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No more sitting back, Utah layman answers the call

Emery Polelonema preaches at his ordination service at First Baptist Church in Centerfield, Utah. (Photo by Rob Lee)

RICHFIELD, Utah (BP) – In 1985 Emery and Lillie Polelonema were members of First Baptist Church when they became involved in a ministry for the Hmong, who had settled in the area as refugees following the Vietnam War. Emery didn’t know it at the time, but it would provide a strong example of discipleship that would eventually lead him to the pulpit as a layman.

An Arizona native, Emery had moved to central Utah years earlier after getting a job as an engineer with the Bureau of Land Management. At work, he became friends with Ken Kuhlman, a member of First Baptist (since renamed Sevier Valley Baptist Church) who eventually led Polelonema to Christ. Kuhlman and another church leader, Toy Rathashack, mentored Polelonema in the ministry as their wives did for Lillie.

Those lessons weren’t very sophisticated, Polelonema said, but nevertheless impactful in leading him to eventually enter the ministry.

“They walked the talk. It was just about helping people and telling them about Jesus,” he remembered. “I was there mainly to drive people around, but I watched. Ken and Martha would eat in others’ homes and sit on the floor with them. Ken taught me how to eat with them and even learn their language.”

Polelonema also saw different cultures engage around the gospel. He’s from the Hopi tribe; Lillie is Navajo. Rathashack was Laotian.

Family and friends of Emery Polelonema attend his ordination service Jan. 23 at First Baptist in Centerfield, Utah. Others joined by Zoom. (Photo by Rob Lee)

“Toy and his wife were great friends to us,” said Polelonema. “She would make amazing Laotian meals of sweet rice and fish that they prepared in their own fish oil. We’d go fishing and he could whittle out the utensils to cook the fish over a fire, which she would cook with a mixture of spices that you can’t find in any restaurant.

“They were incredible people.”

It was the couple’s devotion to telling others about Christ, however, that would later influence Polelonema to accept an invitation to preach one Sunday night toward the end of 1990. It would be ten years before he did it again.

That wasn’t because it was a negative experience. He just chose to be in the background. Then the opportunities began to increase throughout central Utah when pastors took vacation or churches needed a preacher that Sunday.

This time, he accepted.

Polelonema was licensed into the ministry in 2008, which he said gave him a feeling of “backup” to go into local churches. Around 2016 he was a member of First Baptist in Centerfield when he became involved in a prison ministry alongside pastor Nathan Simmons.  

Two years ago, Simmons died after an extended battle with cancer and Polelonema accepted the invitation to be interim pastor at the church. His road to entering the pulpit full-time became a reality Jan. 23 with his ordination service at First Centerfield. 

A need for pastors led to Polelonema to answer the call to preach. There are others like him, he said, who need mentors to lead them along.

“Churches are scattered far and wide out here,” he said. “Congregations are small and we need all the people to help out.”

While gaining experience is important, so is theological education. To go along with his degrees in civil engineering and technology (Northern Arizona) and business (Utah State), Polelonema earned a Master’s Degree from Gateway Theological Seminary. 

Rob Lee, executive director for the Utah-Idaho Southern Baptist Convention, said it’s vitally important for churches to identify those in their congregations who can fill pulpits.

“The critical need to reach our region with the gospel is our need for indigenous leaders to serve in our churches, associations and state convention,” he said. “They understand the context and the complexities of having a viable long-term ministry. 

“Emery has served in each of these areas for us. He knows most everyone and they know him in central Utah. As they learn of his being called to be a Baptist pastor, it opens the doors for gospel discussions, including those seeking biblical solutions to knowing God.”

That calling extends to all ages. Polelonema turned 68 a few weeks ago. Last year he almost died from Covid-19, which took two of his brothers. It drove home how earthly life can be gone in a moment.

“According to the Word, we’re all ministers,” he said. “Whenever a door opens, you need to take advantage of it. I basically learned through trial and error.”

It wasn’t his aspiration to be a minister, but to just help out. Biblical accounts like those of Moses and Paul, however, convinced him that there comes a time to stand up.

“When you’re called to do something, you have to take that step forward,” he said. “You can’t just sit back and be a pew-sitter your whole life. You have to go get it done.”