By Jeff Huett
DECATUR, Ga. — Paul Baxley is mesmerized by the church. It’s been this way for as long as he can remember, and that’s not a statement about his age, which is 49, or his memory, but rather about the indelible impression made on him at a young age by a pastor, a Bible and a church aisle.
Paul’s father, John, is a retired professor in applied mathematics at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C. Growing up, the family attended Wake Forest Baptist Church on the Wake campus. Paul remembers that at the age of three or four, his pastor, Warren Carr, “would get down on his knees and look at my sister and me in the eye, call us by name and ask us how we are doing.”
As Paul got older, he started getting opportunities to participate in the life of the church. At Wake Forest Baptist, that meant serving as a Bible bearer and carrying the Bible down the long aisle of Wait Chapel.
“It was such an important thing to have the chance to carry that big heavy Bible all the way to the pulpit area, and hand to the minister, who would then open it up on the pulpit and read from it to preach,” Baxley said. “And looking back on it what I think started to work on me in those moments was that something really holy and important was happening in church. That somehow God was at work in our lives and in the world and even a three- or four- or five-year-old kid could have a place in that.”
As he assumes the role of CBF executive coordinator this March, he reflects on the journey that, in a sense, started in the vestibule at Wait Chapel. Educationally, that journey took him to Wake Forest University, Duke University School of Divinity and Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. Ministry-wise, he’s most-recently served as senior minster at First Baptist Church in Athens, Ga., where he has served since 2010. He’s also served as senior minister at First Baptist Church in Henderson, N.C. and as campus minister and interim pastor of Wingate Baptist Church in Wingate, N.C.
“When I reflect on the churches I’ve attended, and the churches I’ve served, I’ll have to say that as a follower of Jesus, I’m learning more and more to trust Him,” Paul said. “As I imagine the opportunities and challenges that this new calling holds, I’m aware that every day won’t be easy. I’m aware that every question won’t be soft. I’m aware of all the research about the state of congregations and denominations in the Western world. I’m confident because I have this conviction, the God who raised Jesus from the dead and who has carried His people through 2000 years of challenge and adversity, much of it of our own making, is still in the business of drawing the world to divine love through us.”
Paul and Jennifer met in a CBF congregation, Wingate Baptist Church, near the campus of Wingate University. Jennifer is a physical therapist and has been a Cooperative Baptist from the beginning. She has attended CBF congregations since the beginning of CBF and has worked in leadership for CBF of North Carolina. In fact, she served on the committee that called Larry Hovis to his role as the coordinator of CBFNC.
A family on mission
Paul and Jennifer have four children – Olivia “Livy”, 17; Maria, 11; and twins Caroline and Matthew, 8. While unique in most every way possible, Paul and Jennifer said, they each have in common a connection to CBF life, and a love for church. Livy attends General Assembly regularly and as a high school junior was among CBF’s 25 Youth to Know in 2018. She has also travelled with Paul and a small group from First Baptist Athens to work alongside CBF field personnel Dianne and Shane McNary. Maria, Caroline and Matthew have attended General Assembly and have participated for years in a missions program where they have learned about CBF field personnel.
Jennifer and Paul explained the power of watching 17-year-old Livy teach Maria, Caroline and Matthew about the Roma children she met travelling in Slovakia with the group from First Athens—to give them a completely different perspective than they would receive from Paul or herself, or from Mission Kids on Wednesday nights.
“For me, just as a parent—I think even at a deeper level than being a parent who happens to be a pastor—it really matters to me that my children grow up with both a deep sense of local church family, but also a sense that God’s working the role that’s bigger than our family, and bigger than our congregation, and bigger than the nation in which we live,” Paul said. “That God’s work all over the world, that Jesus is alive and on the move, and that we have things we can learn from people in other places.
On that visit to Slovakia and the Czech Republic last Spring, the small team of leaders imagined the next steps of the congregation’s relationship in Slovakia. The McNarys introduced them to people among whom they had been building relationship for years, where they were now ready to enter into a new stage of ministry partnership. “It just reminded me in an even more compelling way how necessary the work of our field personnel is,” Paul said. “The relationship has also taught me that our congregations have more ways of participating in global mission than maybe we’ve ever believed.”
“Through that relationship, I’ve had my closest and most sustained experience with not just the kind of work the McNary’s are doing in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, but the kind of work field personnel are doing in partnership with us and on our behalf all over the world,” he said. “That’s why I was so honored to be part of a decision the Fellowship made in 2016, that when almost everybody else in the mission-sending world was saying we’re going to go with partner-funded short-term approaches to participate in God’s mission, we Cooperative Baptist said, we are recommitting to the value of long-term presence because the kind of relationships that my church in North Carolina first discovered in California, and the kind of relationships at my church in Georgia has to this day in Slovakia would not be possible apart from the presence of people who had Dianne and Shane’s gifts, commitment, calling and longevity.”
The church and its people
Paul says he’s mesmerized by the church. Jennifer’s description of her husband includes what she calls an “irrational enthusiasm” for the church.
“I’m not sure that I’ve ever known anyone that loves the church as much as Paul does unless it might be me,” Jennifer said. “It’s a mutual love that we share. When people think about Paul they imagine him as this really serious, pragmatic, thoughtful, strategic kind of guy. But Paul loves church with this sort of childlike wonder that’s really kind of refreshing, especially in the cynical world.
“This sort of wonder that he has about the church is contagious, and I think you could talk to anyone who has ever been a part of a church that he served in and recognize that they would all see that love for the church just kind of bubbling up. And it’s certainly a love that I think sustains us both as a couple and as a family.”
And the church, of course, is made up of laypeople. “Extraordinary” laypeople, Paul said.
“I can’t tell you how many times my faith has been strengthened or challenged in the best possible ways by the testimony of a lay person, or the courage of a group of lay people who were willing to do things some of my pastoral colleagues thought they would never be willing to undertake,” he said.
Before he became pastor of First Baptist Church Henderson, N.C., the congregation was struggling with how it could be more involved in healing the racial division in its community. The congregation made a courageous decision, Paul said, to reach out to build relationships first with one, and then with another predominantly African American congregation.
“I wish I could tell you that, that was because of my brilliant leadership capacity, but who made that happen? Three lay people from our congregation and three lay people from the Shiloh Baptist church in Henderson, sitting around tables, praying, listening and dreaming.,” Paul said. “We worshiped and shared community together, and those six lay people and some of the colleagues from both churches served communion, we all wept.”
Paul said that was his first lesson in the truth that lay people in our congregations have extraordinary capacity, and sometimes the biggest mistake he’s made as a pastor has been to underestimate what lay people are willing to do if given space.
In deciding to accept God’s call to lead the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the Baxleys are finishing up a ministry of the past eight years with such a congregation at the First Baptist Church in Athens.
“Serving as pastor of First Baptist Church in Athens has been an incredible privilege,” Paul said. “Time and time again, they have renewed my faith, been instruments of God’s love and grace not only in Athens and around the world, but also in my life and in the life of my family. Serving with the ministerial staff, the lay leadership and the entire congregation has only strengthened and nourished within me a relentless hope for the future not only of this congregation, but of all Cooperative Baptist partner congregations. Their witness and ministry have convinced me even more that congregations are uniquely poised to be instruments of God’s peace and signs of Christ’s reconciling love in a broken world and polarized culture. The power that raised Jesus from the dead has worked beautifully and unmistakably in their life and I will be forever thankful that God gave me the chance to serve with them.”
Learn more about new CBF Executive Coordinator Paul Baxley at www.cbf.net/baxley.