Mennonite Church USA is saddened to announce that Patricia Shelly, 71, who was a former pastor, professor, MC USA Executive Board member and moderator, died Sept. 4, in Newton, Kansas, after a three-year struggle with pancreatic cancer.
Patricia “Patty” Shelly served as a board member on the MC USA Executive Board from 2005 to 2017, the final four years of which she served as moderator-elect, then moderator. During her tenure with the MC USA Executive Board, she was instrumental in helping plan the Future Church Summit at MennoCon17 in Orlando, Florida, which led to the creation of the “Renewed Commitments for MC USA.” She also helped envision the Purposeful Plan.
“Patty had a sharp mind; she sought to understand the complexity of the issues we faced as an Executive Board. She asked good questions and helped us face the issues squarely,” said Ervin Stutzman, former executive director of MC USA.
“What stands out in my memory is not her specific accomplishments, but her character, and the warm nature of our interactions. She gave generously of her time and talent to MC USA. I also admired the way that Patty sought to understand people who had very different convictions from her own. Our church is the richer for it.”
Shelly is remembered by her colleagues and friends as a well-rounded leader, who integrated worship, biblical studies, discernment and caring into all that she did, while also using her quick-wit and sense of humor to lighten the mood whenever things became tense.
David Boshart, president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, said, “Patty and I became very good friends during our years of service on the Executive Board. That friendship grew to a new level when she was moderator and I served as moderator-elect. It was easy to be on Patty’s team. She was a clear thinker, she knew the church, and she always acted with the best interests of the whole church foremost in her mind. I will miss Patty as a friend and a trusted colleague. She made a tremendous contribution to my understanding of God’s mission and the nature of the church.”
Shelly attended Bethel College, in North Newton, Kansas, where she earned a Bachelor of Arts in Bible and religion in 1976. She, then, earned both a Master of Divinity in Biblical interpretation and a Ph.D. from Illiff School of Theology, in Lakewood, Colorado, in 1980 and 1992, respectively.
In the middle of her undergraduate degree, Shelly took a year to volunteer with Mennonite Voluntary Service in Arvada, Colorado. And in 1983, while working on her Ph.D., she received her license toward ordination from Western District Conference (WDC). In 1985, she was the first woman to be ordained into the Rocky Mountain Mennonite Conference (which later restructured to become Mountain States Mennonite Conference). This ordination was shared between RMMC and WDC, which also made her the first person to be co-ordained across the two conferences.
After her ordination, Shelly became a member of the Executive Committee for WDC and later served as the moderator-elect, then moderator for WDC.
Shelly served as the assistant pastor of First Mennonite Church of Denver (Colorado) for two years (1983-1985), before she became an associate professor (1985-1996, 2000-2003) and campus minister (1986-1996, 2000-2004) at her alma mater, Bethel College.
From 1996 to 2000, she took a break from college work and served as Mennonite Central Committee’s country representative in Palestine. Upon her return to the United States, she served as a associate professor, then professor (2004-2020) of Bible and Religion at Bethel College and as an adjunct professor in Bible at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary’s former Great Plains Extension. Shelly visited the Holy Land several more times to co-lead interterm trips for Bethel College and Tabor College, which was a gift that many of her students cherished.
Shelly retired from her position at Bethel College in 2020.
A woman of many talents, Shelly touched even more lives through her gift of songwriting, having penned familiar hymns such as “The Lord Lift You Up” (Voices Together #832) and “There Are Many Gifts” (VT #374), among others. She also produced two folk albums and two songbooks.
Stutzman remembers that while she was on the Executive Board, Shelly set the MC USA vision statement to music. “It was easily singable, so it became an earworm for me and others,” he said.
“Patty Shelly was an amazing gift to the church. Her playful puns always brought a smile to my face. Whether we were engaging in deep conversations about the state of the church or simply engaging on social media, Patty’s quick wit was always there,” said Glen Guyton, current executive director of MC USA. “I will miss her voice, but her memories will always sing in our hearts. She was a joy to serve with.”
Heidi Regier Kreider, conference minister of WDC and friend of Shelly’s said, “Patty Shelly was rooted and grounded in the kind of love described in Ephesians 3:16-19 (NRSV):
‘I pray that…you may be strengthened in your inner being with power through [God’s] Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.’
“I believe it was this many-dimensional ‘fullness of God’ that allowed Patty to simultaneously engage the big issues of the world with passion and keen intelligence, and to attend to the small details of daily life and personal relationships with gentleness and witty humor. I valued the provocative questions and profound wisdom she shared in our conversations about theology, music, leadership and the church. And I cherish her ability to drop a pun at the right moment, remember peoples’ birthdays, and stop by my home with home-made peppernuts at Christmas time even when she was dealing with cancer treatments.
“That was Patty: boldly sharing her convictions, generously sharing her gifts. May we all continue to be challenged and blessed by Patty’s life and legacy.”
Shelly was born Dec. 21, 1951, in Chicago, Illinois. She leaves behind her mother, June Shelly, of Newton; a sister, Doris (Arthur) Whillock, of Newton; and two brothers, Andy (Carmen) Shelly of Lenexa, Kansas, and Kenneth John Shelly (unknown); two nephews: William (Sarah) Whillock, of Newton; Greg (Leah) Shelly-Unruh, of Wichita, Kansas; and niece, Lizzie Shelly, of Shawnee, Kansas and many other extended family members and friends. She was preceded in death by her father, Kenneth, and a brother, Timothy.
She was an active member of Bethel College Mennonite Church, in North Newton, Kansas, where she served on committees, on the church board and as the congregational moderator.
A memorial service will be held at 11:00 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 30, at Bethel College Mennonite Church in North Newton, Kansas. Those unable to attend in person can live stream the service here.
In lieu of flowers, the family requests memorial gifts be designated to Bethel College or Bethel College Mennonite Church.
Mennonite Church USA is an Anabaptist Christian denomination, founded in 2002, and a recognized peace church. Members seek to follow Jesus by rejecting violence and resisting injustice. MC USA’s Renewed Commitments state the following shared commitments among its diverse body of believers: to follow Jesus, witness to God’s peace and experience the transformation of the Holy Spirit. MC USA is comprised of 15 area conferences and more than 470 congregations across the United States. MC USA is part of Mennonite World Conference, a global faith family that includes churches in 60 countries. Mennoniteusa.org
By Jessica Griggs for Mennonite Church USA
In the Hymnal: Sing the Journey #73
Composer: Patricia J. Shelly
Arranged by Dennis Friesen-Carper
Text and Music Copyright Patricia J. Shelly (Shared with permission from her family)
Sung by Members of the AMBS Faculty for the 2020 AMBS Commencement (Shared with permission from AMBS)
Edited and Compiled by Aaron Johnson
Video from Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary / Shared with permission.