Nearing Home: After 19 years of leading Buckner, Ken Hall still goes back to family
By Scott Collins
Ken Hall can barely make it through the story. His eyes grow red as tears well up inside them. His voice is choked. There are pauses – those kinds of stops in the conversation that are almost uncomfortable. He looks down at his clenched hands and crossed feet and shuffles in the chair.
The story is simple in itself. No lightning bolts from the sky. No baritone voices bellowing instructions. In fact, its simplicity is what makes it profound and helps you understand the man telling it.
It was a beautiful fall day. One of those you take a picture of and put on a calendar. Perfect temperature. No wind. Brilliant sunshine. Not a day to spend in an office.
But that’s exactly where Hall had spent his day, poring over financial spreadsheets and trying to extract every ounce of information from the numbers. He was looking for something; he just wasn’t sure what. Finally, exhausted and exasperated, he gave up and went for a walk.
“I got up and walked around the old Dallas children’s home campus,” he recalls. “I remember it very well. It was the fall of 1995 and I just walked around the campus and went to some of the dorms we had where the children lived at that time.”
The stroll took him to the children’s medical building on the campus at the time. “As I was walking into the building, this child was coming out and I began to engage him in a conversation. He had just been told that he was going to be reunified with his family.”
The boy’s excitement and happiness told Hall all he needed to know – about the financial structure of Buckner as well as the philosophy going forward.
“I don’t know the outcome of what happened [with the boy], if it was a successful reunification or not. I don’t know the end result of that. But it was that afternoon – that young man’s excitement about being with a family – that the realization and the conviction in my soul came that I’ll fight for whatever it takes for Buckner to move away from the institutional model of childcare, as well-intentioned as it was, but I would use all of my influence and clout and gather the resources to build a new model that every child could have a family experience; a homelike family experience.”
Maybe it was that experience with the young man that influenced Hall to turn Buckner toward less of an institutional model of care. But his understanding about home and family goes back much further, to his self-described “Beaver Cleaver” upbringing.
“I was so blessed to have grown up with a wonderful, godly family. My parents were very engaged in my life on a personal basis. I mean, Dad was my Little League coach. So my parents were the friends of my friends’ parents. It was a great life. I had a church that loved Jesus and that taught me about missions. You know, I dated the girls who were active in the church.”
And while H.L. and Chloe Hall taught Ken about family, the lessons didn’t end at the family’s front door. Today, reflecting on the “cataclysmic,” turbulent time and place of the 1950s and 60s in Louisiana, Hall knows his mom and dad “taught me the value of people in the midst of the civil rights crisis. My parents were on the right side of that issue and believed in justice for all people and taught me that.”
That influence is like a warm blanket he has gone back to constantly since being elected president and chief executive officer of Buckner in the fall of 1993.
“I think the best way I could describe what my parents did for me is they loved me unconditionally. As a father, a husband, a pastor and president of Buckner, everything I have ever done, I have thought of them; I have thought of my parents.”
It’s not hard to connect the dots between his family’s unconditional love for him and decisions Hall has made that affect Buckner and thousands of children, families and elders served by the organization.
“I think it’s a basic human right that every person deserves to know that they can be loved unconditionally by a family. If you learn that, as I did as a child growing up – that I was loved unconditionally by a mother and a father – that’s how I found Jesus.
“The best way for us to bring people into the kingdom is to give them a home with a godly mom and a godly father if at all possible, so that that child can discover what it means to be loved completely and unconditionally.”
That emphasis on family instead of institutions started taking deep roots in the late 1990s and is still the greatest influence on Buckner a decade and a half later. What it meant then and still today is that the organization would focus more on people than buildings. It’s what Hall now calls is “the most strategic decision we made, which would impact everything we did globally; to make the decision to move away from emphasizing a specific location with specific buildings to realize that we’re a movement for Christ, impacting the lives of children and that it’s not about buildings, it’s not about brick and mortar.”
It’s that line of thought – that Buckner is a movement – that set the ministry on a course beyond the bounds and borders of Texas, where it had resided safely since 1879. Today, every part of the organization has been changed by the decision in 1995-96 to jump into global childcare. It even led to the need for a new name, from the 1960s Buckner Baptist Benevolences, to Buckner International.
Once the toothpaste was out, there was no going back. When Hall and others toured Russia, Romania and Poland for the first time, governments worldwide saw in Buckner a sleeping giant now awake to the needs of children beyond Texas. Everything changed overnight.
Since then, concern for orphans has become almost a cliché for every celebrity and musician, both Christian and secular. New organizations have sprouted in the United States as the cause of the fatherless has become a cause du jour. Advocacy has risen to new heights.
But throughout all the newfound hype, Ken Hall has worked to insure that Buckner utilizes its unique position of actually doing good, not just advocating it. To that end, Buckner has become a major exporter of tools and techniques for countries around the world, enabling and empowering them. Buckner-affiliated NGOs (non-government organizations) don’t just sponsor orphans. They actually find homes for them, from foster families to transition homes. It’s that knowledge of actually having provided childcare for 133 years that piques the local governments where Buckner works.
Now, more than 17 years later, Buckner “International” is almost an afterthought for employees and supporters who know the organization. But when the decision was first made, Hall admits it carried some risks. Was it worth it?
“Yes, absolutely,” he says, “because it’s about the end result of a life being changed in the name of Jesus. And unless you’re willing to sacrifice everything you have for that one life, you’re never going to be able to spend the energy necessary to impact the global perspective. For me, it all goes back to that one experience; that little boy wanted a home.”
The irony of Buckner’s explosion into international childcare has been the growth of the ministry’s retirement side since 1994. Lost in the furor over international work, Buckner Retirement Services has taken a dramatic upward climb, so much so that in 2011, it became the largest non-profit retirement provider in Texas when measured by the number of living units it offers.
It started in Longview within six months of Hall taking over the reins of Buckner. Fulfilling a promise from his days as pastor of First Baptist Church there, Hall and a group stood in the middle of a lot behind the city’s mall and announced the coming of Buckner Westminster Place. Like the plunge into international childcare, the decision to rapidly change and expand Buckner Retirement Services came with risks. But like everything else, it also came with conviction. Himself a Baby Boomer, Hall knew the coming tidal wave of senior adults in America meant Buckner had to start getting ready.
The dirt had barely been bulldozed in Longview when he turned his gaze on Houston, where Buckner Baptist Haven had served the community since 1956. Now, it was an old facility in need of massive changes to maintain the level of care Buckner was committed to providing. By 1998, Buckner had sold the Haven property and moved west to a fast-growing, thriving area of Houston. Parkway Place was born and within 18 months, it was full and stood as the new model for Buckner Retirement Services.
Calder Woods, a smaller brother of Parkway Place, opened in Beaumont and in 2011, Buckner opened a new, modern version of Buckner Villas in Austin. All told, from 1994 through 2011, Buckner has invested more than $150 million in new construction and improvements to senior living communities. Add to that the addition of Baptist Memorials Ministries in San Angelo, a sister agency through the Baptist General Convention of Texas, and BRS has exploded over the past 18 years, now caring for more than two and half times the number of elders.
Ever the visionary, Hall says his dream is that “one day I’ll read about the first Buckner retirement center in another state in the United States. And then my ultimate dream would be to hear about a Buckner retirement community in another country and another place in the world.”
With all the fanfare and feting over his retirement April 30, Hall likes to remind his friends, family and co-workers that he’s not dying – just retiring. But that doesn’t mean he hasn’t thought about his legacy.
“Because of the way I was brought up, because of my understanding of Jesus and how he lived his life, my hope is, just as the founder of Buckner, when he breathed his last breath on earth, all he owned was a cemetery plot and a legacy. That’s what I pray for me – that when God calls me home, I will have spent all of the resources he gave me financially, emotionally, relationally; I will have spent it all to make life better for the people God gave me the privilege to serve.”