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Local minister, radio host prepares to sign off

Max Hrenda • Oct 21, 2014 at 10:00 PM

After spending more than nine years at the helm of an Elizabethton church and more than two years hosting a weekly radio program, the Rev. John Shuck said it is time for him to sign off.

On Oct. 13, Shuck sent an email to his congregation announcing that he and his wife, Beverly, would be leaving the area by the end of 2014.

The email did not disclose the location to which he would be moving, however, because, he said, “the church I’m going to doesn’t know.”

Since his arrival in Tennessee in 2005, Shuck has served as minister for First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethton and then, in 2011, created “Religion for Life,” a weekly half-hour radio show that airs at 8 p.m. Thursdays on 89.5 WETS-FM. Despite the positive feedback he has received from his show, and the bond he has formed with members of his congregation and the community, Shuck said he felt as though he had fulfilled his purpose in Tennessee.

“There comes a time when you’ve said what you were going to say and do the things you were going to do,” Shuck said. “You need to either have a whole new sense of call for the place you’re in, or it’s time to move to a different place. I’ve been here nine years, and I feel like it’s time.”

Originally from Whitehall, Montana, Shuck came to Northeast Tennessee after spending time as a minister in upstate New York and Billings, Montana. During his time in Billings, Shuck said, his style of ministering came into conflict with other, more established ministerial philosophies.

“I spoke out against the war in Iraq (and) welcomed gays and lesbians into the church,” he said. “I kind of ended up pushing a lot of buttons. I needed a church that I didn’t have to fight about doing ministry. I was looking for a progressive church.”

By “progressive,” Shuck said he was hoping to find a congregation that would be willing to accept certain non-traditional faith-based ideas and activities.

“The old word for that is ‘liberal,’” he said. “I think progressive is that, but also I think it’s not just heady. It has to do with an activity ... and ways of interpreting our tradition to use the tools of modern science rather than creed-based thinking.”

Among those activities and interpretations, Shuck said, is an acceptance of those who live alternative lifestyles — such as the LGBT community — and an appreciation for nature, and environmental causes that go with protecting it.

Shuck then saw an advertisement for an opening at First Presbyterian in Elizabethton. Although he said his knowledge of Tennessee was limited, after further examination, the FPC congregation proved to be the sort of group for which he hoped to lead.

“It was a really remarkable congregation,” Shuck said. “It had environmental justice issues, social justice issues, it was interested in the relationship between faith and science and all those kinds of things. It looked like a really neat match, and it has been.”

Despite that initial outlook, Shuck said that, when he first arrived, he was surprised at the extent religion played in daily life in Northeast Tennessee.

“It was a bit of a culture shock,” he said. “Things just really seemed unusual to me with a lot of overt religious expression. At first, it was kind of off-putting, but ... now I find it rather endearing.”

Though some aspects of Tennessee required an adjustment on Shuck’s part, other parts — like the climate — were easier to accept.

“You can’t beat the weather,” he said. “I grew up in 20-below winters and snow. This is great for me.”

Along with agreeable weather, Shuck said he also developed close relationships with members of his congregation, who proved to be as progressive as he had hoped. Together, they participated in activities like protesting the Iraq war in Washington, D.C., and created local chapters of nationally recognized groups like Parents, Friends and Family of Lesbians and Gays.

After six years of working with his congregation and the church, in 2011, Shuck was approached by a professor from Emory and Henry College in Emory, Virginia, about hosting a religion-oriented program on the college’s radio station. Shuck had studied broadcasting in college and had worked as a disc jockey at radio stations in Boise, Idaho and Seattle, but the distance between Emory and Johnson City was too much for him to bear.

“Driving there would have been too far, so I wondered if I might be able to produce it locally,” Shuck said. “I went to Wayne Winkler at WETS and asked him about producing. They had just changed their format to talk and news ... so they were looking for a half-hour program. I told them what I was thinking about, and he said, ‘Let’s give it a try.’”

After re-educating himself on the technological aspects of radio, Shuck began broadcasting “Religion for Life” every Thursday. Instead of touting Christian or Presbyterian principles, however, Shuck said he wanted to create a forum for listeners to learn about various aspects of religion from various points-of-view. That approach, Shuck said, has proven to be successful.

“We took the approach of an educational program about religion,” Shuck said. “It has really been remarkably well-received. I get comments often from people who appreciate that and get a chance to look at religion through a wide variety of viewpoints.”

Since its inception in Johnson City, “Religion for Life” has been transmitted to stations across Tennessee, Virginia and as far as Lincoln, Nebraska. Shuck said he hoped to continue his show after his relocation.

“Whether or not it can transfer and survive in another environment, I’m not sure,” Shuck said.

Shuck added that local listeners may still be able to hear his broadcasts over WETS if he is able to maintain them, though he said he could not guarantee that.

Though the future of “Religion for Life” is uncertain, Shuck said there are other things he will take from his time in Tennessee without question.

“It’s important to take time to talk to people,” he said. “Sitting there and talking about small talk ... that is an important aspect of relationship-building. When I lived in New York, New Jersey (and) Montana, they don’t often take the time to do that. That’s something that I’ve learned (here), and something that I’ll take with me.”

Follow Max Hrenda on Twitter @MaxLHrenda. Like him on Facebook at facebook.com/jcpresshrenda.

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