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Victory Over Death

Sharon Daugherty
Sharon Daugherty never expected to pastor a 17,000-member church alone. Yet the sudden death of her husband, Billy Joe, changed everything for her and Victory Christian Center in Tulsa, Okla. ( DEANA SPYRES, INSPYRED IMAGES)

Sharon Daugherty’s tears came freely as the dim light of dawn began to break over the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. She hugged her four adult children and her mother-in-law, Iru Daugherty, who were gathered with her in the hospital room that had for many hours been the site of her faith-filled vigil. Outside, the Texas city was stirring, shaking off the night and rising to meet a day Sharon had prayed would never come. It was 4:19 a.m. on Sunday, Nov. 22, 2009, and Sharon’s beloved husband and ministry partner of 36 years, Billy Joe Daugherty, had just died of cancer at age 57.

Indescribable grief welled up in Sharon upon realizing the only man she had loved since they became high school sweethearts was gone. O God! O God! O God! Help me! , was all her broken heart could cry. How can our life together be ending? We were a team—what will I do without Billy Joe?

She and Billy Joe had always been a team—in marriage and in ministry. It was the way Billy Joe had always seen their calling in God. They had worked together, not separately.

Together they’d raised their four children, who had joined Mom and Dad in ministry. Together they’d launched their church, Victory Christian Center in Tulsa, Okla., on Easter Sunday 1981, happily surprised by the 1,600 people who followed them from a previous church and attended the first service at a rented location. They’d prayed in faith for their own place to meet, and God had answered, ultimately providing 151 acres in Tulsa and a main campus directly across the highway from Oral Roberts University (ORU). For the last 28 years, they’d pastored Victory together and seen it grow to 17,000 members while spreading the gospel worldwide.

In 1973, as new graduates of ORU, they had determined together to live by faith in God’s Word, build their ministry on faith and reach the lost for Christ. Billy Joe had become renowned worldwide for his teachings on faith, health and prosperity (the late Word-Faith preachers Oral Roberts and Kenneth Hagin Sr. were among his mentors), but he’d been equally well-known for his commitment to global missions and church planting.

And now ... all of this is ending? Sharon ached to understand. God, where are You in this? Within hours, the Holy Spirit began to address her tearful questions, beginning with a word of clear direction that has powerfully altered Sharon’s life and set Victory Christian Center on course to new ministry fruitfulness.

“The day after Billy Joe died, I heard the Lord say to me Philippians 1:21: ‘For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain,’” Sharon explains. “He then said: ‘Billy Joe lived for Me, and now he is dead. He has gained, but you are still alive on earth, and your life does not stop. The enemy would like to paralyze you, the church and the vision of reaching the harvest. Your response is vital to overcoming the enemy. You are the one who must rise up, stabilize the ship—which is large—and move it forward. Rise up and steady the ship.’”

With that call to move forward, God had suddenly shed new light on what Sharon knew so deeply already: The days when she and Billy Joe were a team were over. She was being called to finish the race they started together. “Our purpose doesn’t change when someone we love moves—like to another city,” she says. “Their loved ones do not stop living and doing what they had been doing before. It’s the same when someone we love dies.”

Sharon also knew what it would cost her, personally, to steady the “ship”—
Victory Christian Center and its numerous ministries. It would mean enduring the deepest sorrow she’d ever felt while bearing the greatest responsibility she’d ever carried.

The Good Fight of Faith

But before she could sort out her life and chart a new course for Victory, a second major storm hit. Three weeks after Billy Joe’s death, Sharon’s father died. The retired Methodist pastor had been one of her greatest influences.

She knew Victory would have to wait. She wasn’t ready to return to the pulpit. “It was two months before I went into my church office. One of the first things I did was visit Freda Lindsay in Dallas,” she says.

Lindsay was co-founder with her late husband, Gordon, of Christ for the Nations Institute (CFNI) in Dallas, where Sharon and Billy Joe had attended as students in the summer of 1976. Freda had weathered the same major storm Sharon now experienced—in 1973 when Gordon died unexpectedly at age 66. She had led CFNI ever since and had turned it into a prominent world-missions ministry.

“[Freda] and her daughter-in-law Ginger spent three hours with me and prayed for me,” Sharon says. “I knew the Lord put that in my heart, to go see her. I wanted to hear her story.” Lindsay died the following year but always exemplified leadership that inspired her, Sharon says.

Meanwhile, fiscal challenges were mounting at Victory. The need to revamp the church’s budget prompted employee layoffs. Associate Pastor Bruce Edwards stepped in for Sharon, making sure the church stayed on solid financial ground and remained true to its long-standing conviction to operate all ministries debt-free.

“Bruce has an amazing business mind and guided us through the business transition that came after Billy Joe’s death,” Sharon says. “He helped us to stay debt-free. We operate that way. We do not go into debt.”

Sharon’s two sons and two daughters stepped up as well, each shouldering key administrative and pastoral responsibilities for their mother in the first year after their father died.

Determined to get back up after being knocked down, Sharon needed to stabilize herself too. She found strength in God’s Word and the teaching she and Billy Joe had built their lives on for more than three decades.

“God spoke to me and reminded me of His Word—that He had deposited it in me and was going to make a withdrawal from that deposit,” she says. “If people have been developing their relationship with God for years, they’ll get back up if they are knocked down. I was trained in the teaching of Word-Faith to live by the Word, not by feelings. As Christians, we feel of course, but we don’t let [feelings] lead our lives. We let faith lead.”

Every time Billy Joe preached, Sharon took notes because she always felt like she was in training. “The teaching of the Word over the years that the Holy Spirit had put in me was like a spiritual muscle that had grown strong for the future—for the days ahead of me,” she says.

Her dedication to continue living by faith in God’s Word is what ultimately quieted her heart over Billy Joe’s death. It didn’t directly answer her Why questions, but it gave her peace. Because she lived by the Word, Sharon had believed her husband would recover. After all, he’d been supernaturally healed in 1989 from what seemed to be a throat virus but what one specialist said may have been leukemia. When he was hospitalized in the summer of 2009, doctors again suspected a virus. In October, he announced he had been diagnosed with lymphoma and told his congregation he was standing in faith for healing while cooperating with medical professionals.

Sharon vigilantly stood in faith with him, which made his death weeks later even more of a shock to her and many others. “We didn’t plan on Billy Joe dying,” she says. “We had expected him to live much longer.”

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