Generations of Generosity
A large, rough-hewn wooden sign occupies almost half of the wall in David Pursell’s office at the headquarters of his family business, Pursell Farms, a premier leisure farm resort and golf course in Sylacauga, Alabama. The sign reads, “Live now for what will matter then.” This plainspoken principle is a resounding theme that runs throughout the Pursell family, from Jimmy Pursell, the 85-year-old family patriarch and his wife, Chris, to their adult children, sons Taylor and David, and daughter Chris.
This simple motto sums up the family’s generous idea of living beyond themselves and their own generation. It’s their practice as parents of passing on values before valuables to their children and grandchildren to lay the foundation of faith. And it’s their commitment to invest in eternal rewards over temporary pleasures. This is the Pursell legacy. And it all begins with the story of Jimmy Pursell, a small-town boy from Talladega, Alabama.
At 85, Jimmy Pursell has a mischievous twinkle in his eye as he recounts some of his favorite stories of growing up in rural Alabama with his best friend, Jim Nabors, otherwise known as Gomer Pyle. “We got into some shenanigans,” says Jimmy. “But you know, that’s how I met my wife. Jim introduced me to her, and after that, everything changed.”
Jimmy and Chris were married in 1953, and several years later, Jimmy went to work in his father-in-law’s fertilizer business. With an outgoing personality, Jimmy was a natural salesman. He quickly expanded his new division of the company, the Sta-Green line of lawn and garden fertilizers.
In the mid-1960s, after the passing of his father-in-law, Jimmy was able to take over the company. He began to innovate the products that led to the development of controlled-release fertilizers. Eventually, the company developed a patented polymer coated fertilizer called POLYON. They became one of the largest producers of coated fertilizers in the world.Even as the Pursell business was reaching a milestone in the ‘70s, the family’s faith hit a turning point, too. As members of their local Episcopal Church, Jimmy and Chris had always served, tithed, and taken their children to church. But with the Jesus Movement sweeping across the campus of Auburn University, Taylor, the Pursells’ oldest son, had his faith awakened there in a new way.
Taylor brought his college Bible study leader, John “Rat” Riley, home to meet his father. Jimmy was so intrigued by John’s teaching that he made a bold move. He offered to hire John Riley to speak full-time, including a weekly session with the employees at his company. Jimmy’s faith came alive as he began to see his business as his mission field, and the whole family committed their lives to Christ as well.
In 1976, Jimmy assembled all of his employees and made an announcement: from now on, the company would be dedicated to Christ. He would incorporate Christian principles at work and devote more revenue to charity.
“My father gave the thing he loved the most, his business, to God. And God blessed him.” David Pursell
Over the next several decades, the company continued to prosper. In the late 1990s, they became Pursell Industries, then Pursell Technologies, and eventually split into two separate entities. Taylor assumed the lead of Pursell Industries, while David took the helm of Pursell Technologies. Their sister, Chris, worked in the business for six years before she married her husband, Rev. Aaron Fleming, and moved to Montgomery, Alabama.
In 2001, David relocated the headquarters of Pursell Technologies to the family farm ten miles away and developed a new marketing strategy utilizing the picturesque 3,200-acre property. He built FarmLinks Golf Club, a 7,444-yard, par-72 Hurdzan-Fry research and demonstration course to showcase their innovative fertilizer products to golf course superintendents. The company also offered their guests a much-needed respite. Visitors played golf, enjoyed home-cooked meals, fished, and relaxed in the 14,000-square-foot Parker Lodge. More than 10,000 top golf superintendents came to enjoy the Pursells' generous, wholesome hospitality.
Then in 2006, the family sold the fertilizer business to a large corporation. Since then, the business has evolved into Pursell Farms, a world-class golf and leisure resort. They operate the FarmLinks golf course, the Orvis Shooting Grounds at Pursell Farms, and deluxe accommodations for business meetings, ministry retreats, weddings, and couples getaways. David explains, “Now we’re in the hospitality business, which is where God was leading us all along.”
With that hospitality, David says there are four pillars of faith that he tries to incorporate in their business:
Honor God First
“Honoring God is our relentless pursuit.”
Respect Our Employees
“We treat each other with dignity, and I go out of my way to help any of our employees.”
Serve Our Guests with Excellence
“The respect we have for one another carries over into our guest relations. We will bend over backwards to make our guests feel welcome.”
Honor Our Owners
“We honor the hard work and sacrifice that my parents made to get us here.”
To carry on his parents' legacy of generosity, David and his wife, Ellen, have involved their children in giving using a unique tool from the National Christian Foundation, the Giving Fund (donor-advised fund). David says, “We have six children, and when they reached about 16 to 18 years old, we gave each of them a Giving Fund with $5,000 as a Christmas gift.” The children were instructed to research charities and give the money away as they saw fit.
The following Christmas, David asked about their Funds. He discovered that three of his kids hadn’t given anything, two had given a little, and one had given it all away. He used this experience to teach them a biblical lesson. He explains, “I said, ‘Okay, to you that has given it all, I’m going to completely refresh your Fund. To you three that haven’t given anything, I’m not giving you anything more.’ All of a sudden, they got busy giving.’ ”
In addition to giving away much of their corporate earnings, David has created a meaningful corporate partnership with a ministry that is close to his heart, Vapor International. “The first international mission trip that I ever took was with Vapor,” David says. “As I got to know their founder, Micah McElveen, and his wife, Audrey, I saw a genuineness and detachment from materialism that stuck with me.”
David was moved by Micah’s incredible personal journey that stemmed from a near-death surfing accident in 1995 that resulted in a broken neck. As a life-long athlete and football player, Micah wasn’t even sure if he would ever walk again. During his intense recovery period, Micah says, “God reshaped my priorities and taught me that life is but a vapor.”
Micah made a miraculous recovery, but was unable to return to football. So he started playing soccer. His new love of the sport came in handy when he traveled to Africa and played soccer with street children living in extreme poverty. Soon, a vision began to take shape to use soccer as a means to minister to the children in third-world communities.
David met Micah at the perfect time to help invest in his dream. “I had just sold the company and made a lot of money personally, and our family had as well,” says David. “I recognized Micah's need for things that I have here. I could give Micah and Audrey a home. We could give them office space. God provided everything at the right time. We donated land, and they built right outside the front gate of the farm.”
David and Micah's close relationship has led to a fruitful connection between Pursell Farms and Vapor International. “Micah and I have connected spiritually, and we hold each other accountable. I serve on his board, and we support them every month with major gifts,” says David. “Having Vapor located here on the farm means that the more successful we are, the more Vapor will become known. Our employees and guests love knowing that they're helping children a world away.”
"Great are the works of the Lord. He has made His wonders to be remembered." Psalm 111:2&4
Just like the plaque in David’s office, there are signs of God’s presence everywhere you look at Pursell Farms, from the ministry sign that leads the way to Vapor International headquarters to the tall wooden cross on the top of one of the farm’s highest peaks. But David’s favorite sign says it all. “As you drive in, we have a large welcome sign with Psalm 111:2 and 4, ‘Great are the works of the Lord. He has made His wonders to be remembered,’ ” says David. “That is what we want visitors to see when they come here. We want them to not only see the great golf course, or the great food, or the great service, but we want them to see God through His magnificent creation.”
Since the writing of this article, Mrs. Christine “Chris” Parker Pursell, beloved wife of Mr. James "Jimmy" Taylor Pursell, passed away to heaven on March 1, 2016. Chris and Jimmy's legacy is marked ultimately by generous stewardship, and giving out of the abundance of their resources to those in need, both locally and abroad.
By: Sheila Dolinger
Based in Atlanta, GA, Sheila Dolinger is a communications consultant and contributing writer for the National Christian Foundation (NCF), the world’s largest grant-making ministry for Christian givers. For more information, visit www.nationalchristian.com.