Clearwater’s Calvary Church celebrates 150 years of faithfulness

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Calvary Baptist Church in Clearwater honored its past while casting a mission and ministry vision for the future as the congregation celebrated its 150th anniversary March 5-6.

“Founded in 1866, Calvary has stood for a century and a half as a faithful gospel witness in our city and in the entire Tampa Bay area,” said Pastor Willy Rice. “We looked back to honor the past and expressed gratitude by worshipping God and thanking people who came before us; and looked ahead as we cast a vision for Calvary’s future.”

The celebration expressed a “sense of real gratitude to the past and indebtedness to the history of this church family,” said Rice, calling the anniversary celebration “a highlight of my ministry.”

Embracing the theme found in Luke 1:50, “His mercy is from generation to generation,” pastoral leaders and church members representing previous decades were “called home” for the church to “champion those who served before us,” added Rice.

Among the guests was beloved retired pastor William Anderson, who served the congregation from 1970 until 2002 and led Calvary through a period of dynamic growth. During the tenure of the well-known Southern Baptist statesman, Calvary started five new churches locally and made a renewed commitment to global missions. Anderson was one of 19 pastors to serve the church since its beginning.

Rice, who has served as pastor since 2004, first came to Calvary with his family in 1976 at age 12. As a teenager he flourished under the Anderson’s mentorship and discovered God’s call into the ministry. He met his future wife, Cheryl, in the youth group and was later licensed to preach and ordained by Calvary before serving churches in Alabama and Pensacola.

The weekend events included a Saturday afternoon reception and exhibition that featured hundreds of artifacts, memorabilia and visuals from the past 150 years and a celebration worship service that night. Commemorative 150th Anniversary books were distributed to guests.  The Sunday morning worship services were devoted to the anniversary at both its Clearwater campus and East Lake campus, which the church began in 2013.

The historic celebration also included a look ahead as Rice “cast a vision for Calvary’s future” through the “X150: Generation to Generation” campaign designed to multiply believers, leaders and churches in 150 ways.

Among its major goals was to multiply churches by planting 100 churches internationally, 25 churches nationally and expand locally by adding five new campuses and help revitalize 20 churches. The funding will provide upgrades on the Clearwater campus; an athletic center and fine art facility for the Calvary Christian High School; and build a worship center at the church’s East Lake Campus.

The X150 campaign is expected to conclude at the end of March 2016.

Reaching a landmark anniversary of 150 years proclaiming the gospel as a thriving congregation is significant, according to Don Hepburn, author of “Favored Florida: The History of Florida Baptists.”

“Typically most Florida Baptist churches that reach the 150 years or longer milestone are small, rural congregations,” he said. Currently there are 75 churches that have reached the 150 milestone, including seven larger membership Florida Baptist churches in metropolitan areas.

Founded as Midway Baptist Church a year after the Civil War ended in 1866, Calvary was the first organized church of any kind in what would become the city of Clearwater, and the first Baptist Church in Pinellas County. The church changed its name to Clearwater Baptist Church in 1878; and to Calvary in the 1920s.

In 1926 the congregation built a new facility downtown, featuring a magnificent, stained glass rotunda, which became one of the most recognized buildings in the city. But as the church grew in the last part of the 20th century, the facility’s location hindered additional expansion.

Under Rice’s leadership the church sold the downtown building and relocated to its present location west of downtown, near the Tampa Bay and minutes from the Courtney Campbell Causeway. The church now owns 40 acres in that location and has experienced explosive growth to more than 10,000 members.

As he reflected on the anniversary celebration, Rice said he would encourage pastors to find ways to celebrate the history of a church and those who were faithful before them.

“There is a huge synergy honoring the past that creates capital, buy-in and momentum to move a church to the next level.”

By Barbara Denman

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