By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
BENTON — When you have two positions that basically require a 24/7 commitment, 24 hours in a single day sometimes is not enough.
That is what Steve Ross has discovered as he approaches his first anniversary as Sheriff of Polk County.
“There are days when I can’t get everything done,” admitted Ross who in his “spare time” serves as associate pastor of Benton Station Baptist Church, ministering primarily to youth.
In those moments he is comforted by the advice of his pastor and friend, Joel Jenkins of Benton Station Baptist: “If you can do it, it wouldn’t be a God thing.”
It’s his strong faith in God that has sustained Ross throughout the entire process that resulted in his election as sheriff last September.
Ross began his career in law enforcement as a deputy in Polk County in 1988 before joining the Cleveland police department in 1990. He moved up the ranks and eventually became a detective, a position he held until 2014 when he decided to run for sheriff in the county he has lived in for most of his life.
“I’ve always had a desire to come back to my county and serve,” he said.
When the former sheriff retired after more than two decades on the job, Ross threw his name into the ring.
“I wasn’t seeking the power of the job, but the platform,” Ross said. “I wanted everyone to know that you can be in politics and be a Christian,” he noted.
Ross tries to use the platform God has given him to “affect others the way that Jesus tells us to in the Great Commission.
“I am serving Him in my Judea — my hometown.”
Even before he was elected as sheriff Ross had already combined law enforcement with the ministry.
He served as bivocational pastor of Friendship Baptist Church in Delano for four years while on the Cleveland police department.
Ross believes strongly that God used his ministry at Friendship as preparation for his current roles. “Serving as pastor was part of the training God gave me. He allowed me to manage pastoring a church while serving as a police detective.
“God always makes a way. He allows me to be able to do it (both positions). I couldn’t do it without Him.”
Ross notes that while some may see a conflict in the two roles he serves, there is none.
“I have a job to do. I am the sheriff of Polk County,” he said.
Sometimes that involves putting folks in jail. “I have no qualms about doing that. God tells us to obey the laws of the land,” Ross said.
“I’m sworn to uphold the Constitution of the United States and the laws of Tennessee. I will do that to the best of my ability,” he said.
Ross stressed that he is not “a preacher with just a position. We are doing our job.”
Yet, from all accounts, people know without a doubt that he operates from strong biblical convictions.
“I have no qualms about telling people I am a Christian, but I hope I don’t have to. I hope that how I live my life shows that I’m a Christian.”
Step into his office and you will notice a sign that says, “The Lord will fight for you; You need only to be still” (Exodus 14:14).
Also proudly displayed on his wall is a large photo of his youth group at Benton Station where he serves as associate pastor.
They help remind him of what’s important. “I try to keep Wednesday evenings open. I don’t want to let God down or my youth group. They want to learn about God,” he said.
Joel Jenkins, pastor of Benton Station, also is a bivocational minister. He serves as youth services officer for the General Sessions Court judge so he is at the Polk County jail on a regular basis.
Jenkins noted that during the election they heard that a person can’t be both a sheriff and a minister. “I think that has been proven wrong,” Jenkins observed.
He noted that one of the first things Ross did as sheriff was to initiate worship services every other Sunday evening in the jail.
He also appointed a longtime friend and minister (John Miles Sr.) to oversee the jail’s ministry program.
The services are led by local pastors.
“Everyone who comes to share in the services is amazed at how the Lord is working,” Jenkins said.
Ross has been pleased with the response of the inmates. He noted the jail normally houses between 120-130 inmates. Attendance at the services average about 90 each week. “It is strictly voluntary,” he stressed.
Ross preached at the first service and noted that he was struggling with what to preach because he kept thinking it was a service for “inmates.” As he prayed, “the Lord told me that they are not inmates. They are my children.”
Ross took that to heart and the message came to mind.
The sheriff said he tries to convey to inmates that people love them no matter what they’ve done, just like Jesus does.
Ross also tells the inmates that he will treat them as fairly as he can.
“If they open the door for me to talk about Jesus, I’m going to, but I don’t push Him on them.”
Ross truly sees the jail as a mission field. “If I can get one person away from drugs when they leave jail, we’ve affected a good part of the community,” he said, noting that while Polk County is large in terms of land mass, it only has 18,000 residents.
He observed that while jail can change minds, only Jesus Christ can change hearts. That’s when you get results.”
Ross said it’s too early to truly know the long term impact the jail ministry is having but there has been a short term effect. Fights, which are common in jails, have decreased quite a bit, he said.
Ross noted that there are days that he feels like Moses did — inadequate and unqualified.
“But God does the calling and the qualifying. He just needs willing people.”
Ryan Potts, director of missions for Polk County Baptist Association, said the impact Ross has made in one year is “extraordinary.”
“Sheriff Steve Ross ran on the platform that he would run a clean campaign and that he would implement Christian and biblical principles into the daily operation of the Sheriff’s Department,” Potts said.
“From all indicators, he is making good on his campaign promises and God is receiving glory.”