CHEHALIS, Wash. (BP) — Shirley Cunningham hoped for a military career but a training exercise gone awry caused an injury that forced her to pursue other options in life. God used the discipline she learned in the Army and the diversity of her background to prepare her for ministry to hurting people.

Now the director of SAFE Family Ministries in Chehalis, Wash., Cunningham completed a doctoral program through Gateway Seminary this spring to enhance her abilities to assist at-risk women and their children.

“After the Army, I started back to college and had my first child,” Cunningham said. “My husband was also military and we soon had another baby on the way.”

Cunningham persevered and earned a bachelor of arts in psychology while adding a third child.

“I started working in the mental health field part-time in the evenings and on weekends and began 30 years of a new career,” Cunningham recounted. “I eventually had four children and we raised another son through foster care who has special needs and we remain close to.”

Cunningham went on to complete an advanced degree in counseling, specializing in geriatric mental health. After decades of serving as a community mental health crisis manager, Cunningham has seen it all.

“I evaluated those in crisis and determined if they were suicidal,” she said. “I would go out with the police and talk people off of bridges who were trying to end their life, and I have seen my share of dead bodies. I eventually burned out of that and started working as a school nurse for several years.”

Cunningham dealt with crisis in her own life — her husband of 20 years left the marriage and she found herself a single mom to four teenagers. She coped, in part, by diving into numerous volunteer activities.

“I volunteered at McKenzie Road Baptist Church in Olympia (Wash.) as a Sunday School teacher, disaster relief chaplain [and in] World Changers projects and kid’s camp,” Cunningham said. “I have always loved the outdoors and spent much time camping and out in creation with my kids, while also serving in scouting. I love what God has done in my family and am always looking for what He wants to do in my life.”

Desiring even more education, Cunningham eventually decided on a doctoral program through Gateway Seminary, which required 39 credit hours of leveling-up courses just to get into the program, as her earlier degrees were from non-ministry institutions.

“I stayed in prayer and asked God to open doors,” Cunningham said. “It was a God-thing that I got to walk away from my job and I used my retirement funds to pay for the doctoral program. Coming from secular schools, I just loved [how] the [Gateway] professors love the Lord. There is just nothing like it.”

Cunningham began a hybrid program at Gateway’s Pacific Northwest campus in Vancouver, Wash. — one of five operated by the California-based Southern Baptist seminary in the West. Community ministry was among the courses she took, graduating with a doctor of ministry degree. She also took training with a fire and police chaplaincy academy that opened doors as she continues to serve as a chaplain with a local fire department and hospital.

“I hated taking the preaching course my degree required, thinking I would never use it because I’m never going to be a pastor,” Cunningham said. “I learned that I loved the course and had no idea I would ever use those skills in leading memorial services or the women’s ministry I’m now in.”

Selected as executive director of SAFE Family Ministries in Chehalis, Wash., last fall, Cunningham now leads the residential nonprofit ministry which seeks to restore emotional, physical and spiritual wellness to women and children who are in crisis and seeking to make significant life changes. Those preaching skills come in handy every day as she leads a “sermonette” each morning at 6:30 am to start the day.

Long days have ensued, and Cunningham moved her RV to the campus for her living quarters to provide a steady hand for the day-to-day work with at-risk women.

“We help them identify who they are,” she said, “and work toward growing them to give back and become servants.

“God is our orchestra leader and sometimes I am second chair, and other times water girl and janitor,” Cunningham quipped. “It doesn’t matter as long as He has called you. I learned how to fix things with my dad and through World Changers projects and my time working on psych units will all make a difference here.”

SAFE Family Ministries provides a variety of faith-based services for its residents regardless of religious beliefs in a secure environment for those who need transitional housing, meals and lifestyle and financial stewardship training. Christian counseling, drug and alcohol rehabilitation and prenatal care also are offered in addition to assistance with family healing and reconciliation.

Some women are referred through the department of corrections or Child Protective Services in an attempt to regain custody of their children. Others arrive through a court-ordered mandate for treatment.

“Women coming here are desperate for help,” Cunningham said. “They often arrive here from a month-long detox program from all over the U.S., but addictions can be to anything, such as abusive relationships, and more and more are addicted to technology and cellphones. So there is no social media, cell phones or technology here at all. We have radios, and movies are shown on Friday and Saturday nights. We teach them to replace those other things with things of God. Some are quite resistant and others are thrilled to turn their life around.”

Life-change is happening through SAFE as evidenced by four women who were baptized during a Sunday morning this spring at Dayspring Baptist Church in Chehalis.

The organization enlists volunteers as house moms for two- to six-hour shifts, as mentors and encouragers who will pray with the residents or take them out for coffee, and as maintenance help for the ministry’s aging facility.

Those interested in more information may email [email protected] or call 360-740-9150.

    About the Author

  • Sheila Allen/Northwest Baptist Witness

    Sheila Allen is managing editor of the Northwest Baptist Witness (GoNBW.org), newsjournal of the Northwest Baptist Convention. Baptist Press senior editor Art Toalston contributed to this article.

    Read All by Sheila Allen/Northwest Baptist Witness ›