College Road Baptist Church pastor retires after 30 years

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Congregation to honor Downing Sunday

By Carolyn Nichols
Florida Baptist Witness
The history of College Road Baptist Church in Ocala is also an account of almost all John Downing’s pastoral career. The church will honor him this Sunday, Aug. 26, his 30th anniversary and the date of his retirement.
Downing became College Road Baptist Chapel’s first full-time pastor in 1982, when the fledgling congregation met in a double-wide modular building on 10 acres west of Interstate 75 on State Road 200. The mission church had begun two years earlier at College Park Elementary School, a vision realized for Marion Baptist Association Director of Missions John Sible and Oakcrest Baptist Church Pastor Bill Terrell.
“They had a vision for a church on the southwest side of Ocala. That was the beginning,” Downing said.
Marion association and the Florida Baptist Convention, along with Oakcrest Baptist, Highlands Baptist Church and Wyomina Park Baptist Church “helped the church get on her feet.” Some of the 29 charter members of College Road Baptist came from those congregations, he said.
Downing preached his first sermon as pastor Aug. 22, 1982, and the church was constituted a year later. It wasn’t long before the new pastor realized Ocala was growing in the direction of the church.
“Ocala was in transition, in a growing situation. Paddock Mall was new, and people were moving this direction—especially people from northern states,” he said. “I saw that the church was going to take off.”
A building committee was formed almost as soon as the church was constituted, and a 225-seat sanctuary was finished in 1986. Although it seemed large at first, the congregation grew to fill the building, and a second service was added to accommodate a crowd that can grow by 10 percent with the influx of winter “snowbirds,” he said.
Today the 575 members worship in three services on Sunday morning in the original sanctuary, and the church added an 18,000 square-foot education/fellowship building in 1996. The southwest side of Ocala is now home to several Baptist churches, he said.
The veteran pastor grew up in First Baptist Church in Pinetta, in Madison County. His mother died shortly after his birth, and his father, John Wesley, married Beulah Pulliam when Downing was three. His grandmother, Laura Downing, was a constant in the young boy’s life, he said.
“She made a big difference in my life. I am dedicating my retirement celebration to her,” he said.
Downing’s family insisted on church attendance, but he resisted becoming a Christian.
“I say I was a druggie. I was drug to church all my life, so when I got old enough, I didn’t want anything to do with it,” he said.
The influence of high school girlfriend Deloris Wadkins led him to accept the Lord. When her family decided to move from Madison to Arkansas, the couple married to avoid separation.
“We decided that it was too far to go to date, so we got married,” he said.
Twenty-year-old John Downing and his 19-year-old bride settled in Madison where he worked for Winn Dixie for 10 years. During that time, they had two children, Ann and John Jr. He also felt God’s call to preach.
The young family moved to Hinton¬ville, Mississippi, where he was pastor of Seminary Baptist Church while studying at William Carey College in Hattiesburg. After graduation in 1975, he was “tired of school,” he said. The Downings moved back to their home state where he served three years at South Flomaton Baptist Church, and supplemented his salary by returning to the grocery business.
In 1979, Downing was ready to commit to a seminary education. He moved his family to Ozona, Mississippi, where he was pastor of First Baptist Church. Downing commuted to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary while his wife worked at a local bank.
“She earned her PHT degree during that time—Putting Hubby Through,” he said.
Only weeks after graduation in 1982, the family made its last move—to Ocala. Thirty years later, 69-year-old Downing describes College Road Baptist as a “very gracious, loving and generous church.” The Downings plan to stay in Ocala.
Downing said his life goal, “holding forth the Word of Life—Jesus,” still is foremost in his future plans. Rest and travel are planned for the rest of 2012, to visit the mountains in Missouri, daughter Ann Lawton and her husband Tom in Laredo, Texas, and son John Jr., his wife Misty and five grandchildren in the Atlanta area. Downing then hopes to serve as interim pastor and supply preacher and to participate in mission trips.
His life verse sets the pattern, he said: “holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ, I may have cause to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain” (Phil. 2:16).
Reprinted with permission from Florida Baptist Witness, the newspaper of the Florida Baptist State Convention.