Karen O’Dell Bullock: Embrace your Christian family heritage

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Karen O’Dell Bullock is distinguished professor of Christian heritage and director of the Ph.D. program at B.H. Carroll Theological Institute, where she has served since 2007. She also is a member of Lakeside Baptist Church in Granbury. From deep in the heart of one Texan, she shares her background and thoughts on Christian higher education. To suggest a Baptist General Convention of Texas-affiliated leader to be featured in this column, or to apply to be featured yourself, click here.


Where else have you served, and what were your positions there?

I have taught at the junior high school, high school, undergraduate, master and doctoral levels for more than 36 years. I served on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in the old days, where I taught Christian history and Baptist heritage for 10 years (1995–2004). I also directed the Ph.D. program as associate dean of the School of Theology at SWBTS from 2000 to 2004.

I then helped to start the Ph.D. program in Christian Leadership at Dallas Baptist University in 2004, which I then directed, and also taught Christian heritage there from 2004 to 2007.

I also serve as the executive vice-president of the Baptist Center for Global Concerns, an ethics, leadership and educational nonprofit located in Arlington, Texas, whose president is Larry Ashlock. This nonprofit offers the underserved and voiceless opportunities for enhancing theological education and building leadership skills, feeds the hungry, provides medical and agricultural expertise, and advocates for biblical solutions to issues that affect the world’s poor.

Finally, I also serve on two commissions of the Baptist World Alliance—the Commission on Baptist Heritage and Identity and the Commission on Religious Freedom. I currently serve to aid the chairs of BWA’s 14 commissions as chair of the Commission Council.

I am fascinated about all areas of Christian heritage and am especially passionate about missions, Baptist history, the persecuted church and justice.

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Waco. I am the eldest of four children born to William and Helen O’Dell, now of Amarillo. My father, a graduate of Baylor University and Fuller and Golden Gate seminaries, served as a church planter in California in the early days of Baptist work there. Then we moved to Big Spring, where my father was called to pastor a church. I graduated from Forsan High School, south of Big Spring.

How did you come to faith in Christ?

I trusted Jesus Christ as my Savior when I was 7 years old at the mission church where my father was pastor in Milbrae, Calif. When I was 13, God called me into ministry, where I have served in various capacities since that time.

I was heavily influenced by the Jesus Movement of the 1960s and ’70s, and the Baptist Student Ministry at the University of North Texas, where Russell Ware and Jan Daehnert were mentors who shaped my life, discipleship and calling.

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Where were you educated, and what degrees did you receive?

I earned a Bachelor of Science in education from the University of North Texas. I earned the Master of Divinity with biblical languages and a Ph.D. double major in church history and missions at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

About education

Why do you feel called into education?

God called me to teach at a young age. In high school, I began to teach children’s Sunday school and continued to teach Sunday school in various age groups for most of my adult life. When I was 32, God called me to seminary. In my first class, January 1985, I knew God was calling me to teach.

Teaching is the outpouring of the gifts God has entrusted to me. I love the students, and the transformation that takes place when teachers, students and content connect.

How does being a Christian influence your work in education?

My career in theological education has been to serve the local church and to train leaders for her service. The goal of my teaching is to equip those called to serve Christ in the various ministries across the world to which he has called them.

What is your favorite aspect of education? Why?

I always tell my students the world is in black and white until I grab the “silver doorknob” to enter the classroom. There, because of the students, the world explodes into brilliant colors for me. I sense God’s pleasure most when I am with them, learning together about God and his people in creative and thoughtful ways.

What one aspect of education gives you the greatest joy?

My greatest joy is seeing students learn and embrace their own Christian family heritage. We all stand on the shoulders, down through the centuries, of generations of faithful stewards of the gospel. When students learn this rich family heritage and the stories of their “relatives in the faith,” the timeline comes alive to them. This is my deepest joy.

What is your favorite class to teach? Why?

My favorite subject to teach is the story of Christianity, every part of it. All the theologians, reformers, writers of every age, change-agents, persecuted, people in the pew, shapers of our heritage—every aspect is a part of this rich tapestry. I never get tired of, or bored with, this narrative of grace.

How has your place in education or your perspective on education changed?

I have enjoyed experiencing some of the changes technology has brought to our 21st century world. I enjoy the greater ease of information access and electronic databases, particularly in history and missions. I enjoy the ability to teach in Canada or Nigeria or in the United States from my office, to see and respond to students in real time, and to bond with them even across miles, all because of the advances in video conferencing.
I also have learned a great deal from other cultures along the way, and the varied modes through which people learn. I hope always to connect to students in the ways that help them to learn best, and to give options for expressing what they are learning according to different learning styles.

Name the three most significant challenges and/or influences facing education.

I think one challenge is the “discernment factor” necessary now, more than ever, to relate properly to an overload of information. Technology has helped societies in so many positive ways; yet, it also has undermined the generations’ abilities to relate with and trust one another, to listen carefully, to empathize, to open doors for peaceable discussions, problem-solving and building unity in communities. To wade through the bombardment of words, one must develop discernment and wisdom, which is a challenge for educators to help to instill in students.

Another challenge may be our culture seems not to teach and value deep thinking, rational behavior and moral values as it once did. Our current culture still produces some fine thinkers, but there seems to be a devaluation of precise and articulate thought with the rise of an emphasis upon raw skill and instant reaction.

An old sage once advised us to “think before we act, earn before we spend, listen before we speak, and wait before we criticize.” The acquisition of both experience and knowledge take time, and our culture is not keen to invest the time or energy required to learn and think well.

What do you wish more people knew about education?

The more we know about our history and our world, with its diverse people and environments and systems, the more we open ourselves to the good God who created, sustains and longs for us to know him.

Education is not to be feared; rather, it is to be embraced and guided by the plumb line of biblical truth and godly wisdom.

About Baptists

Why are you Baptist?

I am a Baptist because we are the family of faith that stands on the authority of God’s word, practices the priesthood of all believers and believer’s baptism, champions religious freedom for all persons and local church autonomy, engages in missions and social justice, and knows the church of the Living God to be essential.
Baptists never have been perfect, and are not now, but they have been uncommonly courageous in their more than 400 years of stewardship of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

What are the key issues facing Baptists—denominationally and/or congregationally?

Most of our Baptist congregations today are struggling with identity and loss of memory. Without these two vital components, churches find themselves reacting to culture rather than being change-agents in their communities. They struggle with theology, biblical interpretation, social issues and isolation from other Christians globally, all because they have not remembered who they are and why they are here as “called out ones.”

Churches can learn much from those who have experienced similar struggles in the past. They can learn much about obedience to Christ by sharing the burdens of the persecuted and outcasts, as well.

I have seen, however, these enduring aspects of Baptist identity still shared today in some places, even after 400 years of Baptist life. Here and there, I have witnessed a fresh sense of “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism” with churches in the United States and around the globe.

It is wonderful to experience the koinonia and the common unity found among the largest Baptist group in the world—the Baptist World Alliance. To be able to support and engage with such deeply caring Christian brothers and sisters is a remarkable blessing. For me, it is perhaps the closest experience to heaven I have found in all my years.

What would you change about the Baptist denomination—state, nation or local?

If I could change one thing, I would ask our Baptist family to lift up our eyes and see the world around us, to cease its self-centeredness and political wrangling.

God has so much for us to do as a distinct people of God. If we could join our hearts in purity to work for his kingdom together, it may cause us to be made usable by our Father in ways we as a denomination in the United States have not known in recent decades.

About Karen

Who were/are your mentors, and how did/do they influence you?

I learned the fascination of history and a curiosity for life and the world from my parents, who still are the most godly and consistent, faithful Christian people I ever have known. Their libraries always were open to me as a child, and I read everything I could find.

My first church history seminary professor, Doyle Young, turned my focus from Old Testament to the story of the church.

William Estep and Leon McBeth flamed my passion for all things Christianly historical and Baptistic.

I will always be grateful for James Leo Garrett, Roy Fish, Justice Anderson, Bill Tolar, David Crutchley, Carl Wrotenbery and the rest of the beloveds of the old Southwestern Seminary faculty and administration. They saw in me—most of the time, the only woman in the class—someone God had called, and supported and encouraged my walk of faith and obedience. I owe them an eternal debt of gratitude.

Other than the Bible, name some of your favorite books or authors, and explain why.

I am somewhat of a contemplative, so for my personal study, I turn to Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, Henry Blackaby, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and others. I read a “this day in Baptist history,” a “this day in church history,” and a church father every day, in addition to my Bible.

I love everything historical, whether I agree with the author’s perspective or not. I love to think along with the writers.

What is your favorite Bible verse or passage? Why?

Psalm 91. This one has spoken to my heart for many years, for God indeed has been my refuge in all the twists and turns of life, including denominational distress and during some dark days. God has been ever faithful, ever gracious to me, for which I am most grateful.

Who is your favorite person in the Bible, other than Jesus? Why?

Joseph. He endured a great deal at the hands of his brothers, yet God protected him, and he was able to learn life lessons that caused him to be gracious to those who intended to cause him harm.

I also love the Marys—the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Each of these loved Jesus and was transformed by their relationships with him. History has draped a shawl of mystery about them, yet both inspire me as strikingly compelling women.

Who are some of your favorite people outside the Bible?

My husband John, our two grown and married children, and our six grandchildren, ages 14 and under.

Name something about you that would surprise people who know you.

Once upon a time, I was a fencing champion in college. I still love a good driveway sword fight with the grandsons.

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