When Austin Baker graduated on Dec. 1, 2023, completing his Doctor of Ministry program at Beeson Divinity School, it marked the end of a long and arduous journey marked by multiple life and ministry transitions.
Baker became a Christian at a young age and felt a call into the ministry around 2010. He first joined the Beeson community in the fall of 2010, when he began the Master of Divinity program, finishing in December 2013.
“It humbled me because I thought I knew a lot more than I did,” Baker said.
Being in the program helped Baker develop sustainable spiritual rhythms and disciplines, learn the importance of confessing sin, read the Word and pray, he said.
During his time in the MDiv program, Baker’s father resigned from ministry after a moral failing and his parents got a divorce.
“I remember sitting in Dr. (Robert) Smith’s office and praying with him about everything going on, and classmates surrounding me and being there for me,” Baker said. “It showed, in the midst of all that was going on, the beauty of the body of Christ, the beauty of the church. It was a means of grace to really keep me in step with the call that I felt God had placed on my life.”
Soon after graduating with his MDiv, Baker took a full-time job at Johnson Ferry Baptist Church, a large congregation in Marietta, Georgia. That job turned into a role as one of three teaching pastors on staff under longtime pastor Bryant Wright, who retired in 2019.
In 2019, Baker began pursuing his DMin from Beeson, traveling back and forth from Georgia for the required seminars and working on coursework in addition to being a full-time husband, father and pastor.
One year later, the COVID-19 pandemic upended everything. During that year, Baker and his wife Christine welcomed their second child, Ellie, who joined Riley, who is now 5 years old. Baker was helping Johnson Ferry’s Relaunch team as pandemic restrictions eased while still working toward his degree. After completing a seminar with now-retired Beeson professor Paul House in January 2020, he was told that while he would be able to finish, Beeson was ending its DMin program. Baker is the next-to-last student still finishing his doctoral work.
The faculty at Beeson decided to end the program to give attention to other academic program possibilities, which has since given rise to the new PhD in Theology for the Church, the Master of Theology degree and the Master of Arts in Christian Counseling degree.
“I remember sitting in my driveway in Marietta on a conference call with Dr. (Mike) Pasquarello and the rest of the DMin students, sharing that (the program was ending),” Baker said.
Still, despite the change and challenge, Baker stuck it out and picked up the program again in 2021, during which time his third child, Aiden, was born. The challenge of new babies and dealing with the pandemic as a staff member on top of his doctoral work was hard, Baker said, but he knew he needed to finish, not only for his sake, but for those who invested in him personally and financially.
“There’s something to be said about people following through on commitments you make to people who take a chance on you,” Baker said.
In 2022, Baker went through another transition, moving back to Birmingham to become a pastor at Immanuel Church in Crestwood. While it was another change, it was a blessing to come back to the Birmingham area, he said.
“It’s good coming back to a city where a lot of the people you trained with and were equipped with are now your brothers in ministry and sisters in ministry,” Baker said.
There was still one more transition to come. When he moved back to Birmingham, Baker realized he needed to revamp his doctoral project, as well as take time off to get acclimated to his new ministry role. Beeson faculty graciously approved his request, Baker said.
On Dec. 1, 2023, Baker finally saw all of his hard work, through all the twists and turns, come to an end.
“I’m really thankful for the providence of the Lord,” Baker said. “The Beeson community has really been present in a lot of pivotal moments in my life.”
Baker said being in the program helped him learn that his identity as a pastor ought to be rooted in Scripture, not what culture says a pastor “should” be.
While graduating is “bittersweet,” Baker said he is grateful for all Beeson has meant to him.
“This is a special place,” Baker said. “I’m so encouraged and so edified by brothers and sisters from all denominational backgrounds. We walk through it together and we’re in it now. … The Lord has used this school in a lot of ways.”