Texas Baptist statesman Paul Powell dies at age 83

Born in a log house deep in the Piney Woods of East Texas, Paul Powell went on to become a prominent pastor, denominational leader and seminary dean. He died Dec. 28 at age 83. (Baylor University File Photo)

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Editor’s Note: This obituary has been updated to include information about visitation and funeral arrangements.

TYLER—Retired pastor, former denominational executive, seminary dean and Texas Baptist statesman Paul Powell died Dec. 28 in Tyler after complications from a stroke two weeks earlier. He was 83.

“No one since George W. Truett has better borne the title ‘Mr. Texas Baptist’ than Paul Powell,” said Joel Gregory, professor of preaching at Baylor University’s Truett Theological Seminary, where Powell served six years as dean.

“His influence and legacy were already legendary during his life and will only grow in stature and significance now that he has entered the life beyond. He towered over generations with unequalled leadership. A giant oak has fallen, and his place in the horizon of our lives will not be filled again with his like.”

Humble beginnings

Powell liked to say he journeyed “from the backwoods of East Texas, to the back alleys of Port Arthur, to the back of the class in school,” but God used him in spite of humble beginnings.

His long career in ministry included pastorates at five churches, including 17 years at Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, where he saw attendance grew from about 700 to more than 2,500.

“A dead church is a poor recommendation for a living Savior,” the always-quotable Powell said.

‘No creed but the Bible’

He was elected president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas in 1985 and re-elected in 1986 at the height of the “Baptist battles” in the Southern Baptist Convention.

paul powell legacy425Friends remember Paul Powell for his quick wit and down-to-earth wisdom. (BGCT File Photo)At the time, critics accused Southern Baptist seminary professors and denominational leaders of theological liberalism and called for them to sign statements affirming belief in biblical inerrancy. Powell responded by insisting, “Baptists have no creed but the Bible,” and asserting his willingness to sign every page of it.

“I don’t intend to sign anything more, and I won’t sign anything else,” he added.

‘Not a Mickey Mouse operation’

Powell left Green Acres to become president and chief executive officer of the Annuity Board of the SBC—now GuideStone Financial Resources.

At the 1994 SBC annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., Powell faced a challenge when a strong contingent of ultra-conservative Southern Baptists wanted his agency to adopt a “sin-free” investment policy, even though the board already refused to invest in businesses directly related to alcohol, gambling, tobacco or pornography. Some wanted the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission to monitor Annuity Board investments.

“Since we are in the home of Disney World, I need to tell you that the Annuity Board is not a Mickey Mouse operation, and it is not being run by Goofy and his friends,” Powell said in his annual report to the convention.

Seminary dean

In 2001, Powell was appointed dean of Truett Theological Seminary. During his six years in that role, the seminary’s enrollment more than doubled, and its endowment increased to more than $38 million. The seminary’s 550-seat chapel is named in Powell’s honor.

When Powell retired from Truett Seminary in 2007, Randall O’Brien, former provost and executive vice president of Baylor, said, “I would say of Paul Powell what (former Houston Oilers Coach) Bum Phillips once said about Earl Campbell: ‘He may not be in a class by himself, but it surely doesn’t take long to call the roll.’”

The Baylor family and seminary community is “deeply saddened” by news of Powell’s death but “greatly gladdened by the quality of his well-lived life,” current Truett Seminary Dean Todd Still said.

“His sincerity, courage, wit, generosity, fortitude and integrity endeared him to so many, including myself. Indeed, it might be fairly said that Paul Powell was appreciated by most but respected by all,” Still said.

“He was a pastor’s pastor, a leader’s leader and a Bear’s Bear. For me, he was not only a father-like figure, but he was also a beloved friend and ardent supporter. I will miss him, but this I know—the impact of his life is both inestimable and eternal. What was true for Paul of Tarsus was no less true for Paul of East Texas: ‘For (him) to live (was) Christ and to die is gain,’” Still said.

Multiple awards and honors

In addition to his service at Green Acres, Powell was pastor of churches in Belfalls, Troy, Taylor and San Marcos.  

Powell earned his undergraduate degree from Baylor University and a master of divinity degree from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He received honorary doctorates from Baylor, East Texas Baptist University, the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, Campbell University and Dallas Baptist University.

He was president of the Robert M. Rogers Foundation of Tyler, and he served on the Baylor board of regents from 1994 to 2001, including a term as chair.

The Baylor Alumni Association named Powell a distinguished alumnus in 1988 and received the association’s George W. Truett Distinguished Service Award in 2005. He received the Herbert H. Reynolds Award for Exemplary Service to Baylor in 1999. He also was named a distinguished alumnus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 1990.

He received the Texas Baptist Legacy Award from the BGCT in 2014.

‘A down-to-earth, approachable servant leader’

BGCT Executive Director Emeritus Bill Pinson called Powell “unapologetically Baptist in his beliefs and at the same time an unashamed member of the larger Christian family of faith.” He praised Powell as a Baptist statesman who remained “a down-to-earth, approachable servant leader.”

“Through his books and sermons, he impacted a multitude for Christ, yet he also led a host of persons one-by-one to faith in Christ,” Pinson said. “Full of life, never boring, he met challenges head-on boldly and courageously, yet with compassion.”

On the day before the stroke that led to Powell’s death, Pinson visited with him on the phone. He recalled Powell talked about plans for the future, ways to help pastors and churches and a new book he hoped to publish in January, as well as “chuckling about events we had experienced.

“That was Paul,” Pinson said. “Up to the end of his earthly life facing a future with optimism and a sense of humor rooted in a deep faith in Christ. What a terrific contribution to the kingdom he made. How we will miss him!”

Prolific author

Powell wrote 50 books, many of them published during his time at the Annuity Board and given to pastors. He enjoyed recounting a conversation with his friend, Russell Dilday, former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

“Have you read my last book?” Powell asked.

“I sure hope so,” Dilday replied—at least in Powell’s version of the story.

As it turned out, the final book Powell published within his lifetime was released in the last few months—his memoir, God Works in Mischievous Ways. Near its conclusion, he wrote:

“When I look back across the years, I can see the hand of God guiding and directing me when I thought I was in control and making my own decisions. I’ve already said it, but I need to say it just one more time: God works in mischievous ways. He had far more in store for me than I ever dreamed possible. Mine is and has been a blessed life.

“I am not yet ready to write ‘The End’ to the story quite yet, but I am ready and willing to sit down and watch that sunset any day that the Lord gives his permission.”

Powell was preceded in death by a son, Kent Powell, earlier this year.

He is survived by his wife, Cathy; son, Mike Powell of Tyler; daughter, Lori Powell Gropper of Dallas; and three grandchildren, Jordan, Katie and Matthew.

In accordance with the family’s wishes, Baylor set up a fund for individuals who wish to honor Powell with a financial contribution in his memory. Gifts will be used to create the Paul W. Powell Preaching Fund at Truett Theological Seminary. To contribute, click here.  

Visitation is scheduled for 2:00 to 4:00 p.m. on Sunday, January 1, 2017 at Stewart Family Funeral Home, 7525 Old Jacksonville Highway, in Tyler. A memorial service is scheduled for Monday, January 2, at 2:00 PM in the Chapel of Green Acres Baptist Church.

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