Just like the faint scent of that distinctive Avon “Rare Pearls” perfume that always tells you Shelley Darnell is nearby, the influence of this gentle presence in our First Church community will linger beyond this Sunday’s celebration of what can only be called “the ministry of Shelley Darnell.”
“Shelley is such a gentle presence in our church — for everyone, really,” says Dr. Tim Bruster, becoming thoughtful when contemplating a single reflection on this career that has spanned 24 years as a beloved First Church custodian (and 25 years if you count the year before that when she worked regularly as a temp). “Shelley’s ministry extends to us all, but most especially to nervous brides and bridegrooms getting ready for a wedding. Shelley has always gone so far beyond her official job duties — which she has always done with great care and excellence — to create her own ministry here. She will be deeply missed by all of us.”
Rev. Casey Orr says that she hadn’t been on staff very long when Shelley taught her more about ministry in a single encounter with someone in desperate need of a helping hand and a calming presence than she had at that time learned elsewhere.
Casey had arrived at the church, as was her custom, before dawn on a Sunday morning, and happened upon a woman sleeping in the Garden — naked. Not knowing what to do and not wanting to startle her, Casey found Shelley but wondered if they should wait for other custodians to arrive. “No, Casey, we can handle this,” Shelley told Casey, who still smiles as she remembers not only Shelley’s words, but also her determination and demeanor.
They then went back out to the Garden where the woman was sleeping against the building, and Shelley placed a hand on her and spoke softly to wake her. Even though the woman was wildly disoriented, Shelley managed to discover where her clothes were, went across the Garden to retrieve them, and put them on her as a mother would dress a child, talking with her the whole time in that same calm, sweet tone we all know and love.
“She buttoned every button with such tenderness, softly asking questions to help the woman get reoriented,” Casey remembers. “Here I was, a pastor, standing there watching what true pastoral care really looks like. It was both pastoral and maternal — and something I will remember for the rest of my life,” she adds. “It was a beautiful and profound moment of pure ministry.”
“Shelley has been such a sweet presence for all of us,” says Rev. Linda McDermott. “She is a great listener and has actually done more ministry here than most people realize. I have witnessed countless times Shelley has provided care to our church members and can speak personally of her gifts of ministry to me and to my family. As my kids were growing up Shelley became like family to us, and she even had a special seat with the family at my older son’s wedding. So many times it wasn’t I who ministered to Shelley, but Shelley who ministered to me.”
Although Shelley is retiring from First Church because neck and back issues have made the physical side of her work too difficult, her ministry will continue in a new form. Shelley says that first she will take a month to rest, relax, and “not do too much of anything” as she prepares herself for the next chapter of her life. “When God closes one door he always opens another one,” she says. “I know that God has more for me, and I just want to use whatever talents He has given me to glorify Him.” To put those words into practice yet again, Shelley says that she will soon begin ministry courses at Dallas Baptist University — and then just see what God might have in mind for her now.
“I have learned so much here,” Shelley says, getting tearful as she reflects on closing this chapter of her life. “It has been a wonderful group of people I have worked with and gotten to know, and I’m just going to miss the people here so much. A lot of times people seem to think that I’m doing something special for them,” she adds, “but really all those hugs, laughter, and sweet times we shared went both ways. When I really needed to be replenished, they’re the ones who filled me back up!”
As Shelley Darnell’s First Church days wind to a close this week, we’re preparing to celebrate her hard work and beautiful ministry this Sunday in both traditional worship services where she will be honored among family and friends as she gets ready to move on to whatever comes next for this unassuming “Rare Pearl” and First Church icon.