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Randy Bezet, the founding pastor at Bayside Community Church has lead the church's expansion along with the addition of Bayside College.
East County Wednesday, May 11, 2016 6 years ago

Bayside College expands in Lakewood Ranch area

Church's rapid growth leads to desire to educate young leaders
by: Jay Heater Managing Editor

It was December of 2002 when Bayside Community Church founder Randy Bezet sat in a heap after giving a service to 87 parishioners at Bashaw Elementary School.

In the vernacular, Bezet was having a come-to-Jesus moment.

He had founded the church in September with 220 patrons walking through the doors at Bashaw, which hosted the church in its early days. He was sure that amount would grow quickly. But it didn't.

After praying for guidance, he had his answer.

"I was discouraged," he said. "But I decided I would be the best pastor those 87 people could have.

"The next week, everything started growing."

In 2010, the Bayside Community Church had purchased 40 acres of land and spent $12 million on a 54,000 square foot church. Today, the parishioners top the 8,500 mark.

Whether it was Bezet's vision, or that of a higher power, everything associated with the Bayside Community Church has grown.

That now includes Bayside College.

Started originally two years ago to produce ministers, the college now will offer four-year degrees outside of ministry. It is a regional campus of Southeastern University of Lakeland.

Just as the church has grown, Bezet said the college, which currently has an enrollment of 90 students, will follow suit. On May 5, work crews were busy remodeling two wings in the southern side of the building to accommodate academic offices and dedicated learning spaces which are expected to fill up when the next semester begins in the fall.

"From the beginning, we made the next generation important to us," Bezet said of the church's philosophy. "We want them to feel like 'The church speaks to what I am struggling with.'"

Bezet said the church decided not to teach K-12 education because "We have fabulous schools in this area."

However, church members felt Florida has a void when it comes to a Christian-based college education.

"Kids grow up and they leave church to go to college," Bezet said. "Their faith deteriorates. We thought we should start a college where they could learn leadership skills."

Bezet hired Eric Palmu as his director of academics five years ago and plans to go forward with a college went full-speed ahead.

"Pastor Randy has been the visionary," said Palmu, who worked in administration for Galesburg-Augusta Community Schools in Michigan. "I knew I was a fan of the church when I started here five years ago."

Palmu and Nell Prince, who started in January as Southeastern University's director of regional campus, are taking the college forward.

"Before two years ago, we offered a certificate program (in ministerial leadership)," Palmu said. "Two years ago we began as an extension site of Southeastern, offering an associate's degree in ministerial leadership. This fall starts the first master's degree in Christian Studies with a concentration in church planting."

Bezet and his staff decided the college should be open to those pursuing something other than becoming a minister.

"What I learned is that kids have a purpose outside the ministry," Bezet said. "We wanted to broaden the college to things beyond the church. These are our future business leaders and we need to invest in them."

To make room for an expected surge of students, Bayside is renovating the southern side of the building, a project that will add academic offices and dedicated learning spaces that will include computer labs, a library and a student commons area.

Both Bezet and Palmu see other expansion in the future.

"I can see having 1,000 students or more," Bezet said. "It's a whole new level and we have no competition with any other Christian schools in this area. From a business standpoint, what a great opportunity. We will have to build dorms and university facilities.

"We have a big vision, but we have been growing steadily and surely, and that takes a lot of money. Southeastern has been coaching us. I have to make sure the vision doesn't outpace our finances."

Eric Palmu, the director of academics at Bayside College, stands in front of the student commons.
Eric Palmu, the director of academics at Bayside College, stands in front of the student commons.

Palmu said the students will come.

"Look what has happened in this country with higher Christian education," he said. "It's a $30,000 a year experience. Here it is $9,700 a year."

Everything has worked because the parishioners literally have bought into the plans.

"We are so fortunate to have been blessed with individuals who want to make an impact on our young leaders," Palmu said. 

Eventually, Bayside's 40 acres likely won't be big enough. "We are looking at properties as they become available," Palmu said.

Bezet is not concerned about the imposing financial commitment of running a college and perhaps eventually, a university.

"We're very committed," he said. "This is a living organism, a refection of Christ. We have spiritual things in order."

​Prince said the college will be selective when choosing its students.

"We are looking for leaders," she said.

Bayside College expects leaders will begin applying in the near future. The teaching staff already has more than doubled to 25 in anticipation of the college's expansion.

Bezet takes it all in stride, confident the direction is true.

"I am a driven person," he said. "I want my life to make a difference."



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