J. Reuben Clark Law Society

A Leaf in a Stream: The Conversion Story of Judge William Sheffield (Ret.)

Bill Sheffield's life as a lawyer is a story of unexpected twists and turns. Upon completing law school at the University of California at Berkeley in 1971, he became a deputy public defender in Orange County, California. From there he entered private practice as a sole practitioner. His practice frequently caused him to travel abroad, spending days away from his family. In an effort to settle down, Bill decided to seek a judgeship. In 1983, he was appointed to a seat on the Superior Court of California. The day Governor Jerry Brown telephoned Bill to tell him of the appointment, Bill was exhilarated.

By June 1984, Bill's life was ideal. He had an expensive car, a large home in southern California, frequent trips to Europe, a wonderful wife and children, and esteem and prestige in his profession. Yet it wasn't enough. He felt hollow. He found himself asking, is this all there is? Other than knowing there was a God, Bill had very little religious life. He had no church, and no clear idea who Jesus was. He had no idea about where he had come from, why he was here on earth, or where he was going. Yet, seldom would a day pass that he would not silently ask himself those questions.

While still a practicing lawyer, Bill had decided to aggressively seek answers. He applied for admission to Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Connecticut. Although not Christian, he theorized that he could evaluate whether Christianity was true by immersing himself with believers. His application was denied, and he was back to square one, looking for answers.

One morning while driving toward the courthouse, Bill flipped on the radio, and randomly landed on a station playing a sermon by "Pastor Jack." Pastor Jack Hayford is a radio evangelist based in California. Normally Bill would have changed to the news, but that day Jack's preaching captivated him. After listening to Pastor Jack for nearly eight months, Bill felt the call to the seminary again. Now as a Christian, Bill applied to Yale Divinity School, and this time was accepted. But this meant uprooting his family, and leaving his prestigious career as a judge for unemployment. Fortunately, Bill's wife, Leslie, was supportive and the Sheffields moved to Connecticut. Before leaving, Bill promised God that he would become a "leaf in a stream," and go wherever God wanted him.

After the Sheffields arrived in Connecticut, Leslie informed Bill that she needed to attend Sunday services at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). Although Leslie had been baptized into the LDS faith at age eight, she had been inactive since she was eighteen. She needed to resolve whether the church of her childhood was true. Bill initially resisted attending, but then remembered that he had promised the Lord that he would be a "leaf in a stream." Thus, he was able to attend the LDS church the next Sunday with great peace.

The Sheffields were warmly welcomed on their first visit. Bill was attracted to the LDS faith because of the spirituality of the male members, particularly since most of these men were New York City businessmen making money in the fast lane. Bill was intrigued at how these men were able to blend business life with deep spirituality. What was it that caused tears to well up in their eyes when they testified that Christ lives and this is his Church? He needed to find out. He read the Book of Mormon. He read it in approximately ten days, prayed to know whether it was true, and expected an immediate answer. It did not come. Although he felt that it was not probable that a simple farm boy could have fabricated such a sophisticated and doctrinally profound text, he did not have a testimony. Resolving the question required, among other things, further study of Mormon theology. Bill read additional LDS scripture and even anti-Mormon literature.

During this time, Bill had to make a decision about his next year of school. He had intended to attend Cambridge University in England for his second year. He had almost finalized his plans to do so, when he felt a strong impression to attend Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Bill telephoned BYU's College of Religious Education, where he learned that BYU had eliminated the graduate religion program. Surprisingly, however, the school offered to resurrect the graduate program exclusively for Bill. At BYU, Bill was able to attend lectures taught by Joseph McConkie and Robert Millet. As he listened to them, Bill knew that everything they were teaching was true. He read the Book of Mormon a second time, and this time felt the Spirit testify that Joseph Smith's story was true. Bill, however, wanted confirmation that he should join the LDS church. Bill prayed, and received a strong manifestation to join the LDS faith. In 1985, after a personal interview with President Gordon B. Hinckley (then a counselor in the First Presidency), Bill was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Bill went on to finish his degree at Yale, and received his Masters of Art in Religion in 1987. But by joining the LDS faith, Bill was unemployable as paid clergy since the LDS church consists solely of lay clergy. Brother Sheffield said he found himself "all dressed up and no place to go." Fortunately, the LDS church offered him a position as General Counsel in Asia from 1987-1989.

Today, Bill serves as a Neutral, conducting mediations and arbitrations for Judicate West, a company in California (see www.judicatewest.com/neutral/123 for Bill's profile). He has been selected as a top Neutral for many years by the California Bar's Daily Journal, and as one of the "Best Lawyers in America" in 2006 and 2007.

But out of all of his achievements, much of Bill's satisfaction and joy comes from the difference he has been able to make in India. He has traveled to India over 50 times in both professional and private capacities. In the early 1980s, he worked on then-Prime Minister of India Indira Gandhi's legal team, and helped to acquire dismissal of charges against her. He served as an Alternate Dispute Resolution Consultant to the Government of India from 1993-1997. As General Counsel to the LDS church, and through his relationship with the Gandhis, Brother Sheffield also sought to soften India's policy towards allowing missionaries to proselyte there. For the past twenty years, he has served an Indian organization named Pathways (www.pathway.org.in ), which is dedicated to assisting mentally challenged children.

Truly, Brother Sheffield's willingness to be a "leaf in a stream" has not only blessed his life, but also lives of countless others. He feels that "our God is ready at any time to allow us to follow him as a leaf in a stream. All we need do is commit to Him to do whatever He asks, go wherever He calls, whenever He calls."


Adapted by Julie Smith from William Sheffield's Leaves in a Stream

More specifics about Sheffield's role as General Counsel for the LDS church and his work in India will appear in a future JRCLS Newsletter issue.

Posted: May 28, 2013