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  • Writer's pictureArnie Ken Palyola

Baptist Leadership in the 21st Century

An Essay on Pastor Dr. John Morgan and Sagemont church

and the First Baptist church of Pasadena, Texas


written by Arnie Palyola , Southern Baptist student of Theology at Houston Baptist University, November 6, 2021

Few would disagree that one of the most influential and well-known evangelists of the late 20th century was Billy Graham. Of the many who were familiar with Graham from his television appearances on national television, few if any were aware that he was a Southern Baptist. Graham was active in the Southern Baptist Convention from 1951 forward, served as a trustee of the SBC and was nominated for SBC president in 1963. One could easily write an essay about Graham’s influence in American culture as a Southern Baptist evangelist who rose to great familiarity, instead this author will highlight the equally inspiring career and service to the Lord of Pastor and Doctor of Sacred Theology, John Morgan of Houston Texas’ Sagemont Baptist Church. Moreover, in highlighting Dr. Morgan’s career, we can see an effective church model of Southern Baptist leadership into the 21st century.

Dr. John Morgan’s story begins with his father Dr. L.D. Morgan and his calling to 1st Baptist Church in Pasadena in 1940. The earliest records show that a Baptist church had been founded in the area of Pasadena in 1898. After suffering demoralizing effects from the Hurricane of 1901, the church would be reorganized and named Pasadena Baptist Church eventually coming to be known as 1st Baptist Church of Pasadena. Dr. L.D. Morgan and family would move into the parsonage in the Spring of 1940. Under L. D.’s leadership the church would continue to grow, and in 1944-45 the churches efforts would result in the planting of Second Baptist Church in Pasadena. In 1961, the ever-growing 1st Baptist Church would move into a newly constructed 1600 seat auditorium and seeing an all-time record of 1,232 in its Sunday School attendance. Dr. L.D. Morgan would lead the church for 33 years, building new churches in Pasadena 5 times, and it was in this vibrant and growing ministry that John Morgan would be brought up.

Growing up in a pastor’s parsonage was not an easy life, John’s mother would often cry herself to sleep because of the process involved in making repairs and replacing appliances in the parsonage home. This would not deter John from responding to the call to serve in high school, and John would attend Baylor University, graduating in 1963 and being ordained in 1964. John would also marry Beth Barcello in 1963 and attended Southwestern Baptist Seminary, beginning his ministry in area churches. In 1966, the ever-growing 1st Baptist Church would vote to purchase land for a new church in a developing community to be named Sagemont, this time they would call John to consider leading the new church. John would accept, flying from Ft. Worth to Houston and back, going door to door to inform the new community of the plans for Sagemont Baptist Chapel. Pastor John Morgan would start with 14 charter members and grow the church to over 21,000 by the time of his retirement in 2019.

On the first Sunday morning of service at the new chapel, 151 would attend with forty people committing to membership. One can see in photographs that the young brother Morgan had a similar bright-eyed enthusiasm as the young Billy Graham. Like 1st Baptist Pasadena under L. D. Morgan’s leadership, Sagemont Baptist Chapel would continue to grow and by 1971 they would find themselves 400,000$ in debt but expansion was needed. In the early seventies, Sagemont Baptist would be the fastest growing Southern Baptist church in the state of Texas. Like L.D. in his vision and dreams for growing his church, John would also find inspiration and vision in his ministry. In 1975, after leading his church to read the entire Bible, a verse from Deuteronomy 15:6 would jump off the page and into his heart; the words were, “thou shalt not borrow” (Morgan, 2013, pg. 9). As the moderator for Houston’s Union Baptist Association, John knew that the Houston area churches spent $4.4 million in interest over $3.2 million given to missions. John knew that, in the Bible, building and rebuilding was provided by God’s work in inspiring others to give to God’s people. In sharing his ideas with others about a debt-free independent church, John would be met with some doubt. Like his sermons, John would cite abundantly from scripture to deliver his message. He provided them with at least thirty verses that supported his vision, in particular L. D.s’ favorite verse, “but my God shall supply all your needs according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19).

“Many are the plans in the mind of a man,

but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21, ESV).

Independence from debtors was a tall order, but the church had agreed with Pastor Morgan’s vision. As the church reached $5k in their account, the church would be tested when a member of the church was struck with an emergency, a father came to Morgan’s home to plead for help for his daughter who required emergency surgery and which the hospital would not perform without $5000 dollars. Pastor Morgan comforted the father and assured him he would help. He immediately called all 41 of the church deacons to decide what to do, there were three choices they could make: 1) they could ignore the call to help, 2) they could pray or 3) they could do as the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37.) They chose to help immediately deciding not to follow church policy to vote on the decision, the deacons agreeing that if the church were to vote against helping that they would pay back the $5k themselves. The churches’ willingness to pay for the surgery touched the staff and surgeon, and she was admitted for 500$ and the surgeon performed the operation at no cost. As the patient’s bills would accumulate, Morgan and the Sagemont deacons would decide that people came before buildings, that people were the church not buildings. The patient’s name was Mickey Lightfoot, and although she would succumb to her illness, she was inspired by the love and charity shown by Sagemont church and would leave behind a touching message to the pastor and deacons:

“To each of you, your act of love to me is a miracle of God…I know God’s will will be done in my life, and I want my testimony to glorify God” (Morgan, 2013, pg. 12)

Morgan would often speak of this event in telling the church’s history, and as the church continued with their hopes of growing and building a debt-free ministry, God provided the church the people and funds to achieve their goals. In turn, the church consistently gave back to the community, organizing projects to improve schools and help families in need. Sagemont offers a food pantry through Helping Hands and assists anyone in need of which I can personally testify. As the church grew so did the numbers of those they helped and those that came to the Lord; over 15,000 have been baptized at Sagemont church, 21k making professions of faith and over 17k uniting with the church by letter and statement including myself.

Sagemont Church is known today as the church with the 170-foot cross that is visible for many miles and by the airplanes that land at Hobby international airport. The vision of the cross was one that Dr. Morgan had as he travelled to the church from Pasadena to Sagemont, coming over I-45 south on the Sam Houston tollway. I can personally testify to seeing the cross arriving at Houston, flying over 27 times in 2019 in the custody battle for my son, and always knowing I was home in seeing the cross. The 170-foot cross has been a great inspiration to many, drawing them to the church and baptisms are held at the foot of the cross. Dr. Morgan received his Doctorate in Sacred Theology in 1986, and today the church property is valued at over $50 million and is 100% debt free. After 52 years as the founding pastor of Sagemont church since 1966, Dr. Morgan would retire in November of 2019. In Baptist church policy tradition of voting as a church body, Pastor Dr. Matt Carter was voted in and called to serve as the lead pastor of Sagemont church. In his 52-year career serving the Lord, Morgan would also serve on the executive board of the BGCT (and as First Vice President,) and has served on committees and boards for Houston Baptist University, the Southern Baptists of Texas, Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary, the Southern Baptist Convention and received the W. A. Criswell Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006.

After his wife Beth Morgan passed away in May of 2017, Dr. Morgan would marry Kathie Reimer, a pastor’s widow and author. Dr. Morgan, although retired, is still active with Sagemont church, anyone who meets him agree that he is just as inspiring and engaging at 82 years old as he ever was. I encourage readers of this essay, and anyone I meet to visit Sagemont Baptist Church, it is truly a beautiful church and witness to God’s work. As Dr. Morgan would say every Sunday morning, “Jesus is Here.” While the Sagemont church land and property are valued at $50 million, the people and members of the church are priceless. In 52 years, Dr. Morgan’s leadership cultivated a church body rich in faith and love for each other and others. Truly a church model for the 21st century and the future of Baptist churches everywhere.



Works Cited

Morgan, John D. The Sagemont Story. Sagemont Church, 2013.

“Sagemont Church: Houston, Texas.” Sagemont Church | Houston, Texas, https://www.sagemontchurch.org/.

“We're Glad You're Here!” FBC Pasadena, https://www.fbp.org/.

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