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Church to become Houston campus for Southwestern in Nov. 4 vote

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Park Place Baptist Church in Houston voted Nov. 4 to deed its $7 million site to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary to be used as the seminary’s Houston campus.

About 240 people voted on the proposal at a special business meeting. The agreement allows Park Place Baptist to continue to meet in the building and perform its ministries from there.

The church has been a landmark in Houston’s east end since 1961. The eight-and-a-half-acre campus includes a 2,000-seat auditorium, one- and two-story educational space for 1,500 people and a gymnasium/recreation facility.

Southwestern Seminary President Kenneth S. Hemphill celebrated the agreement as “a tremendous boost for the Houston campus of Southwestern Seminary.”

“It fits well with our strategy to go with a freestanding facility,” Hemphill said. “The strategic location is as central as we could have ever chosen. I think it’s a visionary move on the part of the church to continue to fulfill their Great Commission in spite of the challenges they have faced. Their gift allows them to do their task while enabling Southwestern to move to a whole new level of ministry in the Houston area.”

Park Place Baptist was organized in 1918 in the southeast quadrant of Houston, just a few minutes from Hobby Airport. It was for years the leading Baptist church in Houston in attendance and in ministry. The church had more than 1,700 in average attendance until 1963 when membership began to decline due to urban flight and the aging of the congregation. The neighborhood around the church has been in transition since the 1970s.

James Clark, a 1989 SWBTS M.Div. graduate, has been the church’s senior pastor since January 1993. He teaches hermeneutics and preaching in the diploma of ministry program at Southwestern’s Houston campus. He is also a trustee of Houston Baptist University, where the Houston campus has been located since 1975. Clark said the church’s average Sunday morning attendance recently has averaged about 320 people.

“The church’s vision has been to be a center of ministry,” Clark said. “The congregation is really excited because this partnership fulfills our vision and even exceeds our dreams in terms of our ability to have a global impact. We’re excited about making a contribution to something that is going to outlive all of us and to being a part of something that is bigger than ourselves.”

Church members have been very concerned to see attendance decline through the years, said Bill Harwell, a deacon and church member since the early 1960s who has served as the church’s business administrator for the past 10 years. Before retiring, Harwell, 79, was senior vice president and board member of Central Transportation Systems, one of the largest employee-owned trucking companies in Texas.

“That’s why we felt so God-led when this opportunity came about. We’re excited that this campus could be used perhaps more than it ever has been by Southwestern to train ministers here in years to come to spread the gospel around the world,” Harwell said.

The church has been known in recent years for its involvement in a strong prayer movement in the city and in urban issues such as racial reconciliation. The church has been actively involved in flood relief efforts since major flooding in Houston last June.

“A lot of Houston pastors have heard about this development,” Clark said, “and have called and said they really think this is a good deal and a spiritually strategic move for the seminary to be in this location. It’s exciting.”

The leadership of the church began earnestly praying for God’s direction and seeking creative options for the church and its ministries early last winter. Among options considered were partnerships that would serve the community and continue the church’s vision to “proclaim hope to the city,” Clark said.

At about the same time, Billy Hoffman, then Southwestern’s director of development, called Harwell and asked him to put together a golf team for a fundraising tournament for the seminary’s Houston campus.

“We kind of hit it off,” Harwell said. “He asked me later if I would serve on a committee to organize the golf tournament next year.”

At a breakfast meeting a month later, Hoffman told Harwell the seminary was going to have to leave the Houston Baptist University campus in the near future because the school needed the space. Harwell said he responded off the cuff, “If you’re going to have to move off the HBU campus, why don’t you come over and move your campus to Park Place?”

The idea moved to the back burner until Clark and the church’s leadership began serious conversations with the seminary’s administrators in August. Southwestern’s Houston campus — or Southeast Texas campus — opened at the request of 490 Southern Baptist churches in the Houston/Galveston area after research in 1972 revealed that 49 percent of church staff personnel in the region had no seminary training. Obtaining postgraduate training, a committee concluded, was difficult because to do so ministers had to leave their church staff position and move to Fort Worth where the seminary’s main campus is located.

In 1975, then-President Robert Naylor accepted the group’s challenge to take “the seminary to the minister, rather than making the minister come to the seminary.”

With 250 students the past few years, the seminary’s Houston campus has ranked in the top 10 in size of all American seminaries, Hemphill said. Southwestern also has extension campuses in Little Rock, Ark., Shawnee, Okla., Dallas, San Antonio, and Marshall, Texas.

Southwestern unveiled plans last year to make the Houston campus a self-sustaining, degree-granting unit of Southwestern Seminary. Seminary officials are seeking to raise $8 million to renovate the Park Place Baptist facilities, establish a theological library, hire faculty and build an endowment.

Tom Billings, executive director of the Union Baptist Association, called Park Place Baptist “an excellent example of a ‘turnaround congregation’ from a long period of decline to a period of growth.”

“James came in and was able to help them get a new vision for their ministry,” Billings said. “This move ensures the future and viability of the church and provides for good ministerial training.”

Union Baptist Association is older than the state of Texas and is the largest association in the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest evangelical body.

“This will significantly increase the number of ministers that are theologically trained and equipped to minister in a rapidly changing, highly diverse metropolitan environment like Houston,” Billings said.

Only half of the congregations in the Union association are Anglo churches, Billings said. The association has a long history of commitment to theological training, he said, and is working to increase training for Hispanics and other ethnic leaders.

Billings, who has two degrees from Southwestern and is an adjunct professor at the Houston campus, said a freestanding seminary would be a great thing for southeast Texas churches.

“What excites me is that more ministers can now be trained in the environment where they’re going to minister, and this gives bivocational ministers a chance to get good theological training without having to quit their jobs and move their families.”

Bob Overton now directs Southwestern’s Houston campus. Hilda Moffett coordinated the work at the campus since its inception in 1975 until she retired last year. She also completed her third term last year as a trustee of HBU. The Houston campus celebrated its 25th anniversary on May 1, 2000.

“We are really going to miss being at HBU because we have had such a great relationship with Dr. Hodo and the institution,” Overton said. “We look forward to having a facility that is our own and which gives us capacity for unlimited expansion.”

Hemphill hopes to preach at the church one Sunday in the near future to personally thank the members.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: NEW HOUSTON HOME.

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  • David Porter