Local pastor balances alma mater, teachings

By Emily Ballard

At first glance, Pastor Eric Howell of Dayspring Baptist Church in Waco faces a tough crowd every Sunday morning. Scattered throughout the congregation are a number of expert philosophers and theologians from Baylor that keep Howell on his toes. On top of that, Howell has committed what is possibly the one unforgivable sin on Baylor turf — he is an Aggie.

Serving as Dayspring’s pastor since 2008, Howell has shaped his ministry around the art of giving and taking in the way he views worship, the Baylor-A&M rivalry and family life. Along the way, he has found peace and clarity and has come to terms with his role in the life of the church and as a father in a welcoming community.

Howell graduated from Texas A&M University in 1995 with a degree in engineering. After graduating, he used his engineering skills in Homestead, Fla., in helping plan the construction of a ministry center for victims of Hurricane Andrew.

“That was Hurricane Katrina before there was Katrina,” he said. “It was devastating.”

In 1997, he enrolled in Duke Divinity School. From North Carolina, he and his wife, Jenny Howell, moved to Charlottesville, Va., where he served as pastor of Broadus Memorial for six years.

Mrs. Howell visited Dayspring before her husband did and said it felt like receiving gifts when she would get to know people at the church.

“Almost every Sunday I came to Dayspring felt like Christmas,” she said.

Howell said after her first few visits to Dayspring she told him, “They’re doing everything you’re trying to do, but they’re doing it better.”

The couple moved to Waco so Howell’s wife could earn her doctorate in theology from Baylor.

“A picture of Dayspring came into view of a church whose heard seemed to be where mine was heading which was toward an embracing tradition of our faith,” Howell said.

They felt welcomed and embraced Dayspring but timing was unfortunate for the Aggie. After a long spell of mediocrity, Baylor beat A&M in football in 2008.

“It was a beat down,” he said. “It was bad, but the congregation and I have had some fun with this over the years. Baylor has gotten the best of A&M more times than not, I have to say.”

Howell remained loyal to his alma mater as long as he could but was eventually moved by Baylor spirit.

“It seems like my Facebook and email always fill up on game days quite a bit from Baylor fans relishing in A&M’s woe whenever it comes,” he said. “Finally I just gave in. I waved the white towel and wore a Baylor T-shirt on Sunday morning.”

Now he takes his family to watch Baylor athletes excel in various sports. He openly applauds Baylor for its athletic talent, especially now that A&M is in another conference. He said he can now guiltlessly admit Baylor is his favorite school in the Big 12 conference.

Even with a degree from a prestigious school of divinity, Howell said he feels intimidated by the intellectual congregation that sits before him, but has learned to focus on more important aspects of worship.

“You’re preaching about theological things to people who are lifelong-trained theologians. I have learned that you cannot just make things up.” After a pause, he added, “They’ll know,” with a grin and eyes opened wide.

He said he cannot even get away with making up a pronunciation of a Greek word, so he seeks the counsel of a few Baylor Biblical scholars from his church. Some of Howell’s friends he mentioned, including Mike Beaty and Todd Buras, Ph.D.s, of Baylor’s philosophy department and Bruce Longenecker from the religion department are a few among many scholars at Dayspring.

“I call them my New Testament gangstas,” he said, referring to Beaty and Longenecker. “They’re very helpful. If you trust people in your life who know more than you do and give them that invitation, they can be really helpful and not intimidating.”

Howell wants to present information accurately but tries to keep a bigger picture in mind.

“I think that people, even theologians and scholars, want a place where they can worship and not feel like they’re in charge and they entrust me with that during worship time. I have to give them the freedom to be worshippers.”

One of his “gangstas” suggests Howell downplays his breadth of Biblical knowledge. Longenecker said Howell rarely needs Biblical clarification from him—once every few years.

“He might call us his ‘gangsta’,’ Longenecker said, “but he is a master at taking basic knowledge of the Bible and turning it into wisdom for Christian discipleship today. No ‘gangsta’ does that for him.”

To avoid getting caught up in the hundreds of issues that could tear a church apart, Howell said he reminds himself that worship is the most important thing to Dayspringers.

“We want to use the church lightly,” he said. “It’s not ours, it’s God’s. When you stop holding it lightly, you squeeze the life out of it.”

Howell’s love for the great outdoors, especially canoeing Texas rivers and hiking in Big Bend National Park in West Texas, Colorado and Glacier National Park in Montana, is noticeable in the way he describes worship at Dayspring.

He compared the act of worship to canoeing on a river – something that resonates with many Texan lovers-of-the-outdoors. He said he envisions God’s presence as the water beneath the canoe and the act of worship as the act of canoeing.

“When you come to worship, you can’t see the water, but we entrust ourselves to God’s presence and trust that He’s already there,” he said. “And the best part of canoeing is that you get to float. In worship, you float—you rest—on God’s presence. From the pastor to everyone else, we trust that even if we mess everything up, the river is still flowing.”

Even in the church’s simple architecture of stone and windows, Howell said, exists “something solid and something transparent — something that you can trust and something that help you breathe.”