Terrell Carter called as Webster Groves Baptist’s first African-American pastor
Abbreviated version originally published in the Webster-Kirkwood Times Sept. 25, 2015
By Eileen P. Duggan
Terrell Carter, the new pastor of Webster Groves Baptist Church, is a true Renaissance man. He’s a painter, carpenter, construction manager, community activist, former police officer, blog writer and the author of three books published in the past year. And, of course, a pastor with three related degrees.
Carter was called at the end of August to be the first African-American pastor of the historically white Baptist congregation.
“It was providence,” Carter says. “This is a wonderful congregation.”
The seeds of Carter’s sense of faith and service were planted early by loving grandparents and uncles in a family of five generations of ministers. Though he and his twin brother started life at a disadvantage, “our grandparents raised us in a household of love,” Carter says. “They loved us unconditionally. They encouraged us to be whatever we wanted to be. They also raised us with a foundation of faith.”
The twins’ parents married as teenagers with the boys already on the way. Neither parent finished high school, and their father joined the military to provide for the family. But he didn’t return after his service, and his wife had trouble keeping a job. The boys and their mother stayed with their father’s parents. Those grandparents raised the twins after their mother was murdered over a bag of marijuana and a few dollars in cash when they were 7, Carter says.
The twins’ father came back into their lives when they were about 13, and they lived with him in Texas for the duration of high school. They immediately returned to their grandparents to continue their education and start their adult lives.
“I knew what I wanted to be, and I knew it would take some level of education to have those doors opened to me,” Carter said. He eventually got bachelor’s and master’s degrees and two doctorates.
His twin brother, Derrell Carter, also is an overachiever, with four master’s degrees and a successful career in corporate communications in Chicago.
Terrell Carter entered the housing construction industry, eventually learning every part of the trade from carpenter’s apprentice to project manager. Then, at age 22 in 1997, he hit a snag — he learned he was going to be a father. He loved his job with Pyramid Construction, a small construction company, but it didn’t pay benefits. He needed a job with some type of long-term future. “I prayed about it,” he says.
Two days later he heard a radio advertisement recruiting police officers for the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department. “I thought, God, this cannot be the answer to my prayer,” says Carter, who had experienced negative interactions with police.
The one police officer he knew advised that it was a good opportunity for his family. The department not only paid benefits but paid a portion of college tuition. “I became a police officer because I needed a job. I hadn’t finished college,” Carter says. “It provided me with everything I needed.”
In his five years with the police department, he had both good and bad experiences, as with any job, but “the bad outweighed the good. I did not find it a positive experience,” he says.
So he moved on in 2002, returning to the construction company. The work transition wasn’t difficult, but “the transition to being a regular citizen was a challenge,” Carter says. He could still hear the police radio chatter in his ears for a long time, and it took six months to stop answering the phone with “Officer Carter, how can I help you?”
Later, Pyramid established CREATE Inc., a nonprofit organization to help people over age 55 to navigate social services, and Carter was hired as executive director in 2006. In 2012, he joined North Newstead Association, where he continues to serve full-time as executive director.
Carter’s goal when he went into construction was to eventually run a construction company, and now he’s doing that. North Newstead concentrates on development and management of affordable housing in North St. Louis. For the past three years, the agency has been funded by the City of St. Louis to manage its community-based programs in the area.
“I can fulfill part of my calling by doing this,” Carter says.
Carter’s work history is part of an overall mission to fulfill his calling. As a 17-year-old preaching his first sermon, Carter felt the call to ministry. “I saw and still see being a pastor as a calling. I’ve always understood that I would have a profession, and I would be able to nurture my call in other ways. A job is one thing, and calling is something totally different. I knew that throughout my life, I would be doing something in the church, and whatever doors would open, I wanted to be prepared.”
He started that preparation by getting a bachelor’s degree in biblical sciences and organizational leadership from Calvary Bible College and Theological Seminary in Kansas City in 1999. In 2009, he earned a master of fine arts degree in arts management and leadership. He received his second doctorate in ministry from Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas, in May 2015. The first doctorate in theology came from a correspondence school in Louisiana.
Through all his jobs, Carter served part-time in ministry at various churches. He was the first African American called as interim pastor to Broadway Baptist Church in 2004, after their 78-year-old pastor was murdered in the church kitchen. He shepherded that congregation for about five years.
Then in 2013, he was asked by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Heartland to serve as part of a five-person team of interim ministers for the Webster Groves Baptist Church, whose longtime pastor had retired. After speaking there a few times, he felt a strong connection to the congregation, but the church wasn’t yet prepared to make a call. Meanwhile, his home church, Third Baptist Church, needed an interim and he was torn. “I really felt Webster Groves Baptist wanted to call me, but when your home church calls — . It’s a place where you’ve built multiple relationships over several years.” He went back to his home church, and WG Baptist later hired a pastor.
But Webster’s new pastor didn’t work out, and the deacons asked Carter again in 2015 to be an interim. The home church also had called a permanent pastor, and this time Carter was ready when the call came.
“It’s bigger than providence,” he says. “We built very strong relationships in 2013 that we had to leave, but we were able to pick those back up.”
The congregation welcomed Carter and his family with a luncheon Sept. 27. The family includes wife Melinda Compton Carter, director of communications at Washington University’s Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts; 18-year-old Malik, a film student at Webster University; and 10-year-old Victoria, who aspires to attend the Grand Center Arts Academy charter school.
The congregation of about 40-50 families is in the midst of a planning process to “pray and spend time talking and see God’s face for a plan for the future,” Carter said. “We’re also exploring what it means to be open to change.”
Change may include doing a better job of building relationships in the community to let people know the 102-year-old congregation is “still here.” Change may include partnerships with Webster University, Eden Seminary and the neighborhood.
Older churches need to evaluate what they do, why and whether they can rethink and re-engage based on the realities in the community, he says.
The first goal of Webster Groves Baptist, as a Moderate Baptist Church, is “to love people and not hit them with a set of rules,” Carter says. “We accept people the way they are. Race and gender aren’t factors. Whatever position we take has to be informed by the two great commandments: Love God and love thy neighbor. Without hesitation.”
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Terrell Carter’s books:
Bettie Youngs Book Publishers, San Diego, California, 2o15.
PInnacle Leadership Press, Chapin, S.C., 2015