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Fervor for planting churches marked Carrol Fowler’s life

POPLAR BLUFF, Mo. (BP)–Described as “the most unlikely man God would use to do great things,” Carrol Fowler’s life was a testimony of God’s strength through human weakness. The 66-year-old veteran church planter died of a stroke June 21 after knee surgery June 17.

His career included pastoring more than a dozen churches in Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas and Michigan, directing Southern Baptist church planting efforts on the local, associational and state convention level and teaching seminary students out of a lifetime of experience.

A native of Manila, Ark., Fowler learned from his preacher father “to witness and to be yourself.” When pursuing a ministerial education, his brothers encouraged him to persist in spite of learning disabilities. He credited Wilma, his wife of 44 years and partner in ministry, with teaching him how to read more effectively and improve his communication skills. Those years of persistence taught him to patiently encourage a host of inexperienced ministers who possessed little more than a willingness to serve.

“He left behind him a long string of Timothys” wherever he served, said Lyle Seltmann, a former church planter now living in Memphis, Tenn.

Fowler’s approach to mentoring often amounted to “just laying it in your lap and going on,” Seltmann added. “He’d say, ‘Here’s a county seat town with no Baptist church, no evangelical witness — that’s where God wants you,’” Seltmann recalled. “Carrol had a way of speaking with authority for God,” while also giving an example of hard work and single-minded focus.

While studying for his bachelor’s degree at Southern Baptist College (now Williams Baptist College) in Walnut Ridge, Ark., and Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, Fowler pastored a half dozen churches. He earned the master of divinity degree at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., while first pastoring a Missouri church, then planting a church in Kansas. In 1997 the seminary honored Fowler as Alumnus of the Year, shortly after the Home Mission Board (now North American Mission Board) named him one of “50 who helped make missions happen” in a recognition of state missions leaders.

Fowler’s early accomplishments as an athlete tempted him to pursue a career in boxing or baseball. While in high school he won a “Golden Gloves” award for boxing in Missouri and qualified to compete nationally but was too young without parental consent. As a minor league baseball player, Fowler received an “offer sheet” from the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals.

A college professor encouraged him to follow God’s call to ministry in spite of a stuttering problem, assuring Fowler that if God called him to preach, He would equip him for the task.

Following a seven-year pastorate at Horseshoe Bend (Ark.) Baptist Church and several years at Onaway (Mich.) Baptist Chapel, Fowler began directing church planting efforts as a strategist, director of missions and state church extension director in Michigan.

Fowler carried his enthusiasm for church planting to Indiana in 1990 where he served seven years, earning accolades from the Home Mission Board for his work in developing language ministries for non-English speaking Hoosiers. Fowler took advantage of the 1992 SBC annual meeting in Indianapolis to plug out-of-state churches into supporting new church starts. That year Indiana Baptists planted 57 missions, followed by 53 more in 1993 and the identification of key churches that would plant even more churches.

“When I think of Carrol Fowler, I think of Acts and of Paul’s letters to Timothy,” said Mark Coppenger, an Illinois church planter who served as executive director for the State Convention of Baptists in Indiana. “It was one of the great joys of my life to work with Carrol and Wilma, first at Indiana and later at Midwestern Seminary. He was more fun, more loving, more inspiring and more convicting than most anyone I know.”

As the next executive director of the Indiana convention, Charles W. Sullivan saw Fowler as a man who “ate, slept and worked the planting of new churches.” The entire conversation was stirred to starting new churches, Sullivan said. “He undoubtedly dreamed at night about it,” he added, imagining Fowler now “talking to our Lord about how we can plant more churches on this earth.”

Sullivan said Fowler’s call to expand the Kingdom went beyond traditional methodology. “He colored outside the box in order to see that a new church was planted.”

“In his own life he had struggled with so many things that he realized he could do whatever God wanted him to do,” said Gary Bearce of Mooresville, Ind., who worked alongside Fowler at the Indiana convention. “Because of that, he was good at convincing other people to dream and believe they could do what God asked,” Bearce said.

When Indiana convention staffers spent a free weekend remodeling their limited space, Fowler showed up with a chain saw to cut through an office wall. For many, it was a metaphor of the way he charged through life. Even in facing the knee surgery that resulted in a massive stroke, his motivation was to heal up in order to continue traveling to help plant churches.

“I learned early on in our working relationship that I could try and help him or get out of his way,” recalled former Indiana convention co-worker Jo Lammey of Greenwood, Ind. “He had little patience for anything that slowed down the planting of churches,” she said, admiring the way Fowler’s life demonstrated his confidence that God is “limitless and all powerful.”

“Even when the budget or the manual or the agreement supported your position, standing between Carrol and something God had given him to do was not a smart place to be,” Lammey said. That approach helped her see beyond the details and not be thwarted by complicated processes. “I learned to respond to unanticipated circumstances with an ‘I will see what I can do’ instead of an automatic ‘No, we can’t do that.’ His energy, determination and humor will be greatly missed.”

Fowler moved easily beyond ethnic and language barriers, encouraging Midwestern states to welcome all races and nationalities. Cato Brooks of Tree of Life Baptist Church in Gary, Ind., regarded Fowler as close as a brother. “Once you knew him you could be certain that was really the person you knew. Because of our relationship in Christ we genuinely became brothers in a way that transcended our ethnic and color difference.”

Because the two men were of a similar size, Brooks remembered people joking that they looked like brothers when both men attended a state convention meeting. “Some guys had been talking about the suit I had on and said Carrol could fit into it,” Brooks recalled. So the two men decided to exchange wardrobes that night and when they returned to the service Fowler was wearing Brooks’ purple suit while Brooks had on Fowler’s hounds tooth jacket and brown pants, greatly amusing the audience.

“He was probably the only Caucasian person I know who could intermix with African American men and use the term ‘boy’ and nobody would be offended,” Brooks added. “He could come to Gary, Ind., and walk through the community without fear.”

Several of Fowler’s friends in ministry related to his rural Arkansas roots.

“Carrol was a character with a capital C,” remembered IMB missionary Ron Rogers who pastored in northeast Arkansas a few miles from where Fowler lived. “Southern Baptists have lost a treasure,” Rogers said. “He was a church planter catalyst long before that term came into vogue among Southern Baptist missiological thinkers and strategists.”

Rogers said he prays that God would bless Fowler’s legacy “as those whom he mentored plant multiplied thousands of New Testament churches across America.”

Fowler’s son, Steve, followed in his father’s footsteps, planting churches and directing missions in Michigan. Soon he will begin leading the church planting team for Montana Southern Baptists.

“Dad agreed that we need big churches in big cities, but we don’t need to forget the rural ones,” the younger Fowler said of his father’s passion. He hopes to see the material his dad used in teaching laymen and ministers “how to dream of planting a church” transferred into a book.

“If we’re going to reach the world, we have to be concerned about both the cities and rural areas,” Carrol Fowler once told a seminary newspaper, praising a student couple who answered a bivocational call to a remote region of Alaska.

Fowler retired from service as a NAMB missionary in 2002, relocating with his wife to a house they built in Poplar Bluff, Mo. Soon he accepted a call to pastor Stringtown Baptist Church, a congregation of five people. During the last year and a half attendance had grown to 40 as Fowler mentored a young assistant pastor. He also continued his volunteer work by training church planters in Michigan, Montana and Missouri.

Cane Creek Stoddard Baptist Association missions director Marshall Link said the new missions center in Poplar Bluff will be named for Fowler, honoring the effort he put forth to train others to plant churches.

“Wherever Carrol was, things were going to happen,” Seltmann added. “Some people questioned his methods, but no one would question the results or his heart. He didn’t just think outside the box — he lived outside the box.”

In addition to his wife, Wilma, Fowler is survived by his son and daughter-in law, Steve and Alesia Fowler, and two grandchildren, Carol Ann and Mark, as well as his brothers, Van Fowler of Desoto, Mo., and Jim Fowler of Paragould, Ark. Memorial funds have been established at Carrol Fowler Missions Center Fund at Cane Creek Stoddard Baptist Association Mission Center, P.O. Box 1247, Poplar Bluff, MO 63902-1247 and Carrol Fowler Memorial Fund at Indiana Baptist Foundation, SCBI, P.O. Box 2418, Indianapolis, IN 46224.

Both the visitation on Wednesday, June 23, at 6 p.m. and the funeral service on Thursday, June 24, at 1:30 p.m. will be held at Cotrell Funeral Home, 701 Vine St. in Poplar Bluff.

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter