Give Me That Mountain!
Best Seat in the House!
By David Williford
The most sought-after seats at sporting events or concerts are those with the best view. An unobstructed view makes you feel more participant than spectator. For the past 20 years, I’ve had a ringside seat to the happenings at Welch College.
In early 2002, Matt Pinson asked me to consider coming to Welch as vice president for institutional advancement. After much prayer and discussions with people I trusted, I accepted the position and moved to Nashville that June.
The next 20 years were like a roller coaster ride at the state fair—tremendous highs and devastating lows, unexpected twists and turns, and moments I wondered if we’d survive the journey. Yet, as I near the end of my time at the college, I’ve had a chance to contemplate all I’ve seen.
Under the capable leadership of Dr. Pinson, I saw the college change names, relocate, and enjoy unparalleled academic success. We enjoyed the highest enrollment numbers since the shake-up of 1982, and the Welch Fund broke records on at least four occasions. We received the largest gifts in college history through donors who partnered with the relocation campaign.
I’ve watched the leadership team wrestle with issues we never dreamed we’d face. During those moments and intense discussions, forced to face our own inadequacies, we found ourselves joined in prayer, asking the God of all wisdom for direction.
We endured times of financial crisis, particularly during the Great Recession of 2008-2010. Gifts dropped, enrollment plummeted, and red ink flowed freely. Budgets were cut, individuals laid off, and the college pension plan terminated. To describe those years as difficult would be like saying Noah experienced a light shower. Through it all, God was there. He never failed us, and with His help we came through the adversity.
In 2009, President Pinson asked if I thought the denomination would be open to changing the name. After some thought, I told him I believed it would, but if we failed, the issue would be dead for at least a generation. Believing a name change was the best for our students and for the Great Commission, we developed a strategy to introduce the idea to the denomination.
Meetings were held across the country with state and local leaders, pastors, involved laymen, and alumni. We sent surveys to Free Will Baptists everywhere, because we wanted to know the feelings of the people to whom we were accountable. While we felt a name change was the right decision, we knew the support and approval of our supporters was essential.
I answered two recurring questions during frequent meetings with the leadership team: “What’s the feeling of our people?” and “If the vote were today, what would the results be?” From early discussions, I felt the denomination was ready for the change, and I repeatedly indicated the vote would probably be between 75 and 80% in favor of the change.
In July 2012, when the vote was taken at the National Convention, I learned I had been wrong. More than 95% of delegates voted to change Free Will Baptist Bible College to Welch College, named in honor of John L. and Mary Welch, leading proponents of Christian higher education in our movement.
Not long after this momentous decision, the board voted to relaunch the relocation effort that started in the late 1990s but later was put on hold by the board. Believing the time was right, the board instructed college leadership to ramp up efforts to relocate the college. After more than a year of work by Mark Johnson, relocation consultant, he and the leadership team recommended to the board we purchase 66-plus acres of property in Gallatin, Tennessee, to be the next home for the college. The land was purchased, the West End campus went on the market, and President Pinson and I hit the road to meet with donors.
As a fundraiser for the college, I have a deep love and appreciation for all our donors, but the ones who welcomed Dr. Pinson and me into their homes during those days of seeking donor partners are closest to my heart. Basically, we told potential donors, “We bought land and put the campus up for sale. We can’t promise when the campus will sell or when we will break ground on the new campus, but for this move to happen, we need folks like you. We need donors who believe in us, and who see what cannot be seen. We need you to support us, provide momentum for the campaign, and share our vision of what will be.”
Those donors, God bless them, bought into a dream. They believed in Welch, and they believed God was directing the move. When many said, “Come see me when you break ground,” they went all in. Those initial donors who gave us support and impetus for the move were game changers. The young people who walk across campus in Gallatin today have no idea of the debt of gratitude we owe them.
My responsibilities have always been fundraising and public relations, but I also had a front row seat to amazing academic progress. I watched Welch go from unranked to number eight in the U.S. News and World Report's Best Colleges and Universities in America. The number of Welch professors with terminal degrees in their fields has reached 71%.
Under the leadership of Matt Pinson and Provosts Milton Fields, Greg Ketteman, and Matt McAffee, academic programs have multiplied, offering more than 50 degrees in the undergraduate program. The college added the first regionally accredited M.A. in Theology and Ministry, and the M.A. in Education, with three different areas of concentration. We also added Welch Divinity School, offering a fully accredited M.Div. The college makes it possible to earn both the B.A. and the M.Div. in five years. Most recently, Welch announced yet another graduate level degree, the M.A. in Humanities.
Yes, it has been exciting to see everything happening over the past 20 years. And the good news is, the best years for Welch are ahead. Welch will always have my support and my prayers, and I hope it has yours as well.
I must say thanks to all the churches and pastors who let me share in your services and talk about Welch College. Thanks to all the donors who allowed me to visit your homes, knowing I was there to ask for a gift. Thanks to all the state moderators who gave Welch time at your meetings. I’m thankful for President Matt Pinson, who hired a pastor who had to learn to be a fundraiser. He was patient with me as I grew into the job. I’m thankful to my wife Donna, who saw me leave home countless times to fulfill my ministry. I’m thankful for the men with whom I worked who laughed with me, worked with me, and made me a better person and fundraiser. Most of all, I’m thankful to the Lord who called me to this ministry and who gave me the physical and mental strength I needed.
Thank you, Free Will Baptists, for being my friend. You allowed me to have the best seat in the house at
Welch College. You have become part of my family, and
I love you.
About the Author: David Williford served as vice-president for institutional advancement from 2002 to 2022. A 1979 graduate of Welch College, he also earned a master’s degree in pastoral studies from Welch in 1984. He pursued further graduate studies at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Prior to joining the Welch staff, he pastored 27 years in Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, and Arkansas. Learn more about Welch College: welch.edu.