Patricia J. Shelly, 71, a Bible scholar and denominational leader known to generations of Mennonites as the composer of popular worship songs, died Sept. 4 at her home in Newton, Kan., after a three-year struggle with pancreatic cancer.
Shelly taught Bible and religion for most of three decades at Bethel College, impacting students’ faith and working to build peace and understanding in Israel/Palestine. She served as moderator of Mennonite Church USA and on the International Mennonite Peace Committee.
Beyond classrooms and delegate halls, Shelly’s impact has been felt in worship gatherings around the world, where her music has been a meaningful part of congregational life.
A folk musician and composer who released her first album, I Am Going, in 1974, Shelly wrote songs that have appeared in hymnals and albums.
Among her well-known songs are the benediction “The Lord Lift You Up” and “There Are Many Gifts.” Both are in the 2020 hymnal Voices Together.
Shelly taught at Bethel from 1985 to 2020, with a leave of absence from 1996 to 2000 to be country director for Mennonite Central Committee in the West Bank and Gaza. She led study tours to Israel, Palestine and Jordan from 1986 to 2015 and was campus minister for much of her time on the faculty.
One of her students, Peter Goerzen, followed in her footsteps as a Bethel professor and campus pastor.
“I took Patty’s Introduction to Biblical Studies course my sophomore year, and it changed the trajectory of my life,” said Goerzen, assistant professor of Bible and religion. “I quickly found out that there was much more to learn about the Bible than I had ever thought possible, and Patty’s love for the Bible and her delight in reading it (often peppered with puns) was contagious. In that course, I began to discern God’s calling to ministry.
“There was indeed a profound spiritual depth, theological commitment and love for Christ’s church that sustained Patty’s work. It’s evident in the many worship materials she prepared for Bethel College chapel services, the songs she composed, her service with MCC and MC USA, and the beautiful ‘Lighting of the Green’ Advent service that Patty helped develop in the mid-’80s. With deep gratitude for the memory of Patty, it’s my hope that the Bible and religion department will continue Patty’s legacy.”
Shelly’s leadership was evident at all levels — as moderator of her congregation, Bethel College Mennonite Church; conference, Western District; and denomination. She served 12 years on the MC USA Executive Board, from 2005 to 2017.
David Boshart, president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, who served as moderator-elect while Shelly was moderator from 2015 to 2017, said Shelly “made a tremendous contribution” to his understanding of God’s mission and the nature of the church.
“It was easy to be on Patty’s team,” he said. “She was a clear thinker. She knew the church and always acted with the best interests of the whole church foremost in her mind.”
Boshart recalled tense years of denominational leadership after delegates passed conflicting resolutions at the 2015 assembly in Kansas City, Mo.
“I always appreciated her judgment in knowing when to flex and take more time with process and when it was time to act,” he said of her role leading the Executive Board amid difficult decisions. “She was also a master at using humor to lighten the atmosphere when tensions rose.”
Shelly’s music has appeared in multiple albums produced by MennoMedia and its predecessor agencies since 1989.
“Patty cared so much about the church,” said MennoMedia executive director Amy Gingerich, who noted Shelly also contributed to Sunday school curricula. “She called me a couple weeks ago to talk about how to handle music permissions after she’s gone, as she wanted to make sure it would be easy for people in the church to use her music. She was an incredibly thoughtful and generous person to be planning that out in the last weeks of her life.”
Shelly was born Dec. 21, 1951, in Chicago to Kenneth and June Rupert Shelly. A 1976 Bethel graduate, she completed master of divinity and doctoral degrees at Iliff School of Theology. From 1983 to 1985 she was associate pastor at First Mennonite Church in Denver, where she was ordained.
A memorial service will be at 11 a.m. Sept. 30 at Bethel College Mennonite Church.