Those who first saw Kirbyjon Caldwell when he delivered the benediction at President George W. Bush's inauguration in January observed something unexpected: a prominent black pastor supporting a Republican president when such supporters were scarce. Caldwell himself admits that he has voted overwhelmingly Democratic in the past, and when talking about some political issues—say, affirmative action—his "compassionate" seems several steps left of "conservative." So, how did he wind up praying at Bush's inauguration and introducing him at last year's GOP convention in Philadelphia?

Despite their apparent differences, Bush and Caldwell have a lot in common. Both are Texans. Both are Methodists. Both earned MBAs from renowned business schools. And both have a passion for using faith-based programs to meet social needs.

The two men have been friends ever since Bush (then governor of Texas) learned of Caldwell's community-development efforts. Today, Caldwell occasionally prays with the President over the phone, and Bush has long pointed to Caldwell's work as a positive example of what can be accomplished through local churches and parachurch ministries.

In his hometown of Houston, Kirbyjon Caldwell is known for his lively preaching—he strikes some as equal parts motivational speaker and revivalist. But the real buzz on Caldwell concerns his success in leading his church, Windsor Village United Methodist, into real estate and other economic-development ventures. Exhibit A is the Power Center, a 104,000 square-foot former Kmart that now houses a private Christian school, a branch of Houston Community College, office space for small businesses, a pharmacy, a hair salon, a federal public-assistance office for women and children, and the area's only bank. Since 1999 the Power Center has had an estimated $28.7 million impact on its neighborhood, an economically depressed sector of southwest Houston.

Exhibit B may be Windsor Village Methodist Church itself, a spiritually bustling congregation filled with affluent African-American members. When Caldwell arrived at the church in 1982, it was a financially struggling body of 25. Today, with 14,000 members, Windsor Village has become the largest United Methodist Church in America and continues to grow.

Caldwell, then, is becoming one of the most influential pastors in the nation. His breezy combination of positive-thinking theology, self-help affirmative action, and apolitical politics makes him a fascinating study in contrasts—a man whose fervent evangelical convictions are rivaled only by his pragmatic belief in economic development.

Perhaps a major reason for Windsor Village Church's explosive growth is its pastor's experience with numbers. The 48-year-old Caldwell began his career not as a minister, but as an investment banker. "I never thought I would pastor a church," he recalls. Instead, he attended Wharton Business School and worked for a year on Wall Street before landing a lucrative job in 1978 with a bond-trading firm back home in Houston. He was on the fast track for professional stardom. "It was the Gold Rush era of Houston, and I was standing on the ground floor waiting for those elevator doors to open and deliver me into six-figure-dollars country," he writes in his 1999 book The Gospel of Good Success. "Not many African-American males could make six serious figures in 1978—especially without wearing a sports uniform."

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Eclipsed by God


But then came "the calling." Though members of his home church, Mount Vernon Methodist, had suggested that Caldwell, then a college student, consider the ministry, he wasn't tempted. "I was intentional about being a good layperson, not becoming a pastor," he says. "More importantly, I did not want to pastor a church unless it was clear to me that it was precisely what the Lord wanted me to do."

In 1978, after weeks of internal wrestling, Caldwell says he finally heard the call for himself on an October afternoon as he sat alone in his office. "My heart and my mind became eclipsed in what God wanted me to do," he says. He promptly went into his boss's office and resigned. "He thought I was crazy. My coworkers thought I was crazy," Caldwell remembers, adding that one colleague from his Wall Street days "called and literally cursed me out" over the decision.

Undeterred, the 25-year-old Caldwell started over. He completed a four-year program at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in less than three years and served as an associate pastor at churches in Dallas and Houston before accepting the assignment at Windsor Village.

Caldwell jumped from the world of finance to that of ministry without blinking, perhaps because he had grown up immersed in multiple worlds. His neighborhood was in Houston's poverty-stricken Fifth Ward, sometimes known as "the Bloody Fifth" because of the area's weekly homicides. But he was also exposed to celebrities like B.B. King and Ray Charles, for whom his father, a tailor, had made custom clothes. He recalls being kissed goodnight on the forehead by Tina Turner as a small boy.

Most important, Caldwell received lavish encouragement from parents who took their family to church each week. And the church, it turns out, was the setting for one of Caldwell's earliest victories: the conquering of a serious speech impediment, which his parents trained him to overcome by volunteering the child for every public-speaking opportunity available.

That family influence still resonates. Ask the busy pastor what his most important achievements have been and he'll tell you, in order, his decisions to follow Christ, marry his wife, and have children. Advising the President and transforming the economy of southwest Houston apparently fall further down on the list.

Suzette Caldwell, the preacher's wife of 10 years, is a major player at Windsor Village Church, where she leads the prayer ministry. The couple has three children (the youngest arrived in August).

The Caldwells share a talent for salesmanship, says Windsor Village lay leader George Johnson, but they use it only "for the good of the whole. Rev. Caldwell's ideas are never selfish; they're always what's best for the community." Johnson cites Caldwell's advocacy for a ministry to people with aids, which the church undertook over the objections of some congregants. "When the church started the aids ministry back in 1989, that was not a popular thing to do. Most church people just looked the other way on that. But it proved to be a very wise thing."

Johnson calls Caldwell an unflagging optimist with an energetic sense of humor. "He believes in laughter; very rarely will you get through a sermon without him saying anything funny."

Caldwell's positive attitude is reflected in his preaching, which has charmed many listeners with its energy, eloquence, and bold claims about the promises of God for his people. A national audience got a glimpse of his style at the inauguration, when the preacher called for God's divine favor "to be upon President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush." He continued: "We decree and declare that no weapon formed against them shall prosper."

Predictably, Caldwell drew criticism from non-Christians for praying his benediction "in the name that's above all other names, Jesus the Christ. Let all who agree say amen." He later told a Religion News Service reporter, "There does come a time when you need to stake your claim. I always prayed in Jesus' name. No need to change it now."

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Holistic Entrepreneur


Caldwell's entrepreneurial bent is so much a part of his leadership style that it's largely automatic. He demurs when asked how his business background has affected his pastoral experience. "I hate it when people ask me that," he says sheepishly. "I don't know, because I've never not been a pastor with a business background."

And it shows. Last April, the Power Center hosted a group of Microsoft executives in town to sell African-American entrepreneurs on ways they could use technology (Microsoft technology, naturally) to develop their businesses. Democratic Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee spoke to the packed house about the digital divide—the socioeconomic gap that separates those who are computer literate from those who are not—and how to close it. That meeting was followed closely by a conference featuring Continental Airlines CEO Gordon Bethune, on whose board of directors Caldwell serves.

Continental is just one in a long list of Caldwell's high-profile board memberships—including his alma mater Southern Methodist University, Chase Bank of Texas, and the Greater Houston Partnership, a prominent business-development group.

Caldwell's entrepreneurial activities are more than the extension of skills he picked up in business school. They express his theology and convictions about how the church should interact with the world. So in the daily activities of his community, and in the pages of his book, Caldwell preaches the gospel of "good success." He adapted the term from Joshua 1:8 to describe the kind of "holistic salvation"—spiritual, emotional, and financial—that he believes God wants his people to experience. The "good" refers to behaving morally, achieving success in life without violating God's law.

"We are very much risk-takers; we are innovative; we are entrepreneurial," Caldwell says of his church. "But guess what? Jesus was innovative and entrepreneurial, as was John Wesley. So, unlike some pastors, I don't view that as a scriptural stretch or as an anti-spiritual orientation. I think some churches obviously feel that their activities should be restricted to Sundays, and that economic development should be left to another sector. I don't buy that."

The Power Center is a visible outgrowth of the way Caldwell encourages members of his church to engage the community around them. He says it was a "soft sell" to persuade the church to invest in a facility (at an initial cost of $2.6 million) that would primarily serve nonmembers, that would be three miles from the sanctuary, and that members would have to pay to use after it was built. "We didn't have to twist any arms," Caldwell says, "because I had already been teaching that when God blesses us, he doesn't have us in mind. He expects the blessings to flow through us."

He insists that his basic approach to ministry hasn't changed much since Windsor Village Church was a congregation of 25: "You draw a line down the center of a piece of paper and list the challenges and the needs on one side; you list the programs and the ministries that are designed to meet those needs on the other side. You assume that resources are no problem, and you cast visions accordingly."

Caldwell says the $4 million-plus total investment in the Power Center, which now employs 276 people, has had a ripple effect in the neighborhood, spurring economic growth and raising morale among the residents. "After we began to upgrade this site, the streets of [the community] became vital. For a long time, this was a dilapidated, semi-rat-infested, semi-asbestos-filled Kmart. When we began to refurbish this building, it became a symbol of hope. People said, 'I can upgrade my house, I can mow my lawn.'"

Which brings us back to the President of the United States. There is no question that Bush and Caldwell are in philosophical agreement on the potential for partnership between government and churches. Though the Power Center runs without government assistance, Caldwell cites it as an ideal example of the kind of venture that government should be supporting. "The time has come for the faith-based community, the corporate community, and government sector to join forces and identify, address, and attack our social and economic ills," he says. "I know that collaboration can be effective."

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That said, Caldwell is reserving judgment on the specific faith-based initiative program being discussed in Congress. Like any conscientious businessman, he's not about to sign on to a deal without reading the fine print. However, he's confident that the Bush program would not, as some critics worry, compromise the mission of religious organizations that receive federal support. "Knowing President Bush and [former program director] John DiIulio as I do, I don't think the initiative is going to insist that a church, synagogue, or mosque compromise themselves" in return for government assistance. Nor will faith-based institutions endanger the rights of people outside the church, he adds.

Caldwell's support of the President has met with criticism by some in the African-American community, which gave Bush only one in ten votes in the 2000 election. Some have even charged that Caldwell's alliance with Bush betrays the social and economic goals of minorities.

Star Jones of ABC's daytime talk show The View, for example, told viewers that she "found God" as a member of Windsor Village while attending law school in Houston, but then expressed her disappointment with Caldwell for supporting Bush. Caldwell calls such criticism "shamefully unfair," especially given that little of it was made to him directly.

At the same time, he says he can understand that kind of emotional response. He realizes that the Republican Party has a "terrible reputation" in the African-American community. "When I was originally asked by President Bush to introduce him at the convention," he says, "I was surprised, if not shocked, because I am not a Republican. But if I had told him, 'No, I don't want to introduce you,' the primary reason I'd have had was because he was a Republican. Since I'm not a label guy—I'm a content guy—the Republican label alone was not enough reason for me to tell him no."

Though Caldwell minimizes his association with Bush, he's made some rather bold statements in support of the President. While introducing candidate Bush at last summer's Republican National Convention, Caldwell told the audience that "the governor's plan for America will ignite a social and economic revival among the working poor of America."

He said four Bush campaign planks, including the faith-based charities initiative and proposals to provide low-income Americans with home loans, savings incentives, and tax cuts, inspired the comment. The statement was as much a charge to keep as it was a prediction, Caldwell says. "I hope that this administration will [implement policies that help the poor] and I expect them to. I wanted to charge them with that."

Caldwell has a charge for Christians, too: to accumulate financial resources to do God's work in the world.

"It's unfortunate that most spiritual church folk"—not all church members are spiritual, and not all spiritual people are church members, he explains—"don't have a lot of financial resources. What this society needs, among other things, are more spiritual church folk with resources. What that would mean is they would understand that their prosperity has a purpose, and that God has given them the power to get wealth so that [they can use it for the kingdom].

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"If that occurred, and if the church were to understand itself through the lens of the Book of Acts, we would not need the Health and Human Services department. A lot of programs we bellyache about would not be in existence, because the church would be meeting the needs of those people."

Caldwell clearly considers his version of "taking the sanctuary to the streets" consistent with Scripture and church tradition.

"It is unscriptural not to own land," he says, without a trace of irony. Starting with Adam and Eve and throughout the Old Testament, "The central theme was the pursuit of land, occupation of land, being put out of the land." And in the New Testament, "Jesus said the meek shall inherit the real estate—the dirt."

Privately, Houston pastors both inside and outside of United Methodist circles believe Caldwell may go too far in linking spiritual wholeness to financial wholeness.

"My concern is that he syncretizes Western capitalist values with Scripture," said one Houston pastor who asked not to be identified.

The debate over Caldwell's theology and strategy reveals a common tension between predominantly black churches in poor neighborhoods and wealthier, whiter neighborhoods, where the needs of the congregation are markedly different—and where the social benefits of home ownership and fiscal solvency have long been part of the community value system.

The same pastor who spoke of his concerns about Caldwell acknowledged that Caldwell's approach makes more sense in the context of Windsor Village Church's neighborhood, where home ownership rates are low and economic development is sorely needed, than it would in his own congregation. "Wherever there is excess, we preach against excess," the pastor said, acknowledging that the economic depression of Caldwell's neighborhood may be just such an excess.

Still, the uneasiness persists. The pastor added that although Caldwell may preach the gospel of good success responsibly, "The next guy down the road may take it one step further," crossing the line. He cites as an example one Houston pastor who has installed a McDonald's franchise on his church's property in the name of economic development.

Greg Ligon, strategic director for Leadership Training Network (LTN), says Caldwell has not confused capitalism with Christianity. The Dallas-based LTN specializes in connecting "innovation leaders in strategic areas of the church" with one another, and Caldwell is a regular speaker at its conferences. LTN's conferences are aimed at "moving people from the perspective of the church being a spa, where you get your personal needs met, to being a training center where you're equipped to meet the needs of the community," Ligon says, adding that Caldwell is a perfect example of someone who does that.

Ligon believes Windsor Village United Methodist Church is unequivocal proof of Caldwell's commitment to biblical truth. "He's driven by a strong church base," he says. "The worship at Windsor Village is solid." Ligon thinks critics may be less familiar with this aspect of Caldwell's ministry because of the publicity given his economic-development efforts and his connection with President Bush.

For his part, Caldwell flatly denies that he preaches a health-and-wealth gospel.

"I believe in God because God is, period.

I would not insult God by viewing him as a sugar daddy or a slot machine. That's not the kind of gospel we preach and teach at Windsor Village.

"It's kind of a trick of the Devil," he adds. "On the one hand, if you make a connection between who God is and what God does for you, people accuse you of [preaching a health-and-wealth gospel]. On the other hand, to separate what you have from the One who supplied you with it is to slap God in the face and imply that you gave it to yourself, which could not be further from the truth."

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Caldwell continues to spur his congregation onward, to dream bigger and aim higher. One of the church's latest projects is Corinthian Pointe, a planned residential community just north of the Windsor Village neighborhood, which comprises 452 single-family homes. When complete, the 24-acre subdivision will boast a wellness center, two sites for commercial development, a 166,000 square-foot family-life center, a park, the Zina Garrison Tennis Center, and a retirement community. A $1.2-million contribution from boxer Evander Holyfield, who attends Windsor Village United Methodist when he is in Houston to train, will pay for a prayer center that will feature a chapel, computer room, classrooms, and a center for "strategic warfare praying." In all, the project will cost an estimated $82 million.

Fewer than 40 percent of the Corinthian Pointe homes sold so far have gone to members of Windsor Village United Methodist, Caldwell says. Henry Cisneros, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, called the development the largest venture of its type ever attempted by a nonprofit, let alone a church. And Caldwell's hometown newspaper, the Houston Chronicle, named it one of the top 100 business stories of the year 2000.

Beyond the completion of Corinthian Pointe later this year, the future of Kirbyjon Caldwell and Windsor Village United Methodist Church is not yet charted. Caldwell denies having political ambitions of his own, though he's loath to make any predictions about the future. He cites a verse from Matthew's Gospel in which two blind men followed Jesus (9:27). "That's what we're doing," he says. "We're blind to our ambition; we're blind to our agenda; we simply want to follow Jesus."

Jenny Staff Johnson is a writer in Houston.




Related Elsewhere



A ready-to-download Bible Study on this article is available at ChristianBibleStudies.com. These unique Bible studies use articles from current issues of Christianity Today to prompt thought-provoking discussions in adult Sunday school classes or small groups.

Read the full text of Caldwell's 2001 inauguration benediction for President Bush.

Caldwell also spoke at the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance Service at the National Cathedral September 14. Video of the service is available from C-Span.

ABCnews has posted the text of Caldwell's convention speech endorsing Bush.

Caldwell's book, The Gospel of Good Success, is available at Christianbook.com.

Good Newsprofiled Caldwell, who grew up in a neighborhood of pimps and prostitutes.

The Tri-State Voice focused on Caldwell's relationship as a friend and spiritual adviser to the Bush family.

London's The Sunday Times also profiled Caldwell and his relationship with the Bushes.

See the official site for Caldwell's Windsor Villiage UMC.

The Houston chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators and the Houston Business Journal named Caldwell Executive Communicator of the Year.

In Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, Kim Lawton focused on George W. Bush's spirituality.

Following the benediction, Christianity Today'sWeblog looked at the controversy surrounding the prayers led by Caldwell and Franklin Graham.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.

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