Growing up in East Texas, Paul Powell never went to church with his family. His family was poor. His parents uneducated. His father worked first at a sawmill near Jasper, later at an oil refinery in Port Arthur. His mother took care of the home and raised Powell and his three sisters.
It wasn’t until Powell turned 14 that he went to church because a friend invited him. The draw wasn’t religion either. It was sports. If a child attended church three Sundays a month, they could play on the church softball and basketball teams. Powell enjoyed sports.
“I was willing to take religion to get recreation,” the 82-year-old said.
Despite his initial motives, the teachings about eventually sunk in, and one Sunday, as a 17-year-old, he had the profound impression that the Lord was calling him to preach.
He went forward at the end of the service to share his calling. That decision launched Powell down a road that has not stopped to this day. In 62 years of ministry, he has become a leader among Texas Baptists.
He has served as pastor at five churches including 17 years at Green Acres Baptist Church; worked as the CEO of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Annuity Board (now called GuideStone Financial Resources), an organization that manages the retirement accounts of ministers and missionaries worldwide; and dean of Baylor University’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary. He also served for two years as president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas during the 1980s.
Though he is officially retired and has been for almost 10 years, he continues to perform funerals and weddings, to serve on the boards of Southside Bank and the Robert M. Rogers Foundation and to preach when asked.
“I don’t preach a lot,” he said. “The fact is I don’t want to preach a lot. Preaching’s hard work, studying, preparing, getting up in front of 1,000 people, or 100 people.”
Recently, Powell, who lives in Tyler with his wife, Cathy, has had the opportunity to look back on his decades-long career in ministry as he worked on his memoir, which was published this month.
Titled “God Works in Mischievous Ways,” the book features lessons Powell has drawn from life.
He expects this book to be his last - he has written more than 50. However others, such as Green Acres Pastor David Dykes are encouraging him to continue writing.
Looking back on Powell’s life, the theme that arises is God’s call. That call brought a 17-year-old boy out of his pew and to the front of a church to respond with commitment of his life to the ministry.
God made a way when Powell, who admittedly was never good with languages, attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary at a time when they offered a degree without having to learn Hebrew or Greek.
God’s call led Powell to close the door on some positions and walk into new ones. And that call continues to lead him today.
In the epilogue of his memoir, he writes, “My intention in writing this book was to simply bear witness to the fact that God does call, and when he calls, he guides and directs in astonishing ways.”
In the following paragraphs, Pastor Paul Powell shares his thoughts and experiences from more than 60 years of following God’s call.
My family never went to church, but when I was 14 a friend invited me to a church and I went with him and found out they had softball and basketball teams, and if you went to church three Sundays out of the month you could play on one of those teams. I was willing to take religion, to get recreation.
It was and is the premier Baptist school in the world. My pastor had gone there. (I) had basketball scholarships to three other schools. (My pastor) said you’re going to go to Baylor, and I just took his word for it and went to Baylor.
On His Father, Who Did Not Approve of His Decision to Pursue Higher Education
It was a civil relationship. He never held anything against me, and I never held anything against him. In those days, fathers didn’t express much love or feeling for their family. They just took care of them.
I have learned No. 1 the importance of preaching good sermons and I think most of my sermons were fairly good. I kept them moving pretty fast. I buried … William Steger (the federal judge the courthouse is named after). He used to say to young attorneys … ‘Have a point. Make your point. And move on.’ I sort of followed that philosophy.
Oh, the most gratifying is my relationships with people, that I love people and they responded likewise.
On Being Overwhelmed
I was overwhelmed at times, and at the same time I had confidence in God leading me. I just made the decisions one at a time.
On Leading Truett Seminary
The most important thing is we changed the image of the school from academic to (a) practical institution to prepare people for our churches.
On His Role in Ministry
I went to churches that were already built and I just worked there a while, and institutions that were already built. I didn’t create really anything, just built them up. All of them I built up because I had vision. Vision, you’ve got to see what needs to be done; judgment, figure out how to get it done; courage to risk, anytime you try something knew you may fail. … Vision, judgment, courage and trust and that’s what leadership is all about. Generally, people trusted me. Vision is not seeing the invisible; it’s seeing the obvious that most people overlook.
On Small Churches
I learned how to get along with people. (You’ve) got to get along with people, and how to lead people.
I think that it’s both a gift and a discipline. I had in me the urge to do things. I was always a doer, but I had to learn how to do it, so I read books, I looked at the lives of other people. I asked them questions. I learned how to do it until it became second nature.
It will always be relevant to those who believe, but the world has become more and more secular, and the church plays a less important place in their lives. … Nowadays nobody particularly has any respect for Wednesday night, Sunday night or Sunday morning for church, and the secularization of society is they just don’t feel the need for God. … It would take a time of national distress to wake us up. The Sunday after 9/11,the churches were full, but they emptied out real soon.
I think that I’ve seen God as more loving and benevolent and forgiving than I felt like in the beginning.
On Living a Life of Faith
We need to stay close to Him in prayer and in worship, and the church, but we also need to serve Him, we need to do something for Him.
Editor’s note: This Q&A has been edited for clarity and length.
Pastor, friends sound off on Paul Powell’s life in ministry:
Green Acres Baptist Church Pastor David Dykes said Paul Powell has the rare combination of being a great communicator and having a tremendous sense of humor.
In fact, about a year ago, Dykes encouraged Powell to write some kind of autobiography, or let someone write a biography about him.
He was too important of a leader to not have his story told, Dykes said.
Powell’s longtime friend, Curtis Crofton, said Powell has a heart of love for people of all ages and compassion for those who are lonely, sick and lost.
“He is especially concerned for the downtrodden, or those who have made mistakes in their lives,” said Crofton, who was pastoring a Houston church when he met Powell in 1975. “He is more than willing to give them a hand-up and forgiveness.”
Crofton said Powell is totally concerned with ensuring others know Jesus as their savior and master, and has spent his life developing young people in the ministry and supporting mission efforts.
Joyce Milburn, who has known Powell as a family friend for 40 years, said his care for people is unmistakable.
“He’s kind and generous and funny and gracious,” she said. “He’s always available.”
If you go
Paul Powell will be signing his memoir, “God Works in Mischievous Ways” at two churches in the coming weeks. This Sunday, he will be at the Green Acres Baptist Church Bookstore, 1607 Troup Highway, in Tyler before and after the 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. services. On Nov. 13, he will be at the First Baptist Church of Tyler South Campus, 17002 U.S. 69 Highway South, at 9 a.m. and the Downtown Campus, 301 W. Ferguson St., at 10:45 a.m. The book also is available on Amazon.