When he came to Columbia to pastor First Baptist Church more than three decades ago, it was the first time Wendell Estep had set foot in the Palmetto State.
“I did not know one person in South Carolina,” Estep said, sitting in the office of what has been his downtown church for the past 31 years. “I had never entertained the idea of coming to South Carolina.”
Estep’s decision to move his family halfway across the country from their Oklahoma home to take over First Baptist, sight unseen, might appear inexplicable. But he sees his calling to Columbia as nothing less than an act of divine intervention.
“If you know the Lord, you know there are times when God speaks to you, and you couldn’t explain it to someone who doesn’t understand that,” Estep said. “In my spirit, I sensed that it was of God, and I really couldn’t tell you any more than that.”
‘If you know the Lord, you know there are times when God speaks to you, and you couldn’t explain it to someone who doesn’t understand that. In my spirit, I sensed that it was of God.’
— First Baptist pastor Wendell Estep, on moving to Columbia from Oklahoma
Sometime in the next year, the 74-year-old Estep will retire from First Baptist’s historic pulpit. He will leave his successor an expanded First Baptist – both in worshipers and physical space – compared withthe one he took over in 1986.
“When you look at his legacy, he’ll be remembered as a builder,” said longtime church member Bob Debenport. “Not building-building, but kingdom-building. He’s been able to reach people in different ways.”
While Estep has given the church a distinct identity and theological direction, members credit Estep’s own personality as a major attraction.
“He’s a real preacher and teacher,” Debenport said. “But he’s not going to beat you up with it.”
‘He goes with what the Lord tells him’
Growing up in Texas, Estep didn’t see the ministry as his future. Instead, he wanted to work in television.
As a young man in the 1960s, Estep worked as a news producer for a TV station in Texas, then moved his young family to Oklahoma City, when he landed a job with the ABC affiliate.
At the time, the Esteps were not regular churchgoers. “I used to sleep every Sunday until noon.”
Then, one Sunday – as he sat at home reading the paper – Estep was watching his daughter Stephanie, playing on the floor, and a thought struck him: “She needs to be in church.”
So the Esteps found a church, and the father soon found himself more affected by their new Sunday routine than his daughter was. At the age of 27, he decided God had other plans for him than working in TV, and that Estep should go into the ministry himself.
“I struggled with it for a year, and I finally came to the place where I was willing to do whatever God wanted me to do,” he said. “So we ended up selling the house, getting money any way we could, sold anything we had. I went to school and took a little part-time church that ran about 40 in attendance.”
“We had two children at that time, and we started all over again,” he said.
Eventually, Estep had such success at Oklahoma City’s Council Road Baptist Church that he came to the attention of Columbia’s First Baptist congregation, then searching for a new pastor.
As chairman of the church’s pastor search committee, Debenport traveled to Oklahoma to see Estep preach with other committee members. He came away impressed. Maybe too impressed.
“He had the fastest-growing church in Oklahoma. He was president of the state convention,” said Debenport. “I thought, ‘I don’t know if he’ll come here.’ ”
At the same time, Estep was considering heading back to Texas. He even had scheduled a visit to another church looking for a new pastor.
“I was scheduled to go there on Thursday, and if I felt that’s what I was supposed to do, I was going to go there and be their pastor,” Estep said.
The Tuesday before that, he got a call from Columbia’s First Baptist, and suddenly, his plans changed.
“I sensed in my spirit that it was something of God, to such a degree that I called the chairman of the pastor search committee in Texas and told him that they (First Baptist) had called, and told him, ‘I don’t fully understand it, but I feel that God is in that, and I would be dishonest with you if I didn’t call and tell you.’ ”
‘I sensed in my spirit that it was something of God, to such a degree that I called the chairman of the pastor search committee in Texas and told him that they (First Baptist) had called, and told him, “I don’t fully understand it, but I feel that God is in that ...” ’
— First Baptist pastor Wendell Estep, on deciding to cancel a job interview with a Texas church and move to Columbia
He never went to the church in Texas, soon finding himself in Columbia instead.
“He goes with what the Lord tells him to do,” Debenport said. “It certainly wasn’t anything I said.”
The only thing going on downtown
About a year after he came to South Carolina, Estep was joined by another Texan, Steve Phillips, as First Baptist’s minister of music, a job Phillips still holds 30 years later.
“When we came, we didn’t have much to work with in terms of facilities,” Phillips said. In fact, the church was considering moving out of the downtown location it had occupied since 1809.
Instead, Estep started expanding the church’s footprint until it covered the block between Hampton and Washington streets, just south of Palmetto Health Baptist hospital. In 1992, Estep helped usher in First Baptist’s new $13 million, 3,300-seat sanctuary. Under his watch, the church added the Estep Family Life Center and bought the old YMCA building to house the church’s recently opened student ministry.
At the same time, Estep took an interest in downtown Columbia’s future, serving on the board of downtown’s City Center Partnership, a nonprofit that seeks to improve the area.
“From very early on, he understood the connection between the business and faith communities,” said Matt Kennell, the partnership’s chief executive and president. “First Baptist even offered to support us financially. He knew the church was a critical part of downtown and, as downtown rose, so would the church.”
‘From very early on, he understood the connection between the business and faith communities. First Baptist even offered to support us financially. He knew the church was a critical part of downtown and, as downtown rose, so would the church.’
— Matt Kennell, chief executive and president of the City Center Partnership.
Estep did his part to draw more people downtown by making the church a center of activity. First Baptist’s Christmas pageant has been held since 1988, and the church started holding a Celebration of Liberty around the Fourth of July after the 1991 Gulf War.
“We started on the State House steps, then moved into the new sanctuary, so we’re not dealing with rain or 100-degree temperatures,” said Phillips.
Estep sees the church as having a part in downtown’s recent boom in new housing and businesses. He also sees a potential new community for First Baptist to reach with its message.
‘I remember being in a meeting with Mayor (Bob) Coble, and he said if it were not for First Baptist and Baptist Hospital, there would be nothing going on downtown. But. recently, it has begun to boom.’
— Estep on downtown Columbia’s redevelopment
“I remember being in a meeting with Mayor (Bob) Coble, and he said if it were not for First Baptist and Baptist Hospital, there would be nothing going on downtown,” Estep said. “But recently it has begun to boom. People are moving back in. It is an extremely exciting time to be downtown. ... It is phenomenal the difference I see in the downtown area than when I came here.”
In Columbia, Estep put his past TV experience to use, expanding the church’s reach with broadcast services on six TV stations around the state. First Baptist also has expanded its online ministry – although Estep says that is the work of some of the younger staff members.
Looking back, Estep also believes he gave First Baptist a stronger identity as a theologically conservative church, something it didn’t have when he came to Columbia in the 1980s.
“Southern Baptists, at the time, were split on the nature of the Bible and, eventually, settled on it being inerrant,” Debenport said. “Dr. Estep was that way from the get-go.”
“With the changes that took place ... there were people who were not comfortable with some of them,” Estep said, “so people left and people came.”
At the same time, Estep helped establish a strong partnership between the historically white First Baptist and predominantly black Brookland Baptist in West Columbia. Estep and Brookland’s Rev. Charles Jackson work out together regularly at the Estep Center.
“We were working out together one day, and Charles said, ‘Here’s what I want to do. When issues come up, I would like to say it as a black man sees it, and then I want you to say it as a white man sees it,’ ” Estep said. “The thing that was surprising was how differently we look at the same issue. But we have discussed it, and we have a better understanding because of that.”
‘We were working out together one day, and (the Rev.) Charles (Jackson of Brookland Baptist) said, ‘Here’s what I want to do. When issues come up, I would like to say it as a black man sees it, and then I want you to say it as a white man sees it.’ The thing that was surprising was how differently we look at the same issue. But we have discussed it and we have a better understanding because of that.’
— Estep, on his partnership with the Rev. Charles Jackson, head of the predominantly black Brookland Baptist
Not retiring from, retiring to
Rather than retiring from the ministry, Estep says he wants to retire into his son’s ministry.
Estep’s son, Erik, has pastored his own flock at Blythewood’s Village Church since 2002, one of several churches First Baptist has planted elsewhere.
“I will spend my time investing in him and his ministry,” the elder Estep said. “That gives me a significant purpose, and I’m excited about that.”
Erik Estep says he looks forward to his father’s advice and maybe even getting him into Village Church’s pulpit occasionally although he also jokes he could stick his father with the custodial duties.
“Probably the biggest thing he’s shown me is just to be a regular guy,” Erik Estep said. “The guy you see in the pulpit is who he is. He’s not two different men. He’s consistent ... that showed me you don’t have to be a completely different person to do this.”
His father said his biggest joy of the past 30 years has been his family’s involvement in the church.
“My son was called into the ministry in this church. My daughter sings in the choir. One of my grandsons sings in the choir. My family’s commitment to this church is very significant to me.”