“Out in the highways and byways of life, Many are weary and sad.”
These lyrics from the hundred-year-old hymn, “Make Me A Blessing,” are a favorite of Miriam Beecher, or “Pastor Miriam,” as she is known at Christ Our Shepherd Lutheran Church.
The background song of her life, the melody has been playing in her head for as long as she can remember.
Miriam is the middle of five kids born to a school teacher and grocer in Greenville, South Carolina. She has two older brothers and a younger sister and brother. Her mother taught school for more than 40 years. Her father worked 42 years for Winn- Dixie.
She learned a love of learning from her mother, but education was important to her father too. Though his own educational pursuits were interrupted by serving in World War II, he was determined that their five children would go to college.
As soon as she began to read, her mother, the daughter of an itinerant Baptist preacher, showed Miriam that her name was in the Bible. The family faithfully attended a Southern Baptist church where Miriam had fun, met good people, and felt safe.
“I was very involved,” she says. “Whatever we had at church, I did. Wednesday night. Sunday night. The whole bit. And it was a place of affirmation, fun, good people, and strong women in the mission program who taught me so much.”
She accepted Christ at the age of six. She vividly remembers that same year, at Vacation Bible School, a missionary sharing how people in some parts of the world practiced self-flagellation, whipping themselves on the back to get rid of their sins.
“I burst into tears when he said that,” she recalls. “I was thinking ‘They don’t know about Jesus.’ It really distressed me.”
Nearly 60 years later, she thinks that may have been her earliest nudge to serve.
She was intensely interested in the theology.
“I can remember I asked so many questions from the time I was in first grade, to the point that my Sunday School teacher called my mother and said, ‘please help your child not ask any more questions.’”
When she was in seventh grade, her questions angered the associate pastor teaching a Wednesday class.
“He got so mad, he said, ‘I am a pastor. I know God better than you and don’t ask me any more questions.’”
“I pretty much shut up after that,” she says, “but still just loved the church and loved music and loved being there with friends.”
She remembers in the ninth grade feeling a stronger calling to serve, but she wasn’t sure what that would look like. There was no thought of being a pastor, no voice from the church that ever suggested that, but she thought perhaps she’d find a call in missions or Christian education.
Besides her faith, she loved music. She sang with Robert Shaw in the Living Christmas Tree as a member of the auditioned Greenville County Chorus.
“Her sermons are a wonderful blend of scripture lessons and how it relates to everyday life. I love her willingness to share her own personal stories that help make the point of her sermon. Some of them are silly, funny things while others are personal struggles that she too has faced. I think that’s what makes her so relatable to the congregation. Her sermons help us to grow in our faith and give us ideas on how to live our lives.” – Carol Jensen-Linton
She also loved math. Despite having new teachers in a new school every year of high school because of integration-mandated busing, she graduated as valedictorian and set off, sight unseen, for Wake Forest. She had never visited the campus. She never even applied anywhere else.
It was a logical, mathematical decision. Miriam wanted a school within five hours of her home, one with great academics and good music, math, and religion departments. Using a compass (think geometry, not navigation), she put a dot in Greenville and drew the appropriately-sized circle. A few schools, Furman, Samford, UNC-Charlotte, the University of Virginia, and Wake Forest were among her options. Wake Forest was the winner.
She told her family she felt called into ministry.At first, it wasn’t a popular decision.
Before she headed to Winston-Salem, her father declared, “No one is ever going to marry you. Why would any man marry you the way you think about things?”
‘You’ll be back by Christmas,” one of her brothers said.
Turns out they were wrong on both counts.
“Wake Forest was the best thing I ever could have done,” Miriam says.
Since she’d never even visited, she didn’t know how committed the school was to teaching women to think for themselves.
“We were pushed,” she said. And it did prove challenging.
“I didn’t know it was the kind of hard it was going to be,” she says.
She majored in religion, minored in math, and took education courses so she could teach math “if it didn’t work out.”
If there were a Miriam Beecher trivia game, you’d surely want to know these tidbits:
She served on the Wake Forest convocations committee.
She played on the university’s field hockey team.
She was a lifelong admirer of Maya Angelou, who was an artist in residence when Miriam was a student at Wake Forest.
She was a soloist with the university choir and madrigal singers.
She graduated magna cum laude in 1977.
From there, against the advice of religion professors who warned her about the limited opportunities for women, she proceeded to Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
“I thought, ‘God put me in the Baptist church. I have so much to be grateful for and have learned so much. This is where I should go.’”
She entered the Master of Divinity program on probation, because of her gender, the first semester. She was one of only six full-time women students among 900 men in the MDiv program.
“I didn’t make a fuss over probation,” Miriam says. “I just felt like this is where I was supposed to be.”
“I never went into this thinking I was going to drive a stake into the ground about women in ministry. Honestly, as naive as this sounds, I just really wanted to do what God wanted me to do. I just wanted to follow that.”
She met a cool guy at breakfast with friends at seminary. A music major with a name as Biblical as her own, he asked, “Have any of you ever heard about Moravians and about Moravian music?”
Miriam was the only one who knew anything about the subject. A friendship was born in the discussion that followed.
David Beecher’s intellectual curiosity was matched by his work ethic. In addition to carrying a full slate of piano students, he worked in an after school music program at a high school. He played the piano for two churches on Sundays. One was a small, new Lutheran church, where he was out of the early morning service in time to be at the organ at a Baptist Church at 11.
David was interested in Miriam, but she was more interested in studying. They dated a few times, but she was focused on her work.
Her father died suddenly in 1978, a year after she entered seminary. Devastated but determined, she came right back to school after his funeral and stayed through the summer, working in Louisville. But the next fall, she realized how much his death had affected her, and she took the semester off.
“It hit me hard,” she says. “I did not have the tools to process it like I would’ve thought.”
Through that year of grief, David and Miriam’s friendship deepened. He wrote many letters to her during this time.
“His utter compassion when my father died and his sticking by me as I was trying to figure out the full impact of all that on my life – we just kept being drawn.”
Her father’s words, “No guy’s gonna accept the way you think,” had erected a wall around her heart, but David was patient. And kind. And there.
They married in March of 1981.
It’s fair to say that Miriam’s first call in ministry after seminary is a shocker. On many levels.
David had been ordained a Southern Baptist pastor in the fall of 1980. When they married, he was serving as minister of music and director of Christian education at Calvary Baptist Church in Morgantown, West Virginia.
“I went to West Virginia without a call yet,” Miriam says. “I figured, if God’s leading me here, He’ll open a door.”
The door that opened was for a post as a chaplain at a federal prison, but there was an obstacle: she needed to be ordained.
Although Miriam held a Master of Divinity degree from Southern Baptist Seminary, the denomination does not ordain women. However, local congregations within the denomination are autonomous and may ordain whomever they choose. The church where David served was between pastors and the two of them had been preaching together.
“That church was not making any theological challenge,” she explains. “They were taking what they had available to them, and we were willing. That meant the church didn’t have to go look for a pastor in the interim.”
The deacons did not hesitate to ordain Miriam.
So, for nearly three years, she was known as Lady Rev at the Robert F. Kennedy Federal Correctional Center. The prison was severely overcrowded, home to a co-ed population ranging in age from 18 to 35, and with a full range of security levels. It was one of three facilities in the country experimenting with a co-ed population.
What could go wrong?
It was also a teaching prison. The idea was for inmates to learn a skill or finish their GED while they were incarcerated. Miriam’s own education expanded in ways she never imagined.
“I learned how to do so many things.”
Like how to belly chain. Yes, like you see in the movies. She acquired a new vocabulary, words you are not likely to hear at seminary.
“And how many times in daily language do you use the word compound and mean a place?”
She was trained to recognize triangulation. She learned to always be on your guard, to know where you are and what you’re doing and where the exits are and what your game plan would be in the event of, well, whatever.
“It was some good continuing education, some of which has not been useful since, but a vast store of what I learned as a prison chaplain built my confidence, sharpened my insight, and still serves me today.”
She learned to minister amid sadness and in a constant state of fear. The summer before she came to work there, a teacher had been murdered.
“As a prison chaplain, on the one hand, you are required to function as an enforcer of rules, yet on the other hand, you must be guided by a grace-filled heart, too.”
The chapel was in the center of the compound, a beautiful space built of wood and made to look like an ark. Every day, Miriam practiced a ritual descent from the gate down the many steps that lead to the chapel.
“All those steps going down I kept singing ‘Make Me a Blessing.’”
“A selfless, kind and loving caretaker, listener, pastor, shepherd to all she meets, she has walked with us through all heartaches, troubles and joys. No one knows if or when she sleeps.” – Marquita Foster
“Carry the sunshine where darkness is rife. Making the sorrowing glad.”
She credits the prison chaplaincy with teaching her to “talk normal,” dropping long seminary words and becoming much more colloquial.
“You come out of seminary and you want so much to tell people about the impact of the Babylon exile, and the split kingdom, and all those things you weren’t taught in Sunday School. People aren’t interested in hearing that in a sermon. They want to hear something heart to heart.”
By definition, though, this was a captive audience.
“I found out pretty quickly that I could bore them to tears, but they stayed in the room because that would look good to the parole board.”
There’s a book of stories in those years. Here’s a magazine-sized one:
In the spring of 1983, after months of good behavior, nine inmates, men and women, were allowed to leave the compound to attend Ramadan services in Pittsburg. Miriam and another chaplain were escorts for the 80+ mile trip. By choice, the chaplains were unarmed.
Everything went well in Pittsburgh, but on the way home, in a very mountainous area miles from anything, the prison van broke down. Her colleague decided he would make the long walk to get help, leaving tiny Miriam in charge of a pack of felons. While he was gone, two of the guys got into an argument, and a brutal fight ensued. Miriam, standing as tall as her five feet would allow, stepped between their punches, summoned her loudest teacher voice, and yelled, “Stop this right now, and I won’t write you up!”
“They looked down at me, and it was like, ‘Is she for real?’”
But the penalty for the behavior would have been an automatic transfer to a prison with far fewer privileges and no chance of coming back. They stopped.
She never told the other chaplain or reported the incident. (Hopefully, the statute of limitations has ended for this, or she may go to jail herself.)
In 1983, David and Miriam were expecting their first child. She resigned from the chaplain’s post in the fall. Their son, Andrew, was born in December. A second son, Matthew, came along two years later.
“When I run into people when I’m back in Peachtree City and they place me as Pastor Miriam’s son, they don’t even think twice before coming over and saying how much they appreciate my mom and how much she has done for them… She truly genuinely cares and she’s invested in all these people’s lives… I know she means a lot to them but it’s reciprocated. They mean so much to her as well.” – Matthew Beecher son
The family detoured from West Virginia to First Baptist Church in Panama City Beach, Florida, before David reconnected with the Lutheran pastor he had known a decade earlier. In 1983, he accepted a call to Peace Lutheran Church in Rogers, Arkansas, where he served as Director of Congregational Ministries. A year later, they formally became Lutherans.
Like so many Christian denominations, there are several varieties of Lutherans. The Beechers’ church was part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ECLA).
David and Miriam were in Arkansas for 13 years. Miriam was raising their sons while volunteering as youth leader, teacher, preacher, and ministry leader. She helped the youth host dinner theaters, building sets, and rewriting plays from the 1920s and 30s. She continues to maintain relationships with many of the youth she served during that time.
She also served as Assistant to the Bishop for Youth Ministry and took on duties in Stewardship Ministry for the Arkansas-Oklahoma Synod, where she joined the staff. She was affirmed as a Lutheran pastor in 1998.
“Miriam is an incredible pastor but more than that she walks the Christian walk in all that she does. Being a true follower of Christ is so difficult but Miriam, like Jesus, leads with unconditional love. If she wasn’t wearing her collar you would still know she is a pastor. Our family and church love her.” – Tina Patrick
That same year, John Weber, the founding pastor of Christ Our Shepherd, recruited the Beechers to minister together in Peachtree City. Miriam was called as associate pastor, David as Minister of Music. They continue to serve in these capacities today.
Miriam worked as a partner in ministry with John, trading off years supervising a well-respected internship program. She enjoyed the energy and fun of teaching and learning from seminary students and especially enjoyed working with John in this capacity.
“He’s such a good teacher. It was a real gift to be allowed to share that.”
John retired in 2008. The following year, a decision by the Evangelical Church of America to accept homosexual pastors in lifelong relationships brought a crisis to Christ Our Shepherd and many other ECLA congregations across the country. Miriam served as a moderator, bringing in well-respected theologians who spoke on both sides of the debate.
“She finds the good in people and inspires them to bring out the good in themselves… Her spirit of love and generosity is genuine… We need more people like my mom, people who are about empathy and bringing people together and trying to understand each other rather than fighting with each other.” – Andrew Beecher, son
Eventually, the congregation voted to remain within the ECLA, but a third of the membership left. Miriam played an essential role in steering the church through these painful years.
She has served alongside Senior Pastor Fritz Wiese since 2010. They share preaching duties, alternating Sundays. She has never felt called to a senior pastor role.
“At Christ Our Shepherd, I have had the joyous opportunity to serve with two powerhouse talented pastors, the legendary John Weber and the bright, highly accomplished Fritz Wiese,” Miriam says. “John made a point to open doors for me as a woman pastor and Fritz, with his endless energy, continues to challenge me and make me grow. What a privilege it is to serve this wonderful congregation alongside these amazing pastors!”
In addition to pastoral duties, Miriam supervises the youth ministry, Christian Education for all ages, and the social services ministry, where the church’s “Ministry of the Month” program rotates serving local needs in many areas. She is Christ Our Shepherd’s pastoral liaison with the Stephens Ministries, an interdenominational group which she helped revive after some years of inactivity.
Being in a pastoral role in the community isn’t something Miriam takes for granted. For as long as she can remember, she has treasured the opportunity to minister.
“Miriam truly has a servant’s heart, always putting the needs of others and Christ Our Shepherd before her own,” her husband says. “She is incredibly intuitive, sensing crises or joys in others before they are commonly known. I accuse her of having ‘Talk to me’ tattooed on her forehead, because total strangers who meet her, see her smile and sense her spirit, strike up conversations, frequently revealing struggles they are experiencing.”
The church hosted an elaborate 20th-anniversary celebration for the Beechers last fall.
“There’s a story in the Bible where Jesus visits the home of two sisters. Mary sits at the feet of Jesus listening to his stories while Martha is busy in the kitchen preparing the meal and getting angry at Mary’s lack of help. Our Pastor Miriam is the best of both sisters. She’s always ready to sit down and listen to anyone who needs a caring ear and offer a word of encouragement from Jesus. But you’re just as likely to find Miriam running around the church somewhere, trying to help someone with a task.”– Fritz Wiese, Senior Pastor, Christ Our Shepherd Lutheran Church
“Out of my life may Jesus shine. Make me a blessing to someone today.”
Make Me A Blessing is still her mantra.
“When you boil it down in my heart, that’s still what I feel.”
“We all have that opportunity, because we’re alive, to care about another person. It’s a privilege.”
She looks back on what she calls her journey of naivete. She wanted to be in ministry, to be a blessing to others. She wasn’t looking to make a statement, nor did she spend precious time making decisions. When doors opened, she walked through them.
Miriam believes the grace of God exceeds how we’ve defined Him. It’s audacious, she says. Huge.
“God really is love, and that love doesn’t have boundaries. It’s the silliest idea to really think you’re gonna give somebody grace and then you’re gonna put a period on it. He’s gonna keep his side of the bargain.”
She acknowledges that modern-day churches are challenged in many ways, and imperfect.
“It’s really easy for any church to lose their energy, or have it dinged,” Miriam says. “In leadership, you want to be a part of what keeps lifting that energy, lifting that spirit, and being there for the one who is so drained by life.”
Church, she believes, is a place where people can see a picture beyond themselves. She encourages people to give it a chance, another try. Find the place where you connect with people who are willing to walk the distance with you, she says.
“Everybody hits that moment when you realize having those people helps carry you. I hear the phrase over and over again, ‘What do people do without this? What do they do?’”
“Pastor Miriam has a heart of gold and it is as big as Texas and beyond. She loves everyone and would take the time to be with anyone in need, from hospital visits to crisis intervention. I found she was always ready to give the time and energy to walk with people through their life struggles. Her grasp of scripture and willingness to share the Word through her ministry is always present as she lives out the words ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.’
Another word that describes Pastor Miriam is sacrificing. She worked endless hours to make sure all aspects of ministry were covered and at any time of day or night to respond to someone’s cry for help and support. At the same time, she was a mother to two wonderful sons and a wife to her husband who was the minister of music. I was always amazed at how she could balance her time as pastor, mother, and wife.”– John Weber, retired, founding Senior Pastor of Christ Our Shepherd