By Emily Williams
When Dr. Gary Fenton was a junior in high school, he felt what he describes as a divine pull down an academic path that would lead him straight to the pulpit, where he has remained for 46 years.
Twenty-five of those years were spent speaking to the congregation of Dawson Memorial Baptist Church in Homewood. But come Aug. 28, Fenton plans to take a seat in the crowd as he retires from his position as senior pastor.
Fenton grew up in small-town Missouri, spending Sundays at his local Church of the Nazarene. He attended a Nazarene college in Bethany, Oklahoma, where in his senior year he felt it was time to make a change to the Baptist faith. He pursued a master in divinity at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.
“My experience in seminary was really a pleasant surprise, because I went in with low expectations… It turned out to be one of the most academically and spiritually challenging and enriching experiences of my life,” he said. “I attended classes that made me think and wrestle with the real questions of faith and belief and I came out stronger for it.”
After earning a doctorate in ministry at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri, Fenton returned to his Midwestern roots and settled in a small church in Oklahoma before getting a taste of a much larger congregation in Branson, Missouri.
Enter televised sermons, a tool he soon grew to appreciate.
Fenton had his first taste of TV magic in his position at First Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas. Unlike Dawson, where sermons are televised on CBS 42 on a week delay, in Tyler he was entering the homes of viewers across his region live.
“The great thing about broadcasting is that it gives you the opportunity to speak to a tremendous amount of people who are in a variety of degrees of need and hurt in their lives,” he said. “One of the most encouraging things is when people see our program, develop or return to their faith and they start returning to their local church. The great thing about the Baptist faith is that it isn’t just an institution, it’s truly a community.”
According to Fenton, the community of faith expands beyond the state of Alabama, the Midwest and even the United States. During his career he has participated in a number of mission trips across the globe, most notably resulting in a close relationship with a Baptist community in Bucharest, Romania, that he has seen grow and become firmly established over the years.
Participating in mission trips abroad is an experience he said should “change one’s heart” and, in turn, inspire a person to conduct further hands-on mission work locally.
“I remember, I was speaking at a small church in a village in Malawi on a Sunday morning, knowing that what I was saying was completely dependent on a translator,” he said. “Then, one of our soloists who we brought with us sang a rendition of “Give Me Jesus,” just a beautiful and a simple song.” As he looked into the eyes of the congregation, Fenton described a feeling of strong connection that pushed the boundaries of language.
“Cut to a few weeks later when I was sitting with a number of affluent people from around our city, I began to recognize that same disparity and saw that very same basic need in their eyes. It’s a feeling that has helped focus my ministry.”
Though he never planned on leaving Tyler, Texas, Fenton said that relocating his wife, Alta Faye, and his three daughters to Birmingham is something he has never regretted. When he first arrived in Homewood, Dawson was not quite the powerhouse that it is today, but a work-in-progress ready to rise.
“One of the biggest differences I can see in the congregation is that we are an intergenerational church,” he said. “A few years back we broke down the congregation into generations and saw almost an equal amount of young children and people over the age of 70.”
Though the church has a strong stake in fostering faith in its youth, Fenton has a special appreciation for furthering character development in young professionals and adults. Fenton’s Friday Five, a weekly blog that he posts on his website characterpath.com, which includes character building tips, is something he plans to continue.
“Character is something that can still be developed in adulthood. We never stop growing and I would like to think that there are still things that I can learn and develop throughout the rest of my life,” he said.
During his retirement, Fenton, a three-times published author, plans to spend more time writing, keeping up with Fenton’s Friday Five. A graduate of the 2002 Class of Leadership Birmingham and the 2008 class of Leadership Alabama, in addition to serving on various boards for local civic and non-profit organizations, he will be working part time with an organization to be announced.
“One of the things I most look forward to is visiting my child in Texas and in Atlanta in their church congregation,” he said. “I have one daughter who lives here and attends Dawson, but I do not get to see the others being active in their church community.”
“While I’ve loved my 25 years here, I truly do believe that the best is yet to be for Dawson,” Fenton said. “ I wish I were 25 years younger … but just to be a part of it, in any way I could, makes it all the more exciting and I know it’s only going up from here.”