Walker celebrates 25 years at First Gethsemane

Communications Staff — April 17, 2009

As T. Vaughn Walker reached for the quill pen to sign The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Abstract of Principles, his hand trembled.

But he didn’t tremble with nervousness at being watched by hundreds of people in Alumni Memorial Chapel that fall day in 1997. Instead Walker trembled at the historical significance of being the first African American to sign the seminary’s confession of faith alongside the names of its slaveholding founders.

“I was trembling because I understood for our people what that meant,” Walker said. “I think it meant more for the race than it did for me personally. I was so nervous because of what it represented—an African American actually signed that Abstract. I’m sure the founders never
envisioned that happening.”

Signing the Abstract, a privilege of all tenured professors, is just one of many historical milestones from Walker’s life. He was the first black faculty member hired at any Southern Baptist Convention seminary, one of a small number of Southern Seminary faculty members to survive under moderate and conservative administrations and a leader in both the SBC and the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc. (NBC)

Recently another historical event in his life—his 25th anniversary as pastor of First Gethsemane Baptist Church in Louisville—gave Walker an opportunity to reflect on his barrier-breaking life and ministry.

First Gethsemane, a predominantly black church,
called Walker as pastor in March 1984. Since then the congregation has grown from fewer than 200 members to an average Sunday attendance of 600-800 and a membership approaching 2000. Expansion of facilities, purchase of nearly 12 acres of property and a popular television broadcast helped First Gethsemane become a lighthouse in the inner city.

The church was aligned exclusively with the NBC
USA, Inc. at Walker’s arrival but has since become dually aligned with the SBC and NBC.

“The mercy of the Lord Jesus has sustained us,” he said. “There’s no way you can stay at a church 25 years without the Lord just being gracious and merciful. I am totally committed to the Lord and grateful to Him for what He has done. I get credit for a lot of things that I had nothing really to do with, but the Lord just did it.”

Already a college professor with a Ph.D., Walker felt called to ministry in 1980 and came to Southern as a student four years later. But even before he graduated in 1987 with a master of divinity in Christian education, the dean of the seminary’s School of Church Social Work tapped him to teach courses on the black family and the black church.

In 1986 he was hired as a faculty member teaching part-time. Other African Americans taught courses at Southern previously, but Walker became the first black man to join a Southern Baptist seminary with a regular faculty appointment. Later Walker was one of the first three Southern Seminary professors allowed to maintain a permanent pastorate while teaching full-time.

Over the years, he moved to the School of Theology and then the Billy Graham School of Missions, Evangelism and Church Growth where he still teaches. He oversees the black church studies programs at both the master and doctoral levels in addition to teaching courses on church and community issues.

Many people do not realize Walker’s impact on black church leadership across multiple denominations.

“When I look around the country, Southern has played a significant role in preparing what I would call 21st century black church leadership,” he said, noting that Southern graduates dominate African-American SBC leadership in addition to heading up the Lott Carey Baptist Foreign Mission Convention, teaching in seminaries and pastoring major black churches.

“I could go all around the country and show how Southern’s imprint is there—in the SBC, but also in the NBC and in a very few instances also in the ABC (American Baptist Churches, USA),” he said.

In Louisville, for example, four of the five largest black churches are pastored by Southern graduates as are six of the largest 10, Walker said.

Another noteworthy aspect of Walker’s career has been his ability to thrive under both moderate and conservative administrations at the seminary. When moderates dominated Southern’s leadership during the early portion of his teaching career, Walker believed himself to be the most theologically conservative professor on campus. So when conservatives took over in the early 1990s, he fit comfortably theologically with the new administration.

“I recognize the gifts of (Southern Seminary President) Dr. (R. Albert) Mohler (Jr.) and admire how gifted he is,” Walker said. “I’ve learned a lot from his leadership style and watch him carefully.”

Walker sees his ministries at the church and seminary as linked. Some of his students at Southern also attend First Gethsemane, and over the years the church has sent seminary graduates to minister across America and overseas.

“I thank God that I was allowed to have this privilege and I hope that I have represented Christ well in this,” he said. “I hope that I have also represented Southern Seminary well. In all the places I’ve gone I’ve attempted to be very positive about the school.”

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