PADUCAH, Ky. (BP)–Laughter fills the back room of the LifeWay Christian Store in Paducah, Ky. The co-workers –- all women this particular morning -– catch up from the weekend before a devotional that will flavor their day.
“We laugh a lot here,” store manager Stephanie Hodges said with a big smile. The group reflects the character of the town they live in: cozy, family-like, bighearted. They finish their devotional with earnest prayer for God to bring what they call divine moments — ministry opportunities only He can arrange.
Hodges, a member of Paducah’s First Baptist Church, started working at the LifeWay store when it opened in 2000, shortly after she graduated from Murray State with a degree in business management. Her hope was to manage the store one day -– an opportunity that came her way in October 2003.
This year she was selected as “Store Manager of the Year” for the 123-store chain. At 28, she’s the youngest to receive the award since its inception 11 years ago. Specific criteria must be met to even be considered: overall high performances for the store in all operational areas, high scores for customer service and for store visits. LifeWay’s regional directors make the final selection from a group of finalists.
“The best thing I can say about Stephanie is that she’s truly excited about what she does every day,” said Bob Fuller, Hodges’ regional director. “Her passion for ministry and for LifeWay Christian Stores is infectious and her staff follows her lead.
“She always puts the emphasis on relationships with both churches and customers,” he said. “People know it’s a place where someone is going to care about them and what their needs are.”
As a child, Hodges piled into the family car with her parents for day trips to Nashville several times a year, a three-hour trip from Paducah. They’d make their way to the LifeWay Christian Store –- Baptist Book Store as it was known then -– to purchase resources for the church where her father served as pastor.
Each time she told her parents that a store was needed in Paducah. She would tell her mother how the layout of the store should look. And, every trip to the Baptist Conference Center in Ridgecrest, N.C., started with a visit to the bookstore.
After Hodges accepted Christ as a fifth-grader and her feelings about ministry grew, she told her parents that, one day, she would own a store in Paducah. She told her father’s pastor friends the same, adding, “When I own my bookstore, you’ll have to come and buy from me.”
Hodges soon figured out that she couldn’t own a LifeWay store, but she could manage one. Someone told her family that managers often went to the store where there was an opening, sometimes far away. Her family prayed hard for a store to open in Paducah.
“It’s been unreal to watch how God has worked things in Stephanie’s life,” said Sandy Hodges, her mother. She and her husband Monte, associate pastor of Briensburg Baptist Church in Benton, Ky., regularly stop by the store to shop. “Every job she’s had growing up has assisted with the knowledge and skills she needed to manage a bookstore.”
Working at a restaurant, “she noticed very quickly that the owner was always on the floor greeting the customers,” Sandy recalled. “She came home and told me, ‘That’s what a good manager should do -– when I have my bookstore, I’m not going to stay in my office, I’m going to be on the floor.’”
Jim Bryant, director of missions for the West Union Baptist Association, said Stephanie and her staff “are very well-known in our area as being people who are willing to help. They’re not just there to assist with finding resources but they greet people who come into the store like family.”
Marilyn Gregory, one of the store’s workers, said she appreciates Hodges’ gift of management and her personal interest in the staff and customers. “She’s a multi-level thinker, but she doesn’t steamroll people -– she has the heart for people’s needs and I know she’s praying for my personal needs too.”
“Day to day, we’re just staying ministry-focused,” said Hodges, standing at the cash register greeting customers and ringing up merchandise. Hodges said she’s grateful for the recognition but admitted her surprise at receiving LifeWay’s highest honor for store managers. “I’m blessed to have such a great crew -– I couldn’t do it without my staff.”
She points to two customers seated in a couple of chairs bent over a Bible. An elderly Greek man came into the store to find Scripture in hopes of comforting his wife on the one-year anniversary of their daughter’s death. A pastor who happened to be in the store offered to help him.
Hodges smiles her big, warm smile and offers a reason for why she loves what she does.
“Now there’s a divine moment. We get to see them every day.”