In June 2013, nearly twenty years since WEPC’s first worship service, I sat down with Pastor Steve Shelby. We talked for over an hour about the history of WEPC, the path that led him to become a church planter, and a few of the wrinkles, as well as unforeseen blessings, of the church’s fledgling days. Below are excerpts from our conversation.
Let’s start with your background. If you could just describe where you’re from and your upbringing.
I am from North Carolina, rural North Carolina. I grew up on a farm about thirty miles or so northwest of Charlotte, North Carolina. I have an older brother, he’s four years older than me. My mom and dad are still alive.
In terms of background, nothing super unusual. I grew up around animals. I grew up in the woods. And from as early as I can remember, we were serious—my mom and dad very serious— about their faith.
When did you become a Christian?
I date my conversion from when I was about nine years old. We had a traveling evangelist come to our church who was from Holland. He had, actually, as a teenager been involved in the Dutch Resistance Movement during World War II. He came and spoke at our church in a series of meetings, and I remember hearing the Gospel really clearly and making a commitment at age nine.
What did he say that convinced you?
I didn’t need to be convinced about the truth of the Gospel. I don’t think that was the thing that tipped me over. I think the thing that convinced was the personal nature of it, that this was something that Christ did for me.
What were church services like where you grew up?
Very traditional. Very small church. Probably the most people ever—fifty to sixty people. We had a tiny little choir. Very long, long sermons. Very long. I had no idea churches were any bigger than forty or fifty people.
When you became a Christian, is that when you first considered a career in ministry?
No. I did not really consider a career in ministry until I was pretty far along in my college career. I really wanted to make money, be a lawyer, something like that. But other friends and other people came to me and said that was something I should consider. I’ve always thought that’s one of the ways that God directs us, leads us, guides us—through the body, through what other people have to say to us, and so I took that seriously.
So really it was people speaking into your life that convinced you.
That was a pretty important thing because ministry was not something I thought would be that attractive. It was not something that I thought I would be that interested in. But people said this is something you seem to be gifted at. You’re able to talk about the text of the Bible in a way that’s intriguing to people and that sort of thing. And so I did take that seriously, even as a twenty-one, twenty-two year old. I took that about as seriously as you take anything in that stage of life.
What did you study in college?
I was a philosophy and religion major mainly because I had a math phobia. All I had to do was write papers. And the books for religion and philosophy were not as long as the books for history.
Describe your experience attending Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson.
I was there from the summer of 1982 until May of 1986. I got a Master of Divinity and a Master of Christian Education.
It was a great experience. I think seminary is very helpful in terms of two things: it teaches you the original languages. It’s good to have facility in Hebrew and Greek—really good. And it gives you a theological worldview, a theological understanding of the Scripture and the way God walks, who he is, and that sort of stuff. I think seminary is outstanding at those two things, and I think because of that, it’s an important institution.
I worked. In addition to averaging eighteen hours a week a semester, I worked about thirty to thirty-five hours a week on the seminary maintenance crew, and I worked part-time at a local church as a youth worker. We were very busy, very, very busy. But it was a great time, it was a fun time.
Were you married at the time?
We got married between my first and second year of seminary.
What was the seminary experience like for Marti?
She liked it. We had a cute little apartment. She worked in the seminary library, and she liked her job. She could walk to work. We could eat lunch together pretty much every day. And the great thing about seminary—the other thing that was really positive for us—we made friends with people who were in the same stage of life as we were: young, trying to figure out ministry, poor.
What was the hardest class you took in seminary?
The hardest class I took in seminary was probably New Testament Epistles. One of the things we had to do on all the tests is he [the professor] would take a sentence from the text book, and we would have to read the sentence and identify what New Testament epistle it was from. I found that very difficult.
That does sound challenging.
Yeah, it was hard. And, honestly, he did that to make sure we did the reading. But I didn’t find seminary to be that difficult academically. I think—I haven’t looked at my transcript in a longtime—but I think I did pretty well.
During your experience at seminary, did you feel affirmed in the call to be a pastor, or did you ever have any other ideas?
Oh yeah, there were lots of day when I thought I had made a big mistake. Less to do with the academic part of it. I mean, I knew how to do school. I had been in school since I was six years old. School itself was not the problem. But my experience in ministry and the small church there that I worked in was really hard, very hard.
It was challenging in that there were a fair number of seminary families and professors’ kids that were very difficult to work with. And I was only twenty-three, twenty-four years old, myself, so I didn’t really know what I was doing.
After you graduated, you ended up at Stony Point Presbyterian Church. How did that come about?
There was a guy on the faculty at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson named Richard Pratt. Richard had done some of his graduate work here at Union Seminary. While he was there in Richmond, he worshipped and did some work at Stony Point. And when Stony Point grew to the place where they wanted to hire an associate, they contacted him to see if he knew anybody, and he recommended me for that job.
What did you think about moving to Richmond? Was that an easy decision for you and Marti?
Yeah, it was an easy decision because we needed a job, and that one was offered. So that was not difficult for us.
What were your duties at Stony Point?
My official title was Associate Pastor for Christian Education, and I was responsible for kids’ Sunday School—we did a kind of Pioneer Club for kids. I was responsible for middle school and high school. But I also got to preach a lot. They let me preach probably more than they should have. Back then they used to do this thing called Evangelism Explosion. I got to participate in that. I worked with the deacons some—that was great. Again, very formative and a great training experience for us.
How long were you there before you started thinking about becoming a church planter?
We got there in May of 1986, and it was probably four years before we began thinking seriously about that. We struggled with infertility, and then we lost a child—it was stillborn. And those events sort of crystallized for us the importance of the Gospel and the importance of reaching people with a message of hope—hope in something that is real.
How did that conversation start at Stony Point?
Stony Point had planted a few years earlier All Saints [Reformed Presbyterian Church] in the Fan. Bob Ranson, who was a ruling elder there, was a real driving force for church planting. Back then in Richmond, the bridge furtherest west across the James River was the Huguenot Bridge. There was no Willey Bridge. There was no 288. And so it was difficult for people to go back and forth across the river. It was hard for people who lived in the West End who chose to go to Stony Point to get people to come with them across the river. And so, there was momentum there to think about planting a church in the West End.
What were some of the steps you had to take to plant the church?
Once the leadership there at Stony Point became convinced that it was a good thing to do—and it was not a difficult thing to convince the leadership, they were very supportive—we had to get assessed by Mission in North America, which is our denomination’s arm that oversees church planting. Once we got approved, we had to begin the work of gathering a core group, getting people interested, and trying to set up some sort of infrastructure about how this thing was going to work. That took a lot of time and energy. However—and I kid with the church planters that plant churches for West End about how easy they have it because, the last Sunday I was at Stony Point, I taught middle school Sunday school. I was still doing that job a week before I would be at Byrd trying to get the church plant off the ground.
Was that process pretty smooth? Were there any hurdles?
You know the process of getting the church started actually was. I don’t remember that being that difficult. But I do remember working really hard to sell people on the idea to come to the church. I remember having a lot of anxiety about who was going to come, who wasn’t going to come, that sort of thing. And I had a lot of anxiety about fear of failure. But I also think we had a great core group of people—people like the Minors, people like the McGurns, folks who really loved us well and were very kind to us. And who very quickly got on board and got excited, invited people, and were really eager to see the church go.
How did the arrangement with Byrd come about?
Well, our initial arrangement was not with Byrd. Our initial arrangement was with Steward School. This was back when Steward was tiny, back before they built their big theatre and all that. They had a small theatre building that had three rooms in it that we could use for classrooms. And we could seat about eighty or ninety people in the theatre. And it dawned on me a couple weeks, maybe a month, before we started worship that, “Wow, we’re going to rapidly outgrow this. This is not going to be big enough.” Because I had initially thought, “Wow, if we ever have eighty people come, this’ll be a miracle!” So I realized that was going to be too small, and we panicked.
The Minors—Johnny and Joyce Minor—had a great relationship with the principal at Byrd Middle School. They had a great reputation there. And I went with them to fill out the paperwork, and that’s how we began that relationship. And it was a great relationship for seven years. They were very flexible with us, and they were very kind.
What do you remember from the first worship service?
Probably a lot of anxiety about who was going to come, how it was going to go. A lot of anxiety about logistics, about how we were going to make things work.
The very first song that we sang—Gary Lake, Dr. Gary Lake, who practices medicine now in Tuscaloosa, was leading our worship team, and his guitar strap broke. His guitar fell on the floor—the very first musical thing that ever happened in the church. But God was good. There was a lot of energy in the room, a lot of life, a lot of excitement.
I do remember that night after that first Sunday thinking, “Wow, this is going to be really, really hard.” And I was really tired, and I just wondered how I would muster the energy to do that every week. At that point in time, we had two little kids: Tate was just about two and Guy was six months.
Do you remember what your first sermon was about?
It was from a psalm, I do remember that. I think, basically, what it was about was that our confidence would not be in our ability to plant a church, but in the Lord. The very first hymn we ever sang was “Rejoice, the Lord is King”—that stands out in my memory. But nothing real memorable about that first sermon.
Looking back, what were some of the biggest challenges in that first year?
We grew pretty quickly. That was challenging because, at that point, we were understaffed. It was just me and Debbie Garber. Debbie worked ten hours a week in this little office over the little yogurt shop down at Patterson and Gaskins.
You know, people in the West End have high expectations, and they like things to be a certain style and a certain way. We were new, and we were awkward, and we were growing, and that was a challenge.
Personally, I struggled a lot with balancing work and other responsibilities. I worked probably too much. I did not take a regular day off until—well for several years—until both Donald Smith and Kevin Greene were on staff. I remember telling them to take a day off, and they would never take a day off because I didn’t take a day off. I realized I was killing them. That kind of convinced me to do that.
How did Marti like being a pastor’s wife?
She liked being a pastor’s wife. But I think it was hard sometimes being my wife.
But yeah, it was challenging for her. It was demanding. Until we moved into the Best [Products] building in December of 2000, all of the Inquirers’ Weekends were at our house. We were busy. But I think she liked it. I think she liked seeing God at work. And, you know, she sang on a worship team when we first started. I mean, she’s done a lot of different things around here!
In 1995 the church started the first Prison Fellowship project. Whose idea was that?
That was Jim Davis’s idea. Jim came to me, and he had heard about a church, I think in Lynchburg, that had done this. And so in partnership with folks at Third Presbyterian, we went and got some inmates from the federal penitentiary in Petersburg. And they came up here and lived with us for two weeks, and we did a work project in the city. We were able to do that two years in a row. It was a really good thing for us: it was risky, it was challenging, it was kind of out-of-the-norm for what you would expect a west-end congregation to do. But I think God really used those projects to shape our identity pretty early in the church’s life.
Right away did you have a lot of support from the congregation?
No, not initially. When we first floated the idea that these guys would be living in our homes, people really balked at that. But I think they did that because they thought these were gun-toting, violent criminals. They were drug dealers, most of them, or had some sort of drug offense. But as it turned out, we realized we had a lot more in common with them than we thought—and they with us. The Lord really used that.
One of the things we say is that you can’t have faith unless you take a risk. Inherent in faith is some level of risk, and that was a risky thing for us to do and God met us in that.
Pretty soon after the church started it began growing pretty fast. What were the numbers like?
I think we were up to two hundred pretty quickly. Now a lot of those people were college students—we attracted a lot of VCU and University of Richmond students. The other part of that—the reason why I think the church grew, humanly speaking, is the initial core group of people in their thirties and forties—which, God bless them, twenty years later that means they’re in their fifties and sixties— those folks did not sit back and wait until people who were in their thirties and forties with kids and Volvos and that kind of stuff to come. They welcomed people who were different from them and, humanly speaking, that probably had more to do with our growth than almost anything else.
When did you begin considering relocating?
Fairly quickly. At some point the county quadrupled our rent. And at that point in time it dawned on us that for the amount of money—we had gone from paying about $700 a month to almost $3000 a month—we began to think, “Wow, it would be nice to have a bigger facility.” Our ministries had grown to the point where we needed space seven days a week.
Were you the first person to consider this building as a church location?
That’s a good question. I think there were a number of people. I think we all kind of came at this about the same time where we’re like, “Hey, you know, that building up there’s going to be available. Anybody who can get to Byrd Middle School to worship can get to the old Best Products building.” And so that seemed like something God might have for us.
We were actually in here buying some file cabinets, and I asked the check-out person, “Who do you talk to about buying this building?” And that started the ball rolling.
This is a strange building in a lot of ways. Was it hard for people to envision meeting here as a church?
The kind of people who were coming to our church were people who were worshipping in a gym. The nursery was in a smaller gym. And Sunday school classes were meeting in other classrooms in a middle school. And so that hurdle had already been cleared for a lot of people. Actually, I think it was easier for people to consider coming to West End once we had a building. It seemed like that legitimized us to some people. And though this was an odd building—and you know there are still people who come in and turn their nose up because it’s not stone, there’s no stain glass, that sort of thing—I don’t think that was a big holdup for a lot of folks.
And the process of actually buying the building—what was that like?
We had to raise money, which we had never done before. We had to raise a pretty decent amount of money. I don’t remember how much it was, but it was a decent amount of money, just to purchase the property. There had been attempts to put a self-storage thing in here, grocery store, and maybe some other things before it fell to us.
The Mediterranean Bakery out front was a Boston Market. There was an agreement, an easement between the property owner of this building and Boston Market, that whatever went in here would be a retail entity. The owners of this building paid Boston Market I think $50,000 to make that go away. So in many ways, God moved in some pretty profound ways for us to be able to get into this building.
Who was living in Nottingham Green in those days?
Well, it wasn’t Nottingham Green in those days—it was actually Colonial Court. And Colonial Court was not a nice place to be. But that began to change. I remember we came out of church when we were still worshipping in Byrd one Sunday, and there were a lot of Latino guys playing soccer down on the football field at Byrd. We stood there and thought, “Wow, who are these guys? Where are they from? Where do they live?” We had a handful of people in the church who spoke Spanish and that kind of began our interest. We found out they lived in Nottingham Green. We started Bible clubs, all sorts of things, to try to figure out how to reach the neighborhood. And we’ve been at that now for probably fifteen years of our existence. That’s been a huge part of who we are.
Do you remember anything specifically about the first service in this building?
Yeah. A lot of things went wrong. I remember it was too hot, and the sound system didn’t work . . . You have to understand, in many ways, moving into this building and building out the upstairs was a big deal and, in many ways, a much more challenging thing because we had to raise a lot of money. A lot of effort, a lot of energy went into that. And so there was a high expectation of just how wonderful it’s going to be to finally not have to drive a trailer up to the building and unload it. Not to have to set chairs up. And so the sound system didn’t work right. And the music team was leading us in this song, and a line in it says, “You’re awesome in this place, mighty God.” Kevin leaned over and said, “Well, I’m glad something’s awesome in this place. It’s good that God’s awesome, because we’re not.”
Again, though, people were excited. It was a joyful thing. The second the service was over, we moved all the chairs out, moved in a bunch of tables, and then had a big dinner, or lunch, in the sanctuary—big celebration. It was a lot of fun.
What has been the most surprising thing about starting this church?
I think the thing that has been most surprising, at least early on, was how hard it was, how much work it was. The other thing that’s most surprising is God is pleased to use us in ways that we could not have foreseen. Believe it or not, there are actually people who have walked in our doors who are not Christians who are Christians now. So that’s one way. We pray regularly for conversions. We pray regularly for people to meet Christ here. And God does that.
The other thing is I am amazed that we have the opportunity to reach people from all over the world.
And I’m also amazed that here we are. It’s twenty years. You know, we made it this long. And we have a long way to go. In many ways, West End still feels young and new, still getting its legs underneath it. But we’ve been here twenty years. I think if you had asked me in June of 1993, I don’t think I would have thought we’d still be here in twenty years.