Rick Atchley ('78) • 2014 Outstanding Alumnus of the Year
Growing up in the lower-income Oak Cliff neighborhood of Dallas, Rick Atchley witnessed first-hand the discontent among white residents at the notion of court-mandated desegregation of the slow-to-integrate Dallas school system.
The comments and attitudes troubled the high schooler, who had known ever since he could remember that he wanted to be a preacher. When the nearby Church of Christ in which his family placed membership asked him to preach, young Rick delivered his very first sermon about the evils of racism.
He was not invited to preach again.
“I watched with disappointment the way the church responded to the change,” Atchley said. “We simply reflected the blatant racism of the day.”
Ever since, Atchley has committed to unity – among communities, races, congregations and denominations. Entering his 25th year as minister of the Word for the 6,000-member Hills Church of Christ in North Richland Hills, Atchley’s lifelong ministry has been recognized by ACU, which named him the 2014 Outstanding Alumnus of the Year.
Since graduating from ACU in 1978, Atchley has preached for two congregations – Southern Hills Church of Christ in Abilene, and The Hills. In both places, the churches saw enormous growth: Southern Hills’ membership had quadrupled by the time he left in 1989, while The Hills has more than doubled over the past 25 years.
More important, Atchley has focused his congregations outward, into their communities, urged on by the memory of what happens when churches fail to live out Christ’s call to unify.
“I grew up in a very sectarian environment,” he said. “God began to chip away at some of that at an early age, and one of the huge ways God began challenging my sectarianism was how ACU helped plant the gospel in my heart. One of the themes of my ministry is to bring down walls that God didn’t want up in the first place.”
Atchley came to ACU in 1974, majoring in communication and flirting with the notion of teaching or law before confirming his desire to be a preacher. As a single man, his attempts to become a youth minister foundered; instead, Southern Hills gave him the opportunity as a 21-year-old college graduate to begin preaching part-time. Within a year, he was the full-time pulpit minister.
“They were very, very kind to a very young preacher,” he said. “ I hadn’t preached maybe 20, 25 sermons in my whole life. Why they hired me, I don’t know. I don’t know what they were thinking. I did the best I could do, and they let me grow. I’ll forever be grateful for that. I’m sure they heard some pretty lousy preaching.”
For nearly 11 years, Atchley developed his ministry as the 400-member congregation blossomed to more than 1,500, In 1989, Richland Hills Church of Christ hired him to come to the Fort Worth suburb, then numbering a little more than 2,000 congregants.
At 32, with two young children, he and his wife, Jamie (Lyda ’81), moved east to help lead a church struggling with a significant debt load.
“Those first few years, they were hard years,” he said. “They were good years, but they were hard ministry years.”
Atchley said he discovered that, more than anything else, he could help by simply “preaching the Word of God.”
“I just preached and seemed to encourage the church,” he said. “God led us through that season.”
The Hills is now debt free and comprises three campuses on a $15 million annual budget. In 2010, Atchley announced its name change, designed to better reflect the diversity of its membership. The Hills is not “a location church,” Atchley said in announcing the shift, which occurred with the opening of its first satellite campus, in west Fort Worth.
Now comprising three campuses, The Hills is in the middle of a 2020 vision to plant 10 new churches, support more missionary families and send thousands of people on missions trips around the globe.
In 2006, 100 years after the Stone-Campbell Movement divided, birthing Churches of Christ, Atchley reached out to nearby congregations in the Independent Christian Churches, one of the three streams eventually produced by the split.
“I did feel like before we could have unity with other Christian traditions, we ought to clean up our own house” by reconciling with other Stone-Campbell congregations.
Atchley also has focused on increasing ethnic diversity, both at The Hills and in churches planted by its members. “It’s been great to see the church embrace unity as a core value,” he said.
When Atchley preached his first sermon about 40 years ago, about 200 people heard it. Now, with Internet live-streaming and podcasts boosting the total, perhaps as many as 10,000 hear his preaching every week.
“I don’t feel deserving,” he said of being named Outstanding Alumnus of the Year. “I love what I do, and I feel called to do what I do, and I feel it’s important – but I don’t feel I do what I do any more faithfully than hundreds of graduates from ACU. … I’m thankful my alma mater feels that what people like me do is successful, too.”
By contrast, the small church in which he was raised – filled with kind people who simply could not see beyond the walls their culture had raised around them – has disappeared.
Atchley doesn’t think that’s a coincidence. He has yet to tire of preaching, especially on the subject of the unity and healing found in the loving embrace of Jesus.
“Whether I’m preaching to 5,000 or five,” he said, “when I have a Bible in my hand and I’m preaching about Jesus, I feel the joy. … I’ve been doing this for 35 years now. My passion level is higher than ever; my joy level is higher than ever. I’m as excited about the sermon I’m going to preach this Sunday as I have been about any I’ve preached in my career."