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Pastor will retire next year

By EILEEN SCHULTE
Published May 31, 2007


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LARGO - An outspoken minister who built his congregation into one of Pinellas County's largest churches and lobbied for Steve Stanton's termination is himself leaving his job and heading to the Blue Ridge Mountains.

The Rev. Charlie Martin, senior pastor of the 6, 000-member First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks, is retiring at 61 and is moving to the Boone, N.C., area with his wife, Stephanie, 48. He will be replaced by the Rev. Jeff Parish, senior pastor of Davis Islands Baptist Church in Tampa.

But Martin won't be leaving soon. His last sermon will be next year on May 4.

Church administrator Tim Ferguson said Martin has planned to make the move for three to four years.

"Through a series of things that have happened, he felt this was the right time to step aside and let someone else take the church to new heights, " he said.

He said the "things" were personal and would not elaborate.

"I don't feel at liberty to share, " Ferguson said.

Church administrators said Martin would not be available to discuss his departure before next week.

But both Ferguson and Associate Pastor Rev. David Joseph said no one at First Baptist asked Martin to leave.

"There was no pressure from the church to initiate this, " said Joseph. "It was quite the opposite. It was more like, 'Please, change your mind.' "

After 36 years of leading First Baptist, Martin is just "sensing God's call to begin to transition out, " Joseph said.

* * *

Martin became embroiled in the Stanton story almost immediately after Stanton, then Largo's city manager, disclosed that he intended to become a woman. Martin asked his parishioners to pray about the situation and to attend a City Commission meeting at which Stanton's fate was decided.

City commissioners "are under attack from Equality Florida, a homosexual activist group that has national ties, " the pastor wrote in an e-mail.

At a microphone at City Hall at one meeting, Martin said: "All the great things Largo has to offer will be overshadowed by this issue. One person's future is not worth an entire city. The eyes of America are on us tonight. Do what's right."

He also said, "This is the time, if you live in a community, to voice your opinion."

But Martin did not mention the Stanton controversy in a May 9 letter to his flock.

"We thought we would be at Indian Rocks until I was about 70 years old but God had other plans, " Martin wrote. "We have had plans in place for this transition for about four years and the search for a new pastor has taken almost three years."

Martin did not elaborate other than to say that, with God's help, he had accomplished many goals he had set.

God, he said, spoke to his heart and released him from his pastoral duties "with a plan to follow."

* * *

Martin was born and raised in El Dorado, Ark. He came to First Baptist in 1971.

The church originally was a seedling of Calvary Baptist Church in Clearwater and grew to become an influential local institution.

In 2005, the church opened a $13-million, 61, 000-square-foot worship center on Ulmerton Road. The sanctuary has 3, 200 seats, and the 50-acre campus includes a bookstore, private school and medical clinic that offers primary care and treats minor emergencies. The same year, First Baptist also opened a satellite church in Pasco County.

Largo City Commissioner Mary Gray Black said that Martin was a friend to the city. In the past, she said, his church even paid for the city's fireworks on the Fourth of July.

"He has faithfully served the Largo community, " she said. "I think it's great that he has served the community for so long."

About last December, Martin called Parish and the two met for lunch where they discussed First Baptist's search for a new pastor.

Over the next few months, both pastors prayed about whether Parish was the right fit.

When he was eventually offered the job, Parish said he accepted but with some sadness.

"It was one of the hardest decisions of my life, " he said. "I love Davis Islands (church). I was the founding pastor."

Parish was born in Memphis, and attended the University of Tennessee. He completed a business degree at Memphis State University in 1985. He earned his master of divinity degree at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in 1989, and in May 2000 completed his doctorate of ministry degree through Luther Rice Seminary.

The 1, 600-member Davis Islands Baptist Church was founded in 1999 with Parish, 44, serving as its first senior pastor.

He and his wife, Martha, were married in 1989 and have four children, Sarah, Dorothy, Christopher and Carey.

"I plan to continue the great work Pastor Charlie has done, " Parish said.

Eileen Schulte can be reached at (727) 445-4153 or schulte@sptimes.com.

By the numbers 

6, 000 Number of members at First Baptist Church of Indian Rocks

50 Acres the church campus covers

61, 000 Square feet of the worship center

3, 200 Seats in the sanctuary

[Last modified May 30, 2007, 21:00:10]


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