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story.lead_photo.caption NWA Democrat-Gazette/J.T. WAMPLER "His sermons are filled with knowledge and insight, and they're so meaningful. When you're sitting there, you feel as though he's talking directly to you -- but everyone else feels that as well. That's when you know it's a great sermon." -- Deacon Stacy Grovey

The Rev. Steve Sheely, pastor of Rolling Hills Baptist Church in Fayetteville, has a distinct memory of the moment he committed his life to Christ. The college student had just finished his freshman year at Oklahoma State University, and in the heat of an Oklahoma summer, he was trying to use physical exercise to work through the rough breakup of a relationship. He was discovering, that although he could tire his body, he could not tire his mind.

"Part of my [running] route was out in these wheat fields," Sheely remembers. "There is a cemetery out there, and it has a statue of Christ in front of it. It says, 'Come to me, all of you that labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.' I ran by there one day, and I thought, 'That's me.' I trotted up there and got on my knees, and I prayed: 'I don't know that much about you, but I know I need you.' I got up and kept running.

“When he hears a call, you just have to believe it. You have to wait on it. I keep having to learn the lesson in my own life that God’s timing is perfect, and it’s not always my timing. Steve has a deep faith and has definitely followed a nontraditional path in his ministry. Yeah, I do think it’s hard as the spouse of a minister — especially one that was kind of new to her own faith to believe in his call. … We talked a lot and we prayed a lot, and I think the fact that Steve is an excellent communicator was helpful.” — Marla Sheely

“He’s just a really good community member, a good friend to all types of people and has made a real difference in the lives of, especially, the people in our support group … He really has meant a lot to the parents. If you talk to any of them, you would get the same type of report from them that you get from me because we all love him.” — Dr. Susan Averitt

“A friend of mine is in [Parents Left Behind] and she has told me, repeatedly, that he has such a gift for that ministry. [Sheely] has always said he feels like he’s just there to facilitate because he’s never lost a child. But the people who he ministers to feel as though that’s one of his God-given gifts.” — Deacon Stacy Grovey

Steve will do anything in the world for you. He’ll drop what he’s doing at the drop of a hat — doesn’t ask how or why — and says, ‘I can be there to help you out.’ First and foremost he’s a man of God. He’s a great friend. He has a wonderful sense of humor. He’s just a genuinely good man.” — Greg Lunn

“And he’s such a humble guy. He went to Yale Divinity School! When we’re out somewhere, I always try to point that out. He blows it off, like it’s nothing, but to me, that’s pretty amazing.” — Rob Earp

Next Week

Tex Holt

Springdale

"About a week or two later, I went out with my best friend Calvin. We were out at the lake, and we were sitting on the hood of his red Nova, sharing a bottle of Gallo white table wine. I remember trying to explain to him what had happened. I didn't even have the words for it. My life was kind of being renewed, and I didn't know what to call it. My conversion wasn't religious because it didn't happen in a religious setting and I had no religious words for it. But I look back on that with a lot of fondness and confidence because it was very organic, very real to me."

Growing up in Ponca City, Okla.,a middle child with two sisters, Sheely says his family "sporadically" went to a Methodist church while he was growing up. But, he says, religion "never seemed to be really personal to my family.

"It just didn't seem like it came home with us. I dreaded it, actually. One time, I hid the car keys on a Sunday morning because I wanted to stay home."

Sheely's college friends noticed the difference as soon as he returned to campus in the fall.

"A lot of my values had changed," he says. "My friends at college would say, 'I remember last year, you came to one of our parties dressed up like a Coors Light can.' But I felt very serious about being a good example for these guys. I was a chaplain for my residence hall and really tried to make a difference."

Sheely got involved in a Baptist student group -- choosing the denomination because of the influence of his maternal grandparents, who he calls "sweet, comforting people" -- and worked with several missions. His most challenging was as a hospital chaplain in Shreveport, La., where Sheely was called to minister to people in pain and, sometimes, grief.

"I remember thinking, 'What am I doing?' I wasn't anything! I had no training. I was just a kid with a dream. But through that, I learned, that to do any kind of meaningful ministry, you really need support."

Sheely received his undergraduate degree in psychology with a minor in ancient and medieval studies, an ideal base for a future pastor. Sheely chose Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, for his post-graduate studies.

It was a difficult three years for him.

"I didn't know it at the time, but the Southern Baptists were in all of this controversy and conflict, and the seminaries were a big part of that battleground," Sheely says. "I said, 'I don't give a flying flip about this stuff, I'm trying to get myself prepared.' It was distracting and discouraging."

Sheely was able to compartmentalize, however. He focused on his group of friends and his work in youth ministry -- a field in which he successfully found a position in Jackson, Miss. Having family in the area helped make the placement seem more homey, but Sheely soon ran up against a philosophy that was counter to his own.

"I'll never forget: As soon as I got there, one of the deacons came and took me to lunch and said, 'By the way, we expect that you won't be bringing any black kids into youth group.'" After a small pause, Sheely continues. "I tried and tried to get those kids to come in to youth group after that. That was the 1980s in Jackson, Miss. It was just so polarized socially."

Sheely stayed at the church for a year and a half.

"It was kind of lonely," he says. "I think that's something that people don't realize, that being a minister can be really lonely. I was at the church all the time, setting up chairs, cooking hot dogs, driving vans. I thought, 'Why do I feel this way? Why shouldn't church be more fulfilling emotionally and relationally?'"

BIG IDEAS

The question took Sheely back to his studies, this time at Yale Divinity School.

"I wrote a thesis called 'Intimacy in the Early Church and Other Pagan Groups,'" he says. "I would read the Bible, and I kept seeing all of these different instructions about how people needed to be relating to other people in their churches. And I thought, 'No one is ever talking about this.' Church had become so academic that the whole relationship part had been lost ... That was kind of an eye-opener because I kept going to these churches where you would go and sit and listen -- or go and sit and learn. This whole relationship component was ignored, I think, to the detriment of a lot of churches.

"So I came back, and I thought, 'How can I change this?'"

Armed with this big idea, Sheely approached a large church in Austin. It was successful, having thousands of members, but, Sheely says, it was operating simply as a "preaching station." He typed up a proposal for an idea he had: home-based, small-group meetings of members who could get to know each other and pray for each other on more intimate levels. The church's pastor liked the idea and invited Sheely to help implement the program. Sheely soon discovered there was a wider audience for his idea, and he found himself freelancing with churches across the country, as well as writing curricula for these small groups. He's continued the practice at every church where he's worked.

"You get to have a deeper relationship with someone than just seeing them on Sunday," says Stacy Grovey, a deacon at Rolling Hills Baptist Church.

CONNECTION

It was around this time in his life that Sheely met his wife, Marla. When he kneeled in that wheat field in Oklahoma, he had made a decision to listen to not only his heart, but his gut, as well. So when he noticed a local newscaster and felt a connection to her, he acted on it.

"I saw her on TV and thought, 'I need to meet her,'" Sheely remembers. "I wrote a letter to the television studio and told her about myself and sent her a picture of me with my sisters. I told her I would like to take her to coffee. She wrote back and basically said, 'Uh, no, you weirdo.' I was telling people about this drama as it was going on, and one day, I went in to work, and they said, 'You've got a phone message from Marla Bean.' And I thought, 'Uh huh. Who's laughing now?' We went to lunch, and the rest is history."

What had she thought about this unsolicited invitation for coffee?

"She had talked to a friend," says Sheely, laughing at the memory. "Her friend said, 'What's the worst that could happen? He's a minister, not an axe murderer.' [Marla] said, 'Actually, I did a story last year where there was a minister who was an axe murderer.'"

"It was like video dating, but I didn't get to see the video!" Marla says, with mock outrage. She says that, even though their first date did not go terribly smoothly -- she was late, and then told Sheely he looked like Hermey the Misfit Elf from the television classic "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" -- Marla soon discovered what Sheely had known: The two were destined for each other.

"I think that falling in love is a God thing, but I also think it's a timing thing," says Marla. "I knew immediately that he was someone special. I was almost 27, and I knew myself at that point. I don't know if I would say that I knew what I was looking for, but I knew what I wasn't looking for."

One primary difference between the two: Marla says, that when she and Sheely met, she was not a church-goer.

"I was not a follower of Christ -- my family were not consistent church-goers," she says. "That's just not my background. I had just started seeking -- I knew something was missing from my life. I believed in God, but I didn't know where Christ fit into that. When I met Steve, I do believe it was a God thing. He had a group of people who he had been involved with for a long time, and when I met them, they said, 'We've been praying for you for such a long time.' It's really something to hear that you're an answered prayer for someone else."

It wasn't too long after they were married that Sheely felt another heart-tug.

"Poor Marla, she just has to kind of take my word for it," Sheely says about his habit of following his gut. "We were in Austin, and I was doing all of this freelance stuff. I said, 'Marla, this church over here, they need to hire me,' and I talked to the pastor. Well, he resigned. And I talked to the next pastor. I said, 'I'm pretty sure you need to hire me.' I think it was about two years [later] they finally hired me. That whole time, Marla was saying, 'OK, you get the vision from God, and I have to just trust you.' But it all worked out, and I worked for First Baptist in Austin for five years."

FINDING HOME

Sheely loved the placement, and he and Marla would become parents to their three boys while he was working there. But when Rolling Hills Baptist came calling, looking for a new pastor, he listened to his gut again and heeded the call. It was exactly the kind of church Sheely felt strongly about fostering.

"For whatever reason, I didn't want to give up on churches like this one," he says. "Everyone else is rebooting and starting over in a shopping center, and we've lost this amazing young talent. Meanwhile, there are some great things going on in churches like this one that are trying to keep up, trying to adapt -- and it's not easy. There's a tremendous generation gap.

"The analogy I use is Silfra Lake in Iceland: You can scuba dive in it through this little canyon, and you can touch the Eurasian tectonic plate and the North American tectonic plate at the same time. That's what it's like for guys like me in between two worlds -- but this world is still valuable."

In addition to his work helping churches cultivate closer personal relationships between churchioners, Sheely had devoted a lot of thought to the pastor-flock relationship as well. He was determined the loneliness he had experienced as a youth pastor in Mississippi was not a requirement of the job.

"There's a real tendency to make a minister 'the designated Christian,'" he notes. "For one thing, that's not Biblical. And it puts a minister in a very difficult situation. And I think, for lay people who are willing to do that, it's an abdication of their own spiritual potency. Some guys really like being that, and like the distance, like being a different species. I never have liked that. I remember in seminary, they used to talk about how you need to have a 'presidential bearing' -- I thought, 'Are you nuts? Are you going to play Hail to the Chief when I walk into a room?' I'm just a regular guy with a certain set of gifts.

"In an unhealthy congregation, it serves [members] well to objectify their ministers, and it allows the minister to be a scapegoat or a target. I think it's a healthy congregation that says, 'He or she is just a person, like I am, and they need encouragement and friends, as I do.' I want the church I work at to be my church, and I think that's a very reasonable thing to want."

In Sheely's 13 years at Rolling Hills, congregants say he's been successful at achieving that mission.

"We think he's amazing," says Grovey. "It's hard to pinpoint it. It's almost like he has an 'It Factor' for the job he's doing. He's great with children, the elderly people, his own age ... he's someone who so genuinely cares for all other human beings.

"When he first came, some of our duties as deacons were very business-like. He has transformed us now, and we have prayer time together and we share everything. Organic relationships have grown. It's so much more personal since he's come."

Sheely's talent in creating closer relationships extends beyond the walls of his church. When several congregants came to him needing help with processing grief after the loss of a child, Sheely started holding candlelight services the second Sunday of every December -- in conjunction with the international memorial, Compassionate Friends' Worldwide Candle Lighting Service -- to honor those lost. He welcomed the community at large by advertising the service with a banner on Rolling Hills Drive in Fayetteville. When Dr. Susan Averitt drove by that banner, it was only two years after she had lost her oldest daughter, Cameron, who was struck in a crosswalk by a motorist.

"He's not a bereaved parent, but he has a special place in his heart for bereaved parents," says Averitt, who attended the vigil and joined a small support group that Sheely started at his church. "It's difficult to take on because everyone is so tragically traumatized by their loss. Yet he's willing to donate his counseling abilities and efforts to spend time with these parents who might not otherwise have a chance to get together with other parents to talk and express the loss as a community."

When Averitt started the nonprofit group Parents Left Behind -- a support group for bereaved parents that hosts yearly interactive seminars -- Sheely was a natural choice as board member, she says.

"He's on the board, but it's kind of a grass roots effort with just a few loyal members," says Averitt. "We kind of do everything -- we plan the event, make phone calls, reach out to contacts and participants in the event. He does all of that with me."

"I think he's being a preacher, the way it should be," says Rob Earp, a close friend, who isn't a member at Rolling Hills. But he says that's never gotten in the way of his friendship with Sheely, that Sheely has a talent for befriending people from all backgrounds. "I'm not comparing him to Jesus, but, you know, in the Bible, Jesus would talk to the lowest of the low and the highest of the high. Steve is like that. He doesn't care who you are."

Sheely also has continued writing, turning out more than 60 columns for the Religion section of this newspaper and writing a church newsletter. He is also working on a new book.

"I'm calling it A Field Guide to Church and Creation," he says. "That comes out of a passage of Colossians where Christ is the one who made everything, and he's also the head of the church. I look at the natural world, and I look at things like that lake in Iceland and use those as allegories for what's happening in church life -- what needs to happen, everything I've experienced, whatever it is. Here's what's working, here's what isn't working, here are some things that you might want to start doing -- all from a kind of inside point of view. "

Sheely still runs for physical exercise, much like he did that fateful summer day in the wheat field. These days, he adds interest to the exercise by participating in mud runs and obstacle races. He lets off steam and processes stress by building obstacles in his back yard with which to practice. This construction prowess also led him to recently build a small greenhouse that now sits in the church.

"Everybody has been invited to take one of these slips of paper," he explains. "It says, 'I'm praying for blank to meet the Risen Christ at Rolling Hills.' They write a name on here, and there's a little tree inside the greenhouse, and we hang them there. We're praying for these people.

"It seems funny, but it's a big deal for an established church to think like that. A lot of people say, 'I'm coming to church,' because you're supposed to come to church. But no, you've got to be intentional. We've earned this because we're a safe and loving place. People come here because they belong, and they're cared for, and they can grow and this church is proud of that. So now we're taking it to the next place -- you've got to be intentional.

"I'm a church man, 100 percent," Sheely continues. "I really believe this is the institution God created to make things happen in this world, so I'm very committed to it. I still wake up and think, 'There's bound to be someone better at this than me,' because this isn't easy. I don't know if I'm the right guy or not. I mean, my standard is on a throne in glory, so I can never live up.

"I'll never be able to fill my boss's shoes," Sheely finishes with a smile. "Those standards are infinitely, celestially high."

NAN Profiles on 03/18/2018

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