Alaska is one former Georgia pastor’s greatest adventure


PALMER, Alaska — Georgia native Bruce Rowell said in 1999, after he had been pastoring in Palmer, Alaska, for two years, that, "When I’m old and gray I’m sure I will sit my grandchildren on my lap and say, ‘Let me tell you about the stupidest thing I ever did in my life’ or ‘Let me tell you about the greatest adventure of my life.’ 

Twenty-five years later Rowell is now the proud grandfather of four, all of whom were born and live in Palmer. Rowell and his wife Polly are in their 27th year of serving the Lord, Alaska, and the congregation of the First Baptist Church of Palmer.

Bruce and his wife Polly, an instructional coach with the Matanuska-Susitna School District, are natives of the small South Georgia towns of Hortense and Blitchton. They met while students at Brewton Parker College, Mount Vernon, Ga. In 1996, while pastoring Oakwood Baptist Church, Rowell was asked to lead a construction crew from the Chattahoochee Baptist Association to Alaska. At the time there was a partnership between the Georgia and Alaska Baptist Conventions.

The team helped construct a new building for First Baptist Church in Palmer, Alaska, which was in the process of relocating. That trip opened a door, and a year later Bruce, Polly and their four children moved to Alaska after he accepted the call to FBC Palmer.

They were a long way from friends and family in South Georgia, but Bruce and Polly had for some time thought God might be leading them to a new work area. In the intervening 27 years, the church, community, and Rowell family have grown.

One of their biggest concerns when relocating was the impact on their children. Rowell said, “His plan for us includes them . . . He does large things, opened doors that would not have been opened had we not come.” Their eldest daughter Erin, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, her husband, and Rowell’s four grandchildren live in Palmer. Daughter Katie is a pilot for Alaska Airlines and lives in Tacoma, Wash. Son Matthew is a Marine Corps major serving in Hawaii, and Christopher is a musician living in Nashville, Tenn.

The population of the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, where Palmer is located, has more than tripled from 35,000 to 115,000 since their arrival. It’s less than an hour’s drive from Anchorage with a population of 350,000. The two areas combined represent over half of the total population of Alaska.

The Rowells have immersed themselves in the local culture. Each year Bruce hunts moose for the family freezer. State residents, he explained, are permitted to fish for salmon using nets during the annual spawning runs. On the Copper River, he said, “The red coho salmon are considered the best tasting salmon in the world and are sold for fifty dollars a pound in the lower states.” They have also learned to survive the bitter cold and snowy winters of Alaska.

The church, which is approaching its 75th anniversary, is typical of an Alaskan congregation reflecting six different ethnic groups. Churches, like the state, experience a lot of turnover as families move to the area for a season for work and then move on. Bruce said that the executive director of the Alaska Baptist Convention told him when he arrived that, “If you want to grow, you must reach two people for every one you keep.” Evangelism and discipleship have of necessity been the focus of the ministry.

The Rowells' personal ministry has expanded beyond the local church. Polly, who has an Educational Doctorate, is currently serving on the Alaska Baptist Executive Committee and has recently been appointed to the SBC Committee on Committees. Bruce has served on the Alaska Baptist Executive Board, as president of the Alaska Baptist Convention, and represented Alaska on the SBC Executive Committee. Bruce, who has a D. Min., has taught extension classes for California Baptist University and Wayland Baptist University. He currently serves as the (volunteer) Director of the Alaska State Troopers Chaplains.

When asked to reflect on his statement from 25 years ago about Alaska being the “stupidest decision or greatest adventure,” Bruce responded without hesitation. “The most amazing adventure," he said, "We could never imagine the ways God has allowed us to serve Him! It’s been challenging, there have been difficulties, but no regrets.”