By KATIE EUBANKS
Each year, MCL honors high-school seniors through our Christian Leaders of the Future scholarship and awards program. But why should teenagers have all the fun? We decided to also honor grown folks in Mississippi who display servant leadership and Christ-like love, so we asked for nominations. Here are our six Christian Leaders of the Year for 2019.
Bill Owens and Lisa Owens, LPC
Bill and Lisa live in Ridgeland. She is a licensed professional counselor at Cornerstone Counseling in Jackson, and he is retired from teaching at Madison County Schools. They have two daughters and six grandkids. They attend Pinelake Madison.
What others said:
Bill and Lisa’s small group at Pinelake Madison nominated them. “They are a powerhouse couple that have selflessly given and lived their lives for Christ since they were newlywed teens,” wrote Vanessa Case, who sent in the nomination. “They have deepened our relationship with Christ and been such a positive example of what Christian living really is!
“At 21 and 24, Lisa and Bill were led to spread God’s word across the globe and witness in China. Not only was Lisa five months pregnant with their first daughter, neither spoke the language,” Vanessa wrote.
“They packed up their fears, trusted God and surrendered to His plan. While there, Lisa and Bill taught English at Christ College in Taiwan. Lisa learned Mandarin and although Bill gave it all he had, he was never able to fluently speak the language. He said this was a very discouraging thing for him … He remembers apologizing to his students one day for not being able to speak the language, and his students comforted him and said, ‘You may not have been able to learn and speak our language, but you showed us how to love by showing us how deeply you love and treat your wife.’”
The two ultimately returned to Mississippi. These days, Lisa works full time at Cornerstone Counseling, and she and Bill spend their free time doing marriage counseling for young couples through Pinelake.
What they said:
“I kind of feel like we’re a little bit inflated here,” Bill said, laughing, after hearing he and Lisa’s nomination read aloud over the phone. “We’re very, very ordinary people.”
He said Lisa probably has been the greatest influence on his life.
“The spiritual thing you say is Jesus, and of course it’s Jesus — but Lisa has been faithful,” he said. “She has faithfully sought the Lord. And that keeps me challenged to faithfully seek the Lord.
“We promised early on that we would always try to pray together every day. And that’s first thing in the morning, and it’s been very foundational. And we would always try to share what God’s been sharing with us (individually). We’ve been doing that for more than 45 years, and I highly recommend it.”
Lisa said getting involved in Campus Crusade for Christ, now known as Cru, at a young age helped grow her faith — not to mention moving to China.
“I feel like (living in China) turned my whole frame of thinking into how I want to live my life. … It kind of helped define what my priorities were.”
She also had some kind words about she and Bill’s small group (who, she laughingly said, probably elected them to lead the group because they’re a couple decades older than everyone else!):
“They have been extremely receptive to growing in the Lord, and extremely respectful. I think it’s a little unusual, but it just seems like we’re all family. A lot of small groups have camaraderie, but it’s gone a little beyond that.”
Mary Ellen and Tobie Shramek
Mary Ellen and Tobie live in Florence and attend Victory Congregational Methodist Church, where they head up children’s church and serve in other leadership roles. Mary Ellen works at Railroad Center Daycare, and Tobie is head of maintenance at the Regions building in downtown Jackson. They have four daughters and a son and daughter-in-law.
What others said:
“Individually, Mary Ellen and Tobie are great examples of what a Christian leader is, but together, they show how a married couple can make an impact and show Christ’s love for the church,” wrote the friend who nominated them.
“The most recent example is how they have begun to be foster parents to two beautiful little girls. (One) has some learning disabilities (and) physical limitations. … since Tobie and Mary Ellen have been caring for her, her reading has improved as well as (her physical abilities). The other sweet girl is reading like never before and is learning new things every day.
“Without Mary Ellen and Tobie having hearts for the Lord, these girls wouldn’t be where they are now or where we know the Lord will take them in the future.”
What they said:
When Mary Ellen heard about her and Tobie’s nomination, she hesitated. “I don’t want glory for myself,” she said. “I don’t want fame; I don’t want pictures. But when I was telling it to my daughter, she was like, ‘You need to stop it. This is when you need to use (publicity) to glorify God.’
“If it’s going to be done to show God’s glory and what He’s capable of — we’re not capable of anything (on our own).”
Both she and Tobie were married before. Neither of them believes in divorce. However, “circumstances happened that were out of our control,” she said, including an abusive marriage that she ended after 17 years.
After her divorce, Mary Ellen worked as much as she could to make ends meet, including at Railroad Center Daycare — where Tobie’s daughter attended. Tobie was divorced by that time, too.
“Somebody said, ‘I know the perfect guy for you!’” Mary Ellen recalled. “I said no way, I’m not dating a daycare parent.”
One night she went to a concert, and “lo and behold, here comes that little girl of his, about knocking me over,” Mary Ellen said. Since she knew the girl from daycare, “I was in love with her before I ever met him.”
Tobie and Mary Ellen “barely spoke that night,” she said, but they kept running into each other, and eventually, Tobie invited her and her daughter over to watch a football game.
Through their relationship and now in their marriage, the two families have blended seamlessly.
“It’s kind of hard to explain to people. It’s like we’ve been together all our life. We have the same mindset,” Mary Ellen said.
About a year ago, two little girls in their extended family were put into foster care. Mary Ellen and Tobie went through a foster program and, on July 2 of this year, the girls were placed in the Shrameks’ home. They share dual custody with the biological parents.
Both girls’ reading has improved. One of them has physical issues “that we are going to have to battle for the rest of her life,” MaryEllen said. “But we are just —”
“— blessed to have them,” Tobie broke in.
“People ask us, ‘How are y’all settling? How are y’all adjusting?’” Mary Ellen said. “I tell them, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about. It’s like we’ve always had them.’”
Ruth Ann Rigby, CRS
Ruth Ann, a certified recovery specialist, is chief development officer for BRC Recovery Family of Programs in Austin, Texas, and cofounder of First Responders of Mississippi, a nonprofit offering resources and support to first responders and their families. She and her husband, LTC (Ret.) Joseph Rigby, live in Jackson with their three cocker spaniels, and are members of Broadmoor Baptist Church in Madison.
What others said:
Ruth Ann actually received multiple separate nominations, and they all made note of the fact that she is willing to meet with families in crisis at any time, 24/7/365 — even at the stroke of midnight on Christmas. That’s not theoretical. “She got the call at 11 that night and was packed up and on the way to help,” one colleague in the recovery field wrote.
“One example of Ruth Ann’s leadership in action is very personal to me,” wrote Betsy Cox, another friend and colleague. “In the Louisiana flood of 2016, I reached out to Ruth Ann. I had many co-workers as well as others we both knew in the addictions field in Louisiana who had lost everything. There were addictions programs and halfway houses whose ability to survive had been destroyed without help.
“All it took was one phone call to Ruth Ann. she immediately sprang into action and helped raise over $20,000 in a matter of one week.”
A friend from Broadmoor summed it all up by highlighting Ruth Ann’s “will, energy, commitment and can-do spirit.”
What she said:
When asked why it is important to be available to families anytime, Ruth Ann said, “When families are referred to me, they are in crisis, and just like someone goes to the emergency room in crisis, the families that call me are in immediate need of assistance. They need someone to walk them though the next step.”
“God has opened many doors for me throughout my life in recovery. As a person in long-term recovery, I was called to serve and help families, one family at a time. Not only am I on call for our church counseling center, but for our community and state. Family struggles are not from 8 (a.m.) to 5 (p.m.) Monday through Friday — they are seven days a week, 24/7.
“I grew up in Broadmoor Baptist Church and have been a member for over two decades. Our church is committed to community and passionately pursuing making a difference in families who are struggling. We founded The Center for Hope and Healing to serve families in our community and our members.
“My husband and I co-founded First Responders of Mississippi to serve first responders in their greatest times of need. We provide assistance, wellness and hope, and have assisted more than 200 first responders in two and a half years.”
Steve Roark, LCSW
Steve lives in Yazoo City and is a licensed clinical social worker with his own nonprofit counseling organization, Behavioral Health Foundation of Central Mississippi. He and his wife, Ginger, have two daughters and two granddaughters, with one on the way. They are longtime members of First Baptist Church Yazoo City, where Steve also counsels clients.
What others said:
“He has never made me feel silly or petty about some of my struggles,” wrote the friend and client who nominated Steve. “He has helped me through divorce, empty nest and loss of a parent. … I have never left a session without Steve praying with and for me; I’ve also never left with a dry eye (in a good way).”
What he said:
“I truly am honored and humbled, I really am. It’s just amazing. Thank you,” Steve said of his nomination.
He explained how he went from being executive director of Warren-Yazoo Mental Health Services, where he worked for many years, to branching out on his own:
“Our budget was the largest it’d ever been, (we) had a great board of directors … but the Holy Spirit was churning in me. … I knew at the heart of me, I was still a counselor.
“My pastor at the time, David Bryant, called me, and it was not a coincidence, and said, ‘We need church counseling.’” Steve started taking off one day a week to respond to that call. Within a year, he’d established his own organization.
Steve describes himself as “not retired, but retreaded” — and he loves it. Even though the work is hard.
“I’ve discovered there are a lot of depressed people. There are a lot of issues in the church. We Christians are not immune — from the 8- year-old boy who was being bullied at school a couple weeks ago, to the older lady who’s lost her husband and she’s grieving. I’ll see anybody for anything. It’s what God has called me to do.”
Without God and his wife, Steve said, he couldn’t take on the work of a mental health professional.
“First thing in the morning for me — we have a screened-in porch, and when it’s too cold there’s an upstairs den — I have regular appointments with the Lord. In that time, I have a Bible, whatever book the Lord has given me, (and) I have a journal. He encourages me, He gives me wisdom, and it restores me. When I get too busy and I ignore that, I know I’m not who I’m supposed to be,” he said.
“Also, my wife knows (when to tell me), ‘You need a break.’”
He and Ginger like to travel together. Last year they spent three weeks in Maine. And on Friday nights? Don’t call them. “We’re dating,” Steve said.
A final note: Believe it or not, Steve said we could put his email address in this article, “because this is what I’m called to do”! If you need counseling, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.