By Lindsay Peyton
Michelle Shonbeck first heard about the Christian Community Service Center (CCSC) from her church, St. Luke’s UMC in Houston and signed up as a volunteer in 1988. Now, she serves as president and CEO of the faith-based organization. Her journey has felt divinely inspired, with God’s hand guiding all along. “I could never have put this together myself,” Shonbeck said.
Shonbeck explained that her upbringing gave her a heart for service. “I grew up in a home where helping other people was just in the water,” she said. “I was taught to look outside myself, not just within.”
And that’s why St. Luke’s UMC seemed like a perfect fit when Shonbeck joined 35 years ago. Her grandparents attended the church, and she could tell from the start that the congregation was service oriented.
“I find St. Luke’s to be a church that cultures faith,” she said. “It’s a big tent – and that’s one of its strengths.”
St. Luke’s has been a significant part of her life, from being the church where her children were baptized to introducing her to the career of her dreams at the CCSC.
The CCSC was founded in 1977, under the leadership of diaconal minister Dean Robinson at St. Luke’s UMC. Five additional churches joined, and CCSC was incorporated as an official nonprofit in 1980.
The founding congregations shared a common vision – to meet immediate needs of people in crisis. As more and more churches joined the organization, the mission grew. They understood that by working together, they could accomplish more than on their own.
The CCSC serves the poor, hungry and disabled, regardless of their religion. That mission appealed to Shonbeck when she started volunteering.
At the time, Shonbeck made a living working in corporate human resources. But she had felt a tug in a whole other direction for a while.
“I was interested in going into ministry,” she said. “I had a wonderful job, but I heard God’s voice calling me somewhere else.”
Then, after two years of volunteering, the CCSC offered her a job as emergency services manager. It became clear that the Holy Spirit was moving her in a different direction.
“He was calling me not into ordained ministry but to a faith-based nonprofit,” Shonbeck said. “God gently guided me over. You can’t orchestrate anything like that.”
She started in the nonprofit’s Emergency Services division, which provides for a variety of basic needs, like groceries, clothing, hygiene, medical care and financial help for rent or utilities.
Shonbeck said it was an ideal place to start. “You have every human need going through there,” she said. “You get this wide lens.”
And that perspective helped in understanding how all of the CCSC programs work in concert, now that Shonbeck serves at the nonprofit’s helm.
The CCSC also serves in disaster relief and maintains a community garden, which benefits its food pantries. There are programs for youth, as well as workforce development, which provide tools to adults on their career journeys.
The nonprofit also offers Martha’s Way, an entrepreneurial-focused vocational training program led primarily in Spanish that prepares participants to own and operate their own housekeeping business. In 2021, the CCSC added its Professional Home Caregiver Training Program, which equips individuals interested in a career assisting older adults or those with disabilities.
During Shonbeck’s tenure, the CCSC has created an endowment for long-term financial stability, closed and opened programs in response to changing community needs and raised funds to build a new facility.
Shonbeck said that the staff and volunteers continue to inspire her. “I love the clients, the staff and our board members,” she added.
The connection to mission keeps her passionate about the job. “My office is on the third floor,” she said. “If I want to touch mission, I just get on the elevator.”
As a lifelong United Methodist, Shonbeck feels called to put faith into action. “I believe that if you are a person of faith, you are called to serve,” she said.
She pointed to the popular John Wesley quote, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”
Shonbeck said that no one debates theology at CCSC – instead, volunteers and staff focus on serving others to build the Kingdom. And they strive to live the gospel message by seeing the face of Christ in everyone.
“I believe that the way to live your life as a person of faith is to see the sacred in every person,” Shonbeck said. “If we start with that, that we were all made in God’s image, it transforms you. Every person has God’s handprint – and we’re all equal at the table of God.”
At the CCSC, an ecumenical effort continues to make a major impact in Houston. Shonbeck invites other area churches to join. “If there’s a church in the area that wants to be part of what we’re doing, we’d love for them to call us,” she said.