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Longtime Southern Baptist student ministry leader Dave Paxton dies in motorcycle crash

A cross-country motorcycle ride provided many fine sights to see for Dave Paxton (left) and First Baptist Orange Park Executive Pastor Stanley Puckett before they both retired last year. Photo courtesy of First Baptist Orange Park

ORANGE PARK, Fla. (BP) – Dave Paxton, a student ministry veteran who served in several Southern Baptist churches, died May 3 after his motorcycle collided with a logging truck in Warren County, Miss., southeast of Vicksburg.

At the time of his death, the 69-year-old Paxton was a member at First Baptist Church in Orange Park, Fla. He retired in October from his position as Generations pastor with the congregation, a role he had filled for two years that oversaw ministries from pre-K through college. In the six years prior to that, he had been the church’s student minister.

Dave Paxton – here speaking at a junior high school Fellowship of Christian Athletes meeting – remained active with students throughout his career. Photo from First Baptist Orange Park

“Dave Paxton is one of the great student pastors in SBC history,” said David Tarkington, pastor of First Orange Park. “I don’t say that flippantly. He impacted thousands of teenagers for decades while serving in churches in Tennessee, Texas and Florida. His legacy remains in the lives of the ones he ministered to and with.”

In retirement Paxton remained an active lay leader at First Baptist while keeping a busy schedule filling pulpits as needed. In recent years he had preached once a month for a Vietnamese congregation with the assistance of an interpreter while discipling its students.

Nearly two decades ago Tarkington was working at Super Summer, the Florida Baptist Convention’s youth camp, as student minister at First Orange Park when he met Paxton, then the student minister at Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola. They would go on to serve together on a state-wide youth pastors council.

“I remember seeing and hearing all that Dave was doing and realized right then that this was the most creative youth pastor I had ever met,” Tarkington told BP.

In 1992 Paxton became the first staff member Pastor Ted Traylor hired at Olive Baptist, where Paxton served as minister to youth for 15 years. Along the way he built a landmark student ministry while growing as a mentor for his younger peers.

“One of the first things he told me is, ‘Pastor, I’m a lifer when it comes to youth ministry,’” Traylor said. “I’ve got a call on my life to do this.

“He loved kids, especially those who came from a broken situation in their family or home. Over and over, I’ve had people tell me ‘Dave was there when I needed a touch from a father that I didn’t have.”

Traylor was in a staff meeting Tuesday when he received the call from Tarkington.

“I have two children who grew up in Dave’s ministry,” he said. “In many ways he and his wife, Sharon, were like surrogate parents to my kids. He was one year older than I am and a dear friend.”

Many of the students from Paxton’s time at Olive are now adults with teens of their own. Recollections of the impact from his discipleship flooded into the church’s office once news of his death became known. Those who answered the call to ministry themselves include Jon Tyner, Olive’s current minister of music who will sing at Paxton’s funeral next week.

Aiden Thomas became the last teenager for Dave Paxton to baptize on Jan. 23. Photo submitted

During his ministry Paxton also formerly served as director of student ministries at First Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tenn.; student pastor at First Baptist in Crowley, Texas, and as youth pastor at Grandview Baptist Church in Maryville, Tenn. He was also a former camp pastor at Crossings Ministries in Louisville, Ky.

Paxton was in east Tennessee when he heard Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Phil Briggs at a conference proclaim the need for those willing to spend their lives in student ministry. Soon afterwards, the Paxtons had moved to Fort Worth for training in doing just that.

Later in his career Paxton found himself at a crossroads, not serving in a church but contemplating making the move to conferences, revivals and student ministry training, Tarkington said.

Now the pastor at First Baptist Orange Park, Tarkington had an idea.

“We were soon looking for a student pastor, so I called him and asked if he was ready for another round and come to serve on my staff,” he said.

At 60 years old, it’s certain Paxton was the oldest student minister interviewing at a Southern Baptist church. Nevertheless, the personnel committee voted unanimously in the affirmative. His experience and wisdom became paramount in the church’s overhaul to cover different generations of students.

“He served our church and loved people … all people,” Tarkington said.

A self-described adrenaline junkie, Paxton was up for skydiving, cliff-jumping into water and cross-country trips on his beloved motorcycle. One year Olive Baptist hosted a Fourth of July event that called for a volunteer to rappel from the ceiling in the church’s sanctuary. Paxton volunteered.

“That was the first time we saw his kind of craziness,” Traylor laughed.

It was also just one example of Paxton’s willingness to help where needed, using his skills in whatever capacity required.

“Every pastor needs a wingman like Dave Paxton,” Tarkington said, “totally trustworthy, godly character, wisdom and loving enough to tell me the truth when I need reminding.”