Through 1947 and 1948, a young pastor named Bob Meneilly and his wife Shirley made the rounds knocking the doors of homes in a collection of freshly finished neighborhoods in not-yet-incorporated Prairie Village.
The national Presbyterian church had committed to investing $100,000 to build a chapel and parsonage in the burgeoning community that was drawing young families to Johnson County after the war. Presbyterian leaders tapped the Meneillys to drum up a congregation for the new building at 67th and Mission Road.
Two hundred and eighty two members showed up for that first Sunday service in February 1949. Seventy years later, Village Presbyterian has nearly 5,000 members, and remains a thriving institution at a time when many other mainline Protestant churches are seeing their numbers dwindle.
In fact, it’s seen notable growth and expansion over the past couple decades. It opened a food pantry and mission center in buildings at 99th and Mission, and committed to the renovation of its child care center on that property back in 2015. In 2016, the church purchased a 3,800 pipe organ described as the “best in the Midwest” and opened a new 14,000 square foot welcome center at its Prairie Village campus. And in 2017, the church opened its first satellite campus for worship with Village on Antioch, which holds services in the former Presbyterian Church of Stanley building in southern Johnson County.
Current Senior Pastor Tom Are, who has led the church since 2004, says much credit for the success of the church in recent years is due to the culture the Meneillys created at its inception.
“I think there is in the DNA of Village a recognition that our faith is not for our benefit alone,” Are said. “We think we’re here to help enrich human flourishing in this community and in this city. There are very few places in the city where people are trying to improve life and care for people in need.”
Meneilly’s magnetism as a preacher drew people from across the metro area — the church had nearly 8,000 members at its peak — and he was unafraid to tackle challenging topics head on in front of his large congregation. In the 1960s, he delivered sermons urging his overwhelmingly white congregation to welcome minorities to their neighborhoods. In the 1970s, he made it clear that Village was open to members of the LGBTQ+ community — “To be that in the 1970s was way ahead of the curve, and Village has been an inclusive church since at least that time,” Are says. And in the 1980s and 1990s, he became a vocal critic of efforts to conflate rigid religious doctrine with politics. A sermon he delivered in 1993 entitled “The Dangers of Religion” was published in the New York Times. His message about separating religious extremism from politics led to the founding of the MainStream Coalition.
Now 94 years old, Bob Meneilly is largely retired from public life. (Shirley passed away in 2014. The couple had been married 66 years at the time of her death). But Are said that his essential message of inclusion, community, beauty and justice continues on in the work of the church he founded. In addition to a variety of arts events offered freely to the public, an expression of the congregation’s commitment to the appreciation of beauty, it also hosts forums and discussions on difficult topics. The church recently held a symposium on gun violence, for example.
“There are not a lot of places where people can have civil conversations about the really important things,” Are said. “Society needs those places. And we want to be that place for this community.”