WHERE GOD LEADS
Bill Miller wanted to study architecture after high school, but he wound up in Bible college.
"My grandma prayed me there," the Valley Fellowship pastor laughs.
In order to get Grandma off his back, Bill says he agreed to go for one year. But God and Grandma had a different plan, and before Bill's first year was over, he'd had a change of heart.
"I was my own first convert," he jokes.
His story goes something like this:
Bible colleges often send their students out to student preach, so to speak. It gives budding preachers some practice, promotes the colleges and helps churches that may be in between pastors.
When Bill was asked to fill in at a little church in rural Perrydale near Amity, he thought, why not?
About 12 people showed up to hear a kid who wasn't really a Christian, Bill says preach his first sermon.
When he stepped up to the front, he panicked. Reading through his outline in his nervousness, Bill exhausted the 20-minute sermon he'd prepared in about 60 seconds. He had 19 minutes to fill with something.
"So, I started talking about my classes and what I was studying and why, and by the time I got finished I realized this is worth giving your life to. This answers all my questions," he says.
While Bill tells a story and he has lots of them his expressive hands stretch wide, pulling his perpetual smile along with them into the unabashed grin of a happy man whose life is a perfect fit.
He unashamedly drives around town with a bumper sticker that reads, "I love my wife" on the righthand side and a Christian fish symbol on the left.
For anyone who follows Bill, literally or spiritually, the priorities of this man's life are clearly seen God and family.
And for more than 30 years, flocks of valley residents have followed both Bill's and his wife Sue's example to serve each other and God.
Soon after giving his life to Christ, Bill met Sue, also a student at Northwest Christian College in Eugene. The couple married in 1969. After graduation in 1971, they were offered a church in Elgin.
Sue shakes her head in amazement at the faith they were given as a young couple fresh out of Bible college.
"We were just a couple of kids. I don't know what those elders were thinking," she says.
They bought a house built in the 1880s, began to fix it up and started a family. They raised two daughters Kelly and Molly as well as fostering dozens more over the years, including two boys they eventually adopted.
Evidence of the bond that had grown between the Millers, the Elgin community and beyond was poured out when an overheated woodstove burned the Millers' home the night of Easter Sunday 1977. Sue and the girls were not at home, and Bill barely escaped with his life. They lost everything. The whole valley rallied to their aid.
"For at least seven months, I don't think there was a day when I didn't find money in the post office box," Bill says, looking over at Sue. Not that everyone sent large amounts, though some certainly did, but it seemed like everyone churched and unchurched alike gave something.
"For example, somebody would send $10 with a note, You did a funeral for us last year and we just wanted to do something.' Things like that," Bill recalls.
After ministering at the Elgin Christian Church for more than 14 years, the Millers left the valley for another assignment convinced it was a good move for their family. But it was not a good fit, they both say and a discouraged Bill said he'd never preach again. But once more, God had another plan.
They came back to Northeast Oregon and moved into a primitive cabin near Joseph. They lived there for 10 months.
"It was wonderful. You can really hear God living like that," Sue says.
One day, some old friends from the valley approached Bill about starting a new church in La Grande.
"I said, No way, man, I'm done," Bill recalls. But eventually Steve and Verla Kirkeby, along with a handful of other people, convinced him this new church would be something different while remaining grounded in scripture, teaching the Bible and the saving grace of faith in Jesus Christ.
"We're allergic to cookie-cutter church design this is a gifts-oriented fellowship. There is no machine that has to be maintained. Each member is free to serve where their gifts and passions lead them," Bill says.
For example, if someone in the body feels God leads them to hospital ministry, that's what they do. If they move away and no one feels led by the Spirit to fill that spot, the ministry ends unless someone else comes along and wants to take it up.
"It has been an amazing thing to watch as God has honored that and provides for the needs of the body as they arise," Bill says.
With their move to Boise, there will be spaces to fill, though both Bill and Sue are confident God will provide the willing hearts. For example, music has been a huge part of the Valley Fellowship worship, partly because music is a passion for both Bill and Sue. Bill has written thousands of songs, and together they have recorded and performed that music as part of the worship team at Valley Fellowship.
"The worship team is more than us, though. Don Scott, for example, is an amazing guitarist. And I think with this change God will bring new people in or encourage some there to step forward," Bill says.
As for the preaching, it is in good hands with co-pastor Steve Kirkeby, who has a master's degree in ministry, and who will now spend more time in front of the congregation than in the background.
"We've been a good match because we recognize each other's gifts. And Steve's always worked more behind the scenes, but he's always done some preaching and he'll be great going full-time," Bill says.
Bill admits it is the people at Valley Fellowship who will be hard to leave behind.
"Well, we're parents of this church and it's been the most amazing thing to watch it grow," Bill says.
"The love of the people in this whole valley has been a blessing," Sue says.
A mixed blessing as it is also the hardest thing to leave behind.
"This is the toughest decision we've ever made," Sue admits. "But we do different things at different times in our lives. Now is the time to be closer to our kids and our grandkids while we're young enough to have fun with them. We miss 'em."