Wendell Estep, the longtime pastor of First Baptist Church in Columbia, is retiring.
Estep, 74, told church members in April he plans to retire once First Baptist can find his successor as pastor, a process expected to take about a year.
A native Texan, Estep has been pastor of First Baptist, one of the Columbia area’s largest churches, since 1986. But, he said, the landmark downtown church and wider community are ready for a new leader.
“Now, the downtown area is having a renaissance with businesses and people moving back in,” Estep said. “I would give them another five or 10 years. But, with everybody coming back in (to downtown), I feel like we need someone who can give a longer-term plan or vision than I can give them.”
First Baptist, founded in 1809, and Estep have deep ties to downtown Columbia.
In 1992, Estep helped usher in First Baptist’s new $13 million, 3,300-seat sanctuary, a 196,000-square-foot downtown facility.
“He made a conscious decision that First Baptist would never abandon downtown Columbia,” said Bob McAlister, a parishioner and friend of Estep’s. “His vision was to take South Carolina’s most historic church and re-commit it to ministry in the inner city.
“If you look at what’s happened in downtown Columbia since then, you see the wisdom of that commitment.”
A former TV news producer, Estep joined the ministry in 1970. He pastored churches in Oklahoma before coming to South Carolina.
At First Baptist, Estep became a prominent Baptist leader.
In 1993, Estep was one of four Southern Baptists pastors to have a sit-down meeting with newly elected President Bill Clinton. And, in 2000, Estep was elected president of the S.C. Baptist Convention.
“Wendell did a great job at First Baptist in reducing their debt and bringing the staff together,” said Dick Lincoln, who recently stepped down after 38 years as pastor of Shandon Baptist Church.
First Baptist is Shandon Baptist’s “mother church,” having split off from the older church in 1908.
“I used to tell Wendell, ‘You know, you’re my mother,’ ” Lincoln joked Friday.
At First Baptist, Estep’s legacy will live on in the church’s Estep Family Center and its student ministry, soon to open in the recently purchased former YMCA building.
In retirement, Estep said he wants to spend time helping his son Erik’s ministry. Erik Estep started Village Church in Blythewood in 2002.
“People have asked me if I would ever go back to Texas,” Estep said. “I say, ‘Why would I? This is home.’ ”