RICHMOND, Va. (ABP) — Weatherford Memorial Baptist
Church's facilities sit on a prominent corner on the south side of Richmond, Va. Patterned after Thomas Jefferson's
Monticello, the main sanctuary has a circular vestibule with white columns, a marble floor and a brass chandelier. On
either side, white-columned porticoes lead to gracefully proportioned educational and gymnasium wings.
All of which is remarkable to behold, considering that the congregation that meets inside is giving it all away.
Weatherford Memorial, whose membership has declined steeply in recent decades, has voted to disband and donate its
property to a sister church in the Richmond Baptist Association. St. Paul's Baptist Church, a large and fast-growing
African-American congregation in Richmond's suburbs, will turn Weatherford Memorial into a satellite church campus and
ministry center in a transitional part of town.
Like so many churches in changing circumstances, Weatherford Memorial Baptist remembers the glory days. Founded in
1907, the congregation moved to its present location in 1950, led by their pastor, J. Levering Evans. Evans had grown up
in China in a missionary family and had earned a Ph.D. in economics from Yale University. Evans predicted that the
church would be a lighthouse to the southern part of Richmond, and soon 750 worshippers crowded a building that doubled
as a gym and worship center — an innovative concept at the time.
The 1960s brought a decline in attendance, but the congregation believed that constructing a permanent sanctuary
would cause increased attendance. Construction began in 1971. That same year, the courts ordered busing to integrate
Richmond's public schools. As a consequence, many of the white families that had made up Weatherford's congregation
began relocating to suburban Chesterfield County.
During the '80s and '90s, attendance continued to dwindle. Even though successive pastors raised an alarm and
called for radical changes, the congregation resisted. Like the proverbial frog in the kettle, the changes around and
within the church occurred so slowly that they hardly noticed.
By 2001, the church could no longer deny what was happening. Average Sunday school attendance had dropped to 90. At
pastor Rick Hurst's initiative, the church began a “Rekindle Strategy” aimed at assessing church and community needs
and proposing ministry options. In 2004, the finance committee reported that without a dramatic turnaround, the church
would run out of money within a year.
It isn't as though the congregation never attempted to turn things around. They instituted community ministries that
include a food pantry and clothes closet. Weatherford welcomes anyone who will come to a weekday worship service
designed to meet the needs of the hungry. The Richmond Baptist Association runs a South Richmond ministry center out of
The church even began a contemporary worship service, although some admit their hearts were not in it. Youngsters
play Upward Bound basketball games in the gym, and a small African-American church meets in their building.
“It's not that we haven't tried,” comments life-long attendee and church secretary Gayle Bradley, “but we don't
know how to reach the people who live around us.”
In December of 2004, recognizing their position, the congregation considered a proposal to sell their buildings. That
same month, the congregation asked Glenn Akins of the Virginia Baptist Mission Board to meet with them. Simultaneously,
the pastor led the church to study several books, including George Barna's Turn-Around Churches. The book
studies and Akins' counsel led church members to conclude that they did not have a strong enough core group to
revitalize or to start over.
After listening to church members describe their condition and studying their circumstances carefully, Akins proposed
options to them last march. “The philosophy that I go by is that I have the same moral obligation that a physician
might in dealing with a patient,” he said. “I don't feel that I have the right to offer false hope. I could not give
them a solution that I believe would not work.”
After presenting options and countering each with the reasons why he thought it wasn't a viable alternative, he
concluded by asking the church to consider giving their buildings to St. Paul's.
“When Glenn said, 'Give it away,' it was like an electric shock went through us,” said Ruth Guill, a Weatherford
strategy committee member.
Her husband, Maynard, who chairs the committee that manages Weatherford's $580,000 endowment, continued, “I thought
'Humph, that doesn't fit with what I've been thinking.' Six months ago if someone had said we would be doing this, I
would have said they were crazy.”
Others agreed. Yet, as they thought about it and prayed, they began to see potential.
What would cause an aging white congregation in South Richmond to give buildings valued at more than $2 million to an
exploding, predominantly African-American congregation on the other side of town? The church has had dozens of other
potential buyers. But it wasn't about money. It was about missions. Weatherford members said they believe St. Paul's
will continue and enhance the mission their church began in South Richmond 98 years ago.
Weatherford Memorial takes its name from a colonial Baptist preacher whose voice would not be stilled — even by
imprisonment. The church members, more than anything else, say they are unwilling that the proclamation of the gospel on
that prominent corner be stilled.
Gayle Bradley offered an interesting question: “Could it be that God led our congregation to this place to minister
for a time, but that his greater vision was for St. Paul's to minister from this point to reach those we could not?”
On June 12, Weatherford's congregation voted, 59-11, to authorize the donation. The buildings, despite some peeling
paint, have been well maintained. One has a new roof. Mold problems that had plagued the sanctuary have been corrected.
The endowment fund will be trusted to the care of the Virginia Baptist Foundation, and the interest will be divided
evenly between the Richmond Baptist Association and the Virginia Baptist Mission Board. That way, the church may
continue to give to missions in perpetuity — long after its members have disbanded.
As expected, members are feeling grief at the loss of the place and people in which they have invested so much of
their lives. After Sept. 25, which will be the congregation's last official Sunday, they don't know where they will
worship. But sorrow was not what they were feeling most.
“I'm excited about where my wife and I will go and what we will do. I don't have a clue where that will be,”
noted Jimmy Boggs, who says he was baptized twice at Weatherford — once six months before he was born and again years
later. He continued: “but I believe the Lord is in this and I trust him. We might end up sitting right here and helping
minister through St. Paul's. I am proud to see the legacy of Weatherford live.”
Asked what advice they might have for other churches, the strategy committee responded, nearly in unison: “Change.”
“We saw what was happening, but we didn't want to acknowledge it. We were in denial,” lamented Ruth Guill. “If we
could say one thing to other churches it would be, 'Churches have to change. Those that don't change, don't
Boggs added, “By the time we saw what we needed to do, we were just too few, too old and too weary to make it
But, even as one church dies, its ministry is being reborn in a different form.
Although many potential buyers approached them with attractive offers, Weatherford members said they believe St.
Paul's possesses the right vision, leadership and commitment to missions and ministry to do what they could not. Under
pastor Lance Watson's leadership, the historic congregation outgrew its downtown Richmond facilities and moved into a
state-of-the-art campus northwest of the city 2 ½ years ago.
But ministry to South Richmond was on the congregation's mind. Just two Sundays after moving to their new facility,
Watson told his parishioners, “I know we just got here, but I believe God wants us to do something in South Richmond.”
When he learned that Weatherford had actually given its facilities to St. Paul's, Watson said, “I was overwhelmed
and honored that they trusted us with their buildings. We share a kind of history and vision.”
Watson is sensitive to the Weatherford congregation's concerns and anxieties. “I've heardone of their concerns
is that after we receive the property we will sell it and apply the money to our Creighton Road campus [which will
become known as “St. Paul's North”],” he said. “I understand that. If I were one of them, I would wonder that,
To allay their fears, Watson has worked with Weatherford's pastor Hurst to develop a covenant in which St.
Paul's promises to give their best effort to “St. Paul's South” (the Weatherford site) for at least six years. If
the ministry does not succeed in that length of time, Watson reasons, St. Paul's will need to move on and try someplace
But the word “failure” is not in Watson's vocabulary. Already he is envisioning ministry in the area, whose
population — according to the latest estimates — is 30 percent Hispanic. Among other things, he has enlisted a Spanish
teacher in the St. Paul's congregation to tutor him and anyone else in the church who is willing to learn the
The news of the donation has impacted the people of St. Paul's as much as the pastor. Watson reported that one of
his deacons, a lawyer, wept when he heard the news, saying, “I feared when we moved into our new facilities that we
would become another disconnected suburban congregation.”
— Jim White is the new editor of the Religious Herald, newspaper of the Baptist General Association of