The relatable reverend – St. Francis Episcopal’s new pastor wants people to be ‘comfortable with Jesus’

Rev. Jason Shelby is the newly named pastor of St. Francis Episcopal Church. Photo by David Fairchild (DavidFairchild Studio)

by Elka Worner

In his first sermon at St. Francis Episcopal Church in Palos Verdes Estates, Rev. Jason Shelby invoked Biblical passages and an account of his first visit to Costco, a store the Mississippi transplant had never been to.

“How can I impart to people that I love Jesus as I’m walking through Costco?” he said. “How can I further the kingdom in Costco?”

Maybe he could show his “love of neighbor” by smiling at fellow shoppers.

“No, they’ll think ‘this guy is crazy. Why is he smiling at me?’”

He opted to be attentive to his wife and her shopping needs.

The ability to relate everyday experiences to Scripture is what makes their new priest “relatable,” according to Holly Valiquette, a parishioner who helped with the selection process. St. Francis’ previous pastor, the very Rev. Paula Vukmanic, retired after 15 years leading the congregation.

“There’s a spiritual warmth to Jason,” Valiquette said. “He’s very relaxed and approachable. It’s clear that he has a deep connection to God.”

The 46-year-old Shelby, who is humble and a bit shy, has been praised for his unassuming nature.

“If our primary job as priests and pastors is to represent Jesus to the world and to make people comfortable with Jesus, I think the best way to do that is to be relatable,” he said. 

Rev. Jason, as he is known to the congregation, was born into the Episcopal church in Northeastern Indiana. His parents met at the church, and both sets of grandparents were Episcopalians. His earliest memories of the church were attending Mass with his family at Trinity Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where his parents were confirmed and married.

When he was in the fifth grade, the family began attending a church closer to their home, St. Anne’s in Warsaw, Indiana. It was there he joined the acolyte program. He said carrying the torch and serving the priest “provided structure and a sense of pride.”

“I wasn’t just a spectator. I was part of the service,” he said.

When he was 12, he remembers listening to the priest’s sermon and thought, “I could do that. That’s something I would like to do.”

It was the first of several signs that he was destined for the priesthood.

At 15, he had an epiphany while driving home from the hospital after his sister fell and cut her leg. His mother, who was driving, was suffering from a migraine.

“I hate this. I wish I didn’t have to drive,” she said. Armed with a learner’s permit, he offered to take the wheel.

“Up to that point, I had only driven a farm tractor,” Shelby said.

 “I was praying more intensely than I’d ever prayed in my life,” he said. “Please God get us home safely.”

“In that moment of distress, I heard a voice clearer than anything I’d ever heard before: ‘You should think about becoming a priest,’” he said. “I think it was God.”

The “powerful voice” took him from being scared, to “wondering what is going on.” The family made it home safely.

“I think a lot of times we’re too quick to discount the mysterious or the spiritual or the sacred,” he said. 

He didn’t share the experience with anyone until he approached his priest to ask what was required for the priesthood. The answer, a college degree and then three years of seminary. He decided then that the priesthood was not for him. 

But that changed when he went to college at Indiana University, where he said the first semester, he was praying to do well on essays and exams. He remembers telling his mom, “God is really coming through for me,” to which she replied, “You’re thanking him in prayer. That’s like a phone call, and that’s good, but an in-person visit would be better.”

Shelby started attending Mass regularly. After graduating from college with a history degree, he worked in an outdoor furniture factory before embarking on the path to becoming ordained, a time known as “discernment.”

“It’s a period of reflection, introspection, and decision making — namely ‘is it good for me to be a priest right now?’”

“The last thing the church wants is somebody who’s just putting in the time.”

Shelby attended divinity school at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee, and then embarked on a life of service. He ministered at St. Martin’s near New Orleans, and at St. Columbs, St. George’s, and St. Paul’s, in Mississippi. After serving for nine years in Columbus, Mississippi, Shelby and his wife decided it was time for a change. The limited educational opportunities in the area, lack of access to a good hospital, and the state’s conservative politics, their search for a new church.

 “Their increasingly draconian laws about abortion and women’s health,” was a concern as well, Shelby said. “Mississippi is not moving forward, and there’s no indication that they’re going to start moving forward.”

The couple initially looked for a church in the San Diego area, where his wife grew up, but refocused on St. Francis because Shelby was impressed with the parishioners and their dedication.

“The first vestry meeting was a joy, and I don’t say that about a lot of meetings,” he said of his visit to the church. No one approached him about their pet projects, but all had a common goal. 

“They wanted the church to succeed,” he said. “It’s not a lot of little kingdoms. It’s the kingdom.”

Shelby recalled the first time he and his wife walked into the church.

“We were overcome by this sense of calm and peace and love,” he said.

The church council was equally impressed with Shelby.

“He hit it out of the park for us as someone who is deeply spiritual,” Valiquette said.

Shelby acknowledged it’s not always easy to be a believer in the 21st century, whether Roman Catholic or Episocopalian. 

“The Church has done so much bad in the world,” he said, “but it has also done good.”

“All the people who have been fed, who have a home, clothing. All of the people who have been given hope.”

“The challenge of the church now is for us to say in the same breath we’re awful and broken and we’re trying not to be.”

It’s not an easy task.

“It seems like now we’re far more judgmental of people’s past. There’s so little grace in the world now. So, if you’ve done something bad in your past, then you’re bad.”

He would like to dispel the notion that faith is something private and individual. The love of God should be shared, he said.

“I think a lot of people, especially Episcopalians, are worried about offending people. But our job isn’t to convert anybody, or to say you’re going to hell. Our job is just to invite.”

Shelby rarely preaches from the pulpit but stands in front of the pews among the parishioners as he invites them to be closer to God.

“I think yelling at people about Jesus or being authoritarian is not good,” he said. “Because then Jesus becomes a monster. Jesus becomes unrelatable.”

Parishioner Darryl Tillman said Shelby’s sermons are down to earth and resonate with him.

“Miraculously, his sermons hit the spot,” Tillman said. “You can tell that he’s sincere and that it’s coming from the heart.”

Shelby referenced Costco in a subsequent sermon, but this time in a more critical light, saying it was “a place that’s full of people, where you can’t move, think and reflect.”

“I’ve had more people talk to me about Costco at this point than Jesus because of the sermon,” he said. “It’s easier to talk about Costco than Jesus, which is something I would like to change.” Pen


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