Answering the pastoral call, despite terminal cancer
Update: The Rev. Nichols died at home on July 9. Click here for an obituary.
Time is not on the Rev. Shelly Nichols’ side, but many people are.
Her family, pastor, church, district superintendent, bishop — all have helped Nichols answer God’s call to pastoral ministry, even as she faces terminal cancer.
“It’s worked out more perfectly than I could ever imagine,” she said.
Nichols, a 53-year-old mother of five, has since last summer served as associate minister at her home church, Cross Lanes United Methodist in Cross Lanes, West Virginia.
In her first appointment as a licensed local pastor, she has begun to preach and baptize. She has visited shut-ins and people less acutely ill than she is. She helped preside at the funeral of a young mother who committed suicide.
Nichols — whose cancer has spread so much that doctors give her just a few months — works part time at Cross Lanes. She works as her energy permits, and takes no salary.
Cross Lanes’ pastor, the Rev. Gary Nelson, laid down one law.
“He said, 'Shelly, you can do as much or as little as you want. The main thing is no stress for you,’” Nichols said. “That’s how I’ve approached it. … It’s all good.”
Nelson insists that Nichols’ work and example have more than compensated for any accommodations.
“It’s been a tremendous gift for the church, for me, for all of us,” he said.
Feeling the call
Nichols grew up in Dumfries, Virginia, attending Dumfries United Methodist Church. Her father, Pete Costello, had a plumbing business and did lay ministry on the side, eventually becoming a licensed local pastor.
As a girl joining her father in visits to juvenile detention centers and retirement homes, Nichols felt her own tug toward ministry. Her father was sure she had a call, and after praying about it one night, woke her and her three younger brothers at 5 a.m., to share his conviction. They had a party that night to celebrate.
Nichols took a first step by enrolling at North Carolina Wesleyan College. But a roadblock appeared.
“I absolutely hated the religion classes,” she said.
Instead, Nichols majored in criminal justice and psychology, getting her master’s in counseling psychology at Towson State University, and becoming a licensed professional counselor.
Her life soon included motherhood — twin girls, followed by three boys. The career of her husband, Dave Nichols, took the family to Nitro, West Virginia, a suburb of the capital city of Charleston, in 2001.
There she became deeply involved at nearby Cross Lanes United Methodist. She taught Sunday school, became a liturgist for worship services, served as president of the United Methodist Women chapter, and went on mission trips to Nicaragua and Haiti.
Her idea of a vacation was to attend the Festival of Homiletics, accompanied by her father and brothers, all of whom shared her love of good preaching.
But always, and particularly when hearing a sermon, Nichols felt her own call.
“It continued to eat at me,” she said. “I saw myself having my own little church.”
Help from Ohio
In 2012, Nichols took the first step. She met with the Rev. Edward Grant, superintendent of the Midland South District in the West Virginia Conference, about becoming a licensed local pastor.
Two weeks later, Nichols — whose only symptom had been fatigue — was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer. Surgeons removed 12 inches of her colon, but further tests showed the cancer had spread to her lungs and liver, leading to surgeries on those, too.
Since that first diagnosis, Nichols has yet to have a “clean” scan. But as she underwent chemotherapy, then alternative medicine treatments, she held to her dream of answering God’s call.
A setback in early 2014 prevented her from attending the weeklong local pastor licensing school in the West Virginia Conference. She recalls being in tears as she phoned one of her brothers, the Rev. Steve Stultz Costello, an elder and pastor at Faith United Methodist Church in North Canton, Ohio.
“My brother, he’s like, ‘Let me call somebody,’” Nichols said.
Her brother worked it out for Nichols to attend licensing school later, in the East Ohio Conference.
“Everybody fell in love with her,” said the Rev. Cara Stultz Costello, wife of Nichols’ brother, a pastor with him at Faith United Methodist and a teacher at the licensing school. “That’s what happens with Shelly. Everybody falls in love with her instantly. She’s like a magnet.”
Fulfilling the dream
Nichols’ health was so precarious that she knew she couldn’t lead her “own little church.” But she pushed forward, trusting some opportunity would appear.
Then Nelson, her pastor, had what he calls a Holy Spirit-sent idea to have her appointed to Cross Lanes. The church, with weekly attendance of 260, needed an associate minister. And Nelson knew how much leadership she had provided as a laywoman.
He worked with Grant to get West Virginia Area Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball to make the appointment.
“She acted very, very quickly,” Nelson said. “She really liked the idea.”
Nichols began last summer to serve Cross Lanes, wearing a robe provided by its United Methodist Women. Since then, she has preached four times.
“It’s kind of scary giving your first sermon,” Nichols said. “But, I thought, what better place than with people who are going to love me no matter what?”
Nelson agrees the church has fully supported her.
“They knew that she had this dream, and it meant a lot to them that they got to help her fulfill that dream,” he said.
Nelson added that it hasn’t been charity. He said Nichols has proved invaluable to him and the congregation as a fill-in preacher and regular liturgist, as well as in various other pastoral roles.
The Rev. JF Lacaria, assistant to Steiner Ball, has long been active at Cross Lanes and helped arrange Nichols’ appointment. He has watched her in action for years, particularly since her diagnosis.
“I really believe she’s teaching the church how a person should die,” he said.
Nichols is characteristically plainspoken when asked for her theological understanding of what she has been through with cancer.
“God doesn’t cause any of these things,” she said. “He doesn’t play favorites. God loves us, and God is with us through whatever journey we have to go through.”
Nichols has outlived her doctors’ earliest predictions. But a scan last month showed the cancer has spread to her spine, leading to an updated prognosis that she is in her last four months.
Of late, standing has become hard. She was unable to give the children’s sermon at Easter, or even to go to church. However, that afternoon, a crowd of friends and family came to her home for food and fellowship.
Amid the hubbub, she answered questions about her life since diagnosis, matter-of-factly relaying the latest dire details. She also said, with a laugh but also with emphasis, “The story ain’t over yet!”
One indication: She filled out paperwork, asking Steiner Ball to reappoint her to Cross Lanes.
Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org