SHERIDAN — After 126 years of male ministers leading Sheridan’s First Congregational United Church of Christ, Sheila Naismith will step in as the church’s first recorded female leader in its history. Changing the culture with her gender isn’t enough for Naismith, though. Plans for social justice projects are already underway. Naismith graduated with a degree from California Western School of Law before she decided to move into ministry.
“Halfway through law school I was standing on the church patio wondering, praying that the church would get a worker,” Naismith said of her local church in San Diego. “The church had a minister, but it needed another worker that could preach, that could do programs.”
Naismith said the church received several videos and applications of those interested in the position, but then she heard a voice she said was God saying, “It’s you.”
She told herself not to forget that single, quiet moment while finishing law school. Naismith then started an internship in family law before heading into work at the church in San Diego.
During her time working in the internship, Naismith worked in the domestic violence unit and realized the limitations of the law. The lack of ability to advocate for others drove her more quickly into ministry.
“I just knew it wasn’t a good fit for me because I have always been driven in social justice,” Naismith said. “I have found that the church is a wonderful place. I landed in the right place for social justice.”
Naismith noticed that despite the supposed end to the civil rights movement in America, all was not well. She jumped into a multi-racial coalition, learned how to better interact with different cultures and became the associate minister of her San Diego church.
Before settling down in Sheridan, Naismith married a Scotsman and moved to Scotland until he died.
While there, she worked for the Church of Scotland and learned how to run a program for asylum seekers in Glasgow with little manpower and resources, a feat she described as “learning to breathe underwater.”
She returned to the United States and settled in Sheridan after visiting a friend in Buffalo and living there for a few years. Naismith was drawn to UCC after learning about its soup kitchen, which has been in operation for 24 years.
“It’s people working together that can move a mountain,” Naismith said.
Even before her official installation last Sunday, Naismith collaborated with The Brinton Museum to provide a unique cultural experience for the community that featured a Cheyenne man sharing about his Cheyenne spirituality and traditions.
Naismith’s larger goal, though, is to institute a pseudo-homeless shelter to replace the building Volunteers of America shut down last fall. She’s inspired other spiritual leaders in the community, including First United Methodist Church of Sheridan’s pastor Jim Barth.
“There is a real importance with the shelter closing down that we explore different ideas in regards to what our challenge is to overcome that issue,” Barth said.
Barth noticed Naismith’s passion during ministerial association meetings throughout the last year.
Naismith is changing UCC’s congregational structure by leading as a woman, but her plans go beyond the culture shift to extend into social justice and work for the broader Sheridan community.
“Being able to share those (overseas and out-of-state ministry) experiences just makes our realm of experience larger,” Barth said. “When we can have different people from different walks of life, different generations, different genders, whatever label you want to put on it, just to have that diversity makes the ministerial association stronger.”