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Kirbyjon Caldwell, a Wharton MBA turned pastor, discusses how his vision to build a prayer center turned into something much bigger

While many evangelical pastors focus primarily on caring for their own congregations, Kirbyjon Caldwell has encouraged his Windsor Village United Methodist Church in southwest Houston to become actively involved in improving the surrounding impoverished neighborhoods. Caldwell calls this "taking the sanctuary to the streets."

Over the years, Windsor Village has helped form a number of nonprofit organizations. Its first big initiative came in the mid-'90s, when a community development corporation formed by Caldwell converted an abandoned Kmart (SHLD ) into the "Power Center." This center now houses a private Christian school, Houston's fifth-largest banquet facility, community college classes, a bank, a pharmacy, and hair salon. In all, it employs more than 270 people.

But the Power Center was just the beginning. In 2000, the community development corporation broke ground on Corinthian Pointe, a sprawling subdivision of more than 450 single-family homes targeted at low- to moderate-income individuals. Then this past January, Caldwell unveiled plans for a massive Kingdom Builder's Center (, which will include a huge new sanctuary and "family life center" for the church, as well as senior housing, a public school, a YMCA, a retail center, and commercial catfish ponds for the broader community.

Today, Caldwell is one of the nation's most respected black evangelicals. In January, he delivered the benediction at President Bush's inauguration. The pastor recently talked about his ministry with BusinessWeek Boston Bureau Chief William C. Symonds in a small office in the Power Center. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation:

Q: You have an MBA from Wharton, which would suggest that your career goal initially was to go into business.


Yes. I never intended to become a pastor. My grandparents always told me to make something of myself. And to me, that meant get a job, don't go to jail, go to church, and pay your taxes.

Q: Where did you grow up?


I grew up on the other side of town [here in Houston] in what you would probably call a ghetto today. My dad was a tailor. And he had some great clients who came into his store: B.B. King, James Brown, and Ike and Tina Turner. In fact, one night Tina Turner kissed me on the forehead. But my dad's store was a quarter mile from a place we called Vietnam, because two or three weekends every month, someone was shot there.

Q: How did you get into business?


After high school, I went to Carleton College [in Minnesota]. Then I went to Wharton and then ended up on Wall Street, working for First Boston as a bond salesman. [About a year later], I was offered a job in Houston at a regional [bond] house. The guys working at that firm make a lot of money.

Q: Why did you give that up for the ministry?


I was only there for several months when I announced I was going to the seminary. They thought I was crazy. How did this calling come about? It wasn't a dramatic experience. It was almost as if my intentions were eclipsed by God's will. It became crashingly clear to me that I was supposed to pastor a church.

Q: How did you end up at Windsor Village?


The Bishop asked me if I wanted it. We had 25 members, and 12 of them were coming to church. If I had not worked out, they were planning to sell the whole deal.

Q: So how did you turn it into one of the nation's fastest-growing churches?


The first thing was to really preach Jesus and teach Jesus. Second, sheep produce sheep. So I got members to be very active in recruiting other members. Third, a powerful prayer ministry has been very important.

The fourth point was a winsome worship service that is fun and infuses enthusiasm. Folks catch Hades Monday through Friday, and they don't want to come to church on Sundays and catch more. And the final thing was multiple relevant ministries. Those were the five key factors.

Q: When did you come up with the idea of building the Kingdom Builder's Center?


About seven years ago, Evander Holyfield made a big contribution to fund a new prayer center for Windsor Village. He is not a member of our church, but he used to train in Houston, and I used to pray for him before he went into the ring. So I asked him for $1.2 million, and he said yes!

Q: But now you're talking about building a lot more than a prayer center.


Yes. Our vision to build a prayer center has blossomed into something much bigger -- a one-stop Christian destination. So they can come and stay all day. We see this as a long-term commitment that will glorify God and bless the people.

Q: Across the street from where your new sanctuary will be, you've already helped build more than 450 affordable single-family homes. Were they built for members of your church?


No. Less than 5% of the people living there belong to our church. But I've always known there is a huge demand for first-class affordable housing. And that was our goal.

Q: Before that, your first big project was the Power Center. How did you figure out what programs and businesses to put into this abandoned Kmart?


We did a study to determine what the needs were. There wasn't a bank or clinic in the neighborhood. There wasn't a place for organizations to come and hold conferences and meetings. So we have all those things.

Q: How did you develop a relationship with President Bush?


I met him when he was governor, at a function in Houston, and we hit it off. Then the President asked me to introduce him at the Republican Convention [in 2000]. I am not a Republican. If he had been a Democrat, I would have said yes in a heartbeat. But it would have been gutless for me to say no just because he was a Republican.

I readily admit that the Republican Party has a terrible reputation in some parts of the black community, and deservedly so. But President Bush's record as governor of Texas was very balanced.

Q: As a Wharton MBA, how do you view the use of business principles to run megachurches?


It is not uncommon for small and medium-sized churches to view larger churches as a business. I think that is unfortunate. But the other side of the coin is that when you take up money and spend money, if you don't have sound business principles in place, you go to jail.

It is unfortunate that we've created this canyon between what is spiritual and what is practical. The Lord builds a bridge between [them]. And over half the parables told by Jesus deal with money. So I don't make any apologies for the fact that we try to run the church as efficiently as we can.

Q: How do you describe what you're doing here?


We don't place a lot of emphasis on labels. We are believers who are trying to fulfill our calling. You have some so-called evangelicals who criticize me for offering a spot for former drug addicts to meet.

How hypocritical is it if you criticize addicts on Sunday for doing drugs, and then when they knock on your door on Tuesday and ask if they can have a place to meet, you say, "Hell, no!"

We are only attempting to do what the Lord's prayer says. And if that means putting traditionalism on the back burner, then that is what it means.

Edited by Patricia O'Connell

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