By his own admission, George Ward is doing everything wrong. Because of that the interim-come-full-time pastor of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church (PHBC) attributes the tenfold growth of the once-dying congregation to God’s timing, the work of the Holy Spirit and “the mystery of God’s people.”
Nestled under a grove of live oak trees on the southern outskirts of Austin’s city limits, the steepled limestone church was once a thriving congregation. But by 2012 only seven faithful members remained, and they understood the church would stay alive only as long as they did. They voted 4-3 to keep the doors open and, reluctantly, to call yet another interim pastor to fill the pulpit. That act of faith proved the turning point, and the church that was once on life support is now breathing new life into its community.
“We are in the middle of a mystery of what God can do when people are willing to say ‘yes,’” said Ward in a telephone interview with The TEXAN.
Ward, who had pastored in Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska for more than 30 years was a member of Austin’s Hyde Park Baptist Church when he was asked to preach at Pleasant Hill. The tiny congregation wasn’t sure they could commit to supporting an interim pastor. They just needed a preacher. But after three weeks, they asked Ward if he would be interim pastor. Three months later, in October 2012, Ward was asked to pastor PHBC.
Already sensing the call to go back into the ministry, Ward agreed. By then the church membership had grown to 44.
But the surge in growth was prompted, in part, by the death of two of the faithful seven in late September 2012. The timing of their passing and funeral services proved providential. Ward, in an effort to draw former members back to the church, had already planned a homecoming service for Sept. 30. Funeral services for the two members were scheduled for the preceding Friday and Saturday.
The services filled PHBC with family members who had long since let church attendance slip off their list of priorities; adult grandchildren who, as children, had attended the church at the behest of their now-deceased grandparents; and former church members who had forgotten what Pleasant Hills meant to them.
A sense of nostalgia brought the mourners back for services on homecoming Sunday, but it was the Holy Spirit that prompted 25 of them to join the next week.
“It’s not just my great preaching,” Ward quipped.
It is his preaching, among other things, which is “all wrong.” But Ward, an expository preacher, said he sees a hunger for the Word of God in the congregation.
Expository preaching, he is told, is passé, as are traditional hymns and old sanctuaries. However, these factors have not kept the church from growing. Membership has grown by word of mouth.
On Dec. 6, 2015, 79 attended church.
“That’s tremendous growth,” said Gilbert Chavez, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention field strategist for Central Texas. “God’s hand is upon that ministry.”
Chavez said the 2012 PHBC was an “Anglo, older family church.” But now its diverse congregation “is starting to look a little bit like heaven.”
Members of the church – which is located in a lower socio-economic neighborhood – represent a spectrum of income levels, from the homeless to those making six figures. Twenty-five percent of the congregation is African-American, and a growing number of Hispanics fill the pews. The oldest church member is 96 years old, and for the first time in 25 years the children’s ministry rooms are being used regularly.
The church’s financial well-being is an indication that the new members are willing to invest in the church – an unusual phenomenon, Chavez said, as it is usually the older, well-established members of a church who give faithfully.
But for 2015 the church is well on its way to exceed $100,000 in giving, more than doubling the 2013 budget of $45,000, Ward said.
In addition to regular tithes and offerings, the church sold a portion of its property for $500,000 to a contractor building an affordable housing complex next to the church. Half of that money will be poured into remodeling the dilapidated sanctuary as well as other long-neglected projects. The remainder will go toward ministry development and church staffing. Ward hopes to hire part-time music and children’s ministry directors soon.
After all, he said, the new housing complex will be home to 500 new neighbors, many of them families. Pleasant Hills Baptist Church wants to be prepared to minister to them and the rest of their community, demonstrating what it means to be alive in Christ.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – This article appeared in the Southern Baptist TEXAN at texanonline.net, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. Bonnie Pritchett is a correspondent for the TEXAN.)