From the “stirring” of his heart as a camper at Camp McCall to accepting the call as senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Columbia, Wes Church’s life has been marked by God’s grace and providential leadership as he sought to be an obedient follower of Christ.
In recalling that week at McCall, he said, “I reflected back on that day and believed it to be the first time the Lord actually put a desire for vocational ministry in my heart.” He has served on the staff at First Baptist Church for 16 years — the first nine as college minister, and the past seven as minister of discipleship. On Sunday, Aug. 12, the church voted unanimously to call him as senior pastor.
Growing up in Roebuck Baptist Church near Spartanburg, he was exposed to people God used to help him in his spiritual growth and development, according to Kenny Church, his dad. David Satterwhite, minister of music and youth during Wes’s teenage years, and his wife, Sandy, impacted Wes’s life. “They had a big influence on him. They were big encouragers to Wes,” Kenny said. He mentioned many others who God used in the shaping of his son.
After graduating from high school, Wes enrolled at the University of South Carolina and began attending Columbia’s First Baptist Church. He was soon involved in the college ministry, and during summers he worked with Bill Cox at Seesalt. “Wes did an excellent job with us and continued to grow and excel during the four years he served on our staff. No one who knows Wes very well can be too surprised at where he is today,” Cox said. “It is encouraging that the leaders and members at First Baptist recognized that their new senior pastor was actually an old/young friend.”
Following graduation and his last summer at Seesalt, Wes became the college minister. Rick Milne, a Columbia ophthalmologist and lay leader in the college ministry at First Baptist Church, was a powerful influence in his life. “He was not just a ministry partner and spiritual mentor, he was a dear friend. He passed away five years ago, but the influence he had on my life is still taking shape,” Wes said. “I learned about discipleship through on-the-job training as a college minister. Our vision was to see college students who engaged with our ministry become fully developed followers of Christ.”
After serving as college minister for nine years, he accepted the position of minister of discipleship, where he served for seven years before becoming senior pastor. Wendell Estep, who was also an influential mentor to Wes, had a 30-year tenure as senior pastor before retiring recently, the second longest in First Baptist Columbia’s history. He gave Wes opportunities to preach, and that “began to stir in me the desire to pastor,” Wes said. “I had been involved in about every level of ministry that a large congregation could offer. I knew I needed to receive formal education for ministry both for further training and credibility. I enrolled in the Rawlings School of Divinity at Liberty University and will soon complete a master of divinity degree in homiletics.”
His vision for the church arises out of his heart for evangelism and discipleship, coupled with an appreciation for the continuing ministry of the historic church. “While First Baptist has done a formidable job of attracting prospects to come and see, we believe that the next chapter of ministry will involve compelling the church to go and tell. It is my hope to see the 1300 block of Hampton Street transformed into a sending platform for the gospel to the midlands, our state, and the world,” he said. “A well-balanced church must prioritize discipleship, since it is the primary directive in Jesus’ Great Commission. I believe, as pastor, that I am expected to give vision for the discipleship process of the church, but it will depend on others to implement the process, since discipleship is always best done in the context of a small group. Because our service is broadcast statewide and streamed around the world, we put a lot of emphasis on excellence in that hour-long service. However, we recognize that discipleship, fellowship and ministry cannot happen without Sunday School classes, discipleship groups, informal meetings and Bible studies.”
Wes will turn 39 this month. He follows a long-term pastor and begins his ministry at one of South Carolina’s most historic churches. The task could be daunting, but he is focused on being a servant leader as he prepares for the future. He acknowledged the great ministry the church has had over the years, especially under Estep’s leadership, and added, “At this moment in time, we look with anticipation toward a glorious future at First Baptist Church of seeing the lost redeemed, the prodigals return, the saints mature, and the community blessed by a fresh move of God in our congregation.”
Wes and his wife, Rachel, met while students at USC. They have three sons and a daughter.