor of divinity degree from Monmouth in 1955), Meneilly supervised not only construction of the original church, but also seven subsequent additions, as membership soared. Eventually there were 50 full-time and 50 part-time staff, as well as six associate ministers.
One of the Presbyterian Church’s wealthiest congregations, with an annual budget of nearly $4 million, it funneled a remarkable 30 percent of its budget into mission projects, including 63 charities in the Kansas City area. It is estimated that during his tenure, Meneilly touched 32,000 people who called Village Church their spiritual home.
The Rev. Cam McConnell ’72, who also became a Presbyterian minister in Kansas, looked up to “Dr. Bob,” who was a friend of his father, the Rev. Harold McConnell Jr. ’43, and of his grandfather, the Rev. Harold McConnell ’16. “He was a good inspiration to me as a young pastor,” McConnell said. “He was a role model, and it was great to have his counsel and advice.”
After his retirement, McConnell’s grandfather joined the Village Church staff as the minister of evangelism. Other Monmouth alumni on the staff over the years included the Rev. Donald Parkinson ’51.
Always humble about his role in the growth of the church, Meneilly insisted it had nothing to do with his own charisma, and instead credited hardworking church members.
His ministerial duties were always his focus. When he was presented with Monmouth’s Distinguished Alumni Award in 1983, he declined the invitation to attend the ceremony, noting, “I have three wedding rehearsals and a large wedding that evening. Wedding dates are not things ministers can change!”
Meneilly, who was inducted into Monmouth College’s Hall of Achievement in 1994, was not humble when it came to expressing his opinions on what he believed was right. After serving as an observer to the Vietnam Paris Peace talks, he preached that the war was unjust and unwinnable — a position unpopular with many of those in his congregation. Over a two-year period, it caused nearly 500 members to leave the church, although a number of them later returned to the congregation.
One of his most controversial sermons was delivered in 1993, shortly before his retirement. Titled “The Dangers of Religion,” it was an attack on the Religious Right’s efforts to impose a Christian agenda on American politics. (Listen to it here.) Reprinted as an op ed in the New York Times, the sermon propelled him to the national spotlight and caused him to join five other area civic leaders in forming the Mainstream Coalition, a non-partisan political action committee protecting the separation of church and state.
Shirley Meneilly died in 2014. She and her husband are both memorialized in the naming of the Village Church’s Meneilly Center for Mission in Overland Park, Kan., which was completed in 2017. It provides a child and family development center — a longtime interest of the couple — and a food pantry.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College.