PALESTINE, Texas?At the beginning of 2000, Dogwood Hills Baptist Church in Palestine was pastorless, $64,000 in debt and ready to shut its doors. On a good Sunday 10 people would show.

Six years later, the church is debt free and the membership has grown significantly through the leadership of pea-farmer-turned-pastor Kevin Willmott.

Mike Smith, director of missions in the Dogwood Trails Area, which includes Saline Baptist Association, said the 16-year-old church has made a dramatic transformation.

“Previously, there had been several different pastoral changes in a short period of time,” Smith said. “The church had gotten down where we were wondering whether it was going to keep the doors open or not.”

Dogwood Hills contacted Smith to help find guest preachers from Sunday to Sunday. So Smith called on Willmott to fill the gap because of his involvement in the Saline association and his church at the time, Concord Baptist.

Willmott felt the Lord leading him into full-time ministry, and the church needed a full-time pastor, so it seemed a perfect match, Willmott recalled. Dogwood Hills called him to be the pastor in April 2000.

“When I came here, my wife and I didn’t know how we were going to do it,” Willmott said. “We farmed 400 acres of produce and had 400 head of cattle. But the Lord really confirmed in my heart that I needed to quit farming and go into the ministry. So I sold my share to my brother and dad. We didn’t have the money to do it, but God told me to and he provided.”

When he became pastor, there were nine members and one visitor, plus himself, his wife, and his two children. Within a year, Dogwood Hills had grown to almost 100 people. Today, running 140-150 in attendance, the church mostly consists of people between the ages of 25-40 and continues to grow.

“God put me around so many people that had a vision for this church when I started,” he said. “They really rallied around me, and Brother Mike has helped me along the way. He can’t even believe what’s going on here. It’s just an unusually warm-spirited church.”

Smith added, “What’s really helped in the growth is Kevin’s leadership?being a compassionate and evangelistic pastor. Through evangelism, he has been able to bring in new people.”

Both Bud and Gerri Altman, six-year members of Dogwood Hills, joined just shortly after Willmott came as pastor. Bud is now the sole deacon within the church and is very active in the FAITH evangelism program, while Gerri teaches Sunday School, volunteers with the youth, and is the secretary for the AWANA program.

They have witnessed the incredible growth during this time. Gerri Altman remembers when there were only two teenagers in the youth group?the pastor’s son and their own.

“In the first year after Kevin came, the youth grew to 13 and the next year, we had 40 kids going to youth camp,” she said.

“We started an AWANA program last September that had 17 kids on the first night,” Gerri Altman said. “Within four or five weeks, we were averaging 70 kids. It’s something that I didn’t expect to happen. Most of their parents don’t go to church, but we’ve seen a couple of families come because their kids are coming.”

Almost a year ago, Willmott led the church through the FAITH program, which has led them to be even more mission-minded in their community and beyond?reaching out to the families of AWANA kids, visiting guests, and coordinating numerous mission trips each year.

Because of its desire to fulfill the Great Commission and using the steps of the FAITH program, Dogwood Hills has grown significantly.

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