Dialogue: A Conversation with Emily Lemley
After the closing song and the last “Amen,” some in the pews seek out friends or familiar faces.
But not Emily Lemley.
“I’m sure she has her own friends,” fellow church member Carrie Wall said. “But every Sunday, she … immediately looks around after services for someone to encourage, to draw out, to lift up. The question I think must always be on her mind is, ‘Who can I bless today?”
Lemley, even by her own account, is a “people person.” The daughter of Norvel and Helen Young grew up surrounded by church leaders and prominent names in higher education – many of whom were relatives or frequent guests.
She has blended the influences in her adult life, as she and her husband of 40 years, Steven Lemley, served in many capacities at Lubbock Christian University and Pepperdine University.
Emily Lemley is a sought-after teacher and speaker for women’s events, as well, and active in civic organizations and support groups for Christian education.
The Lemleys co-edit the daily devotional guide Power for Today and lead marriage enrichment programs. Members of the Conejo Valley church in Thousand Oaks, Calif., they have three children, five grandchildren – and many, many friends.
Growing up, your father was the preacher for Broadway in Lubbock, the largest Church of Christ at the time. How did that affect you?
I have a special empathy for children of prominent parents. It is hard to be seen for yourself without doing something outrageous. My salvation was that I knew my parents were full of grace.
At Broadway, I had such a sense of belonging. As my brother Matt used to say, “I was born going to that church.” The grand Sunday school, the true religion, the grace-filled preaching — I soaked it up.
One thing that comes to mind is what happened in our home during gospel meetings — I sneaked out of bed to listen to conversations between my parents and guests like Batsell Barrett Baxter, Irene Mattox (my grandmother), Ira North, Reuel Lemmons, Otis Gatewood, Jim Bill McInteer, George Bailey. The talk was serious, “What can we do to help more?” But they laughed a lot, too.
Your husband served as president of Lubbock Christian University. What were some high and low points of those years?
Those 11 years were intense. (We are still involved. Steven is on the board.) Looking back, we think that our work helped to stabilize the university for its current success. The greatest challenge was to keep on believing that God was involved — in hindsight, there is no doubt!
As Steven says, the things we prayed for sometimes didn’t happen but better things did. Based on my growing-up experience, we worked hard to keep our children out of our work; I don’t know how well we did. High points for me were teaching at the university and knowing the associates — my heroes.
What is your perspective on Christian education?
I still believe in Christian education. I know it is not magic. But at a critical developmental moment, kids can have mentors and clearer choices.
Each university has its own personality, and students can choose where they fit — that is more important than academic standing, or size or locale, in helping people become who God made them to be. Professors and staff who reach out to students are truly doing God’s work in the world.
After editing the daily devotional guide Power for Today for many years, what have you learned about the state of spirituality in the pew in the Churches of Christ?
Every year we work with more than 300 writers, many of them not in full-time ministry. It seems to me that they are consistently Christ-centered and honest — they tell real stories of everyday faith. And the encouraging thing is that they reflect the faith of our larger fellowship.
When we hear from some of the nearly 50,000 paid subscribers, they talk about their need for daily inspiration in waiting rooms and on airplanes. One wrote recently about singing the suggested hymn on her way to work. “Every bit of hope helps,” she said. Another memorable letter was from a prisoner who wrote to say that she became a Christian after finding a Power for Today stuck in a hole in the window of her jail cell.
You’ve focused your ministry on teaching women through seminars, retreats and a weekly community Bible study. Why have you done it?
I love it! I lose track of time when I prepare, and no matter how ready I am, I stay up most of the night before — digesting the text, praying, reading, sorting it out in my mind and thinking about what it means. When I don’t feel like I “get it,” I pray harder, and often my best illustrations come driving to the class or the retreat. I feel called to speak to women, and God has given me opportunities beyond my hopes. It is the hardest and most fun thing I do — to talk to women about Jesus.
Your father was involved in an alcohol-related automobile crash in September 1975. That must have impacted you greatly. Looking back, what were any good things that came out of it?
Like many families who go through public embarrassment, we pulled together. We held on to God in Christ. More than 30 years have gone by, and Daddy has been gone almost 10 years, but the lessons stick. The first one is negative: We had two small children then — too young to understand. But we waited too long to tell the story, so they heard about the accident first at church. They never stopped loving and admiring their “Dad Young,” and they forgave us for the silence, I think.
The main positive lesson came from seeing the church reflecting God’s forgiveness. Of course, Daddy had a very childlike heart and repented completely and humbly. But he felt, and we saw, the forgiveness of the church. He understood and accepted the criticism, and he was so willing to help people who came to him privately with addiction or pain.
My mother was a hero. Other practical good that came out of it was that we started praying together as a larger family every time we got together. Daddy’s thankfulness was part of his recovery. But we all caught it too. His “Wow! It’s a great day to be alive!” is something we still try to say. I think his years after “the accident” were his most authentic. It was such a terrible thing that only God could redeem, and he did.
What do you see for the future of Churches of Christ?
The next generation seems to be doing what we Boomers only talked about in missions, church planting, worship and community. Many of them treasure our uniqueness and aren’t in reaction as were so many of my generation.
At the same time, they aren’t necessarily reflections of where we think we’ve been — I recently heard a young worship leader say, there’s “too much grace.” I smiled because I know how hard that grace was to come by.
What I’m learning in my personal life helps in our church life: When you begin to truly accept who you are, who you came from, then you start to grow up. I see more spiritual grown-ups in the next generation.