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Church heals from emotional split

st. Petersburg Northeast Presbyterian has come together after doctrinal differences led to a severe schism.

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE Times Staff Writer
Published September 16, 2007

Northeast Presbyterian Church Youth broke into a small group for activities last week.
Photo by Jim Vanderbleek
For members of Northeast Presbyterian Church, March 12 felt like a day someone in their family had died. The previous day, their pastor of 20 years had left, as had everyone on the church staff, except for the custodian, and so had more than half of their 400-strong congregation.

The departure of so many people, from preacher to elders to the music director and secretary, caused a sense of loss, hurt and not a little confusion at the Shore Acres church.

Six months later, though, those who remained say the outlook is different and they're rebounding from their loss. The ranks that had been depleted of many younger members are being rebuilt. About 160 people now attend Sunday services. Volunteerism is up. New ministries have been launched and fresh life breathed into their worship service.

"The people have been amazing," said Lee Ann Lambrecht, a church elder.

"They have stepped up and wanted to help. Not that it's been easy. There's been heartache."

"The remaining congregation is strong and vital," said the Rev. Gerry Tyer, executive presbyter of the Presbytery of Tampa Bay, the jurisdiction of 78 congregations to which Northeast Presbyterian belongs.

Wednesday morning, the pungent aroma of barbecue ribs for that night's weekly congregational dinner wafted through the parking lot. The popular gathering is seen as one example of the church's revival.

Elder Jim Vanderbleek also points to the church's new family movie night. It brought 57 people to the church one recent Saturday night. "Half were first-timers to the church," he said.

Barry Torman, another church leader, thinks the schism has created new opportunities for the church.

"It allowed us to take a fresh look at our worship service. We took a fresh look at our Wednesday program. It became a great connection for many people in our congregation. And we even took a look at our available space," he said.

With extra offices, the church invited a congregation without a home to share its property temporarily. It's also making room for the local branch of Young Life, a Christian youth group that had been based at First Presbyterian Church in downtown St. Petersburg.

In the absence of a pastor, Dave Ruth, a Christian counselor with a downtown St. Petersburg office, was recruited to preach until the new interim minister was hired. Ruth now holds a Bible study on Sundays and is credited with helping to keep the Northeast Presbyterian flock focused on God during tough times.

The departed staff has since been replaced, though with fewer paid employees. Church administrator Blanche Ganey, a member of Pinellas Community Church across town, praised the army of volunteers who stepped up to help her.

"The people of this church have rallied together so well," new music director Mari Blaquiere said. "It's a safe environment for people to express concern and hurt and wishes."

But healing is still needed, acknowledged the Rev. Sid McCollum, who recently took the job as the church's interim pastor. He is working with an advisory committee made up of church members, executive presbyter Tyer and First Presbyterian Church's interim pastor, the Rev. Larry Duncan.

The split at Northeast Presbyterian took place after the Rev. Bill Martin, an avowed conservative, decided that the 2.4-million member Presbyterian Church USA had crossed a nonnegotiable line. He said it set aside biblical authority when it gave local churches the ability to allow noncelibate gays to become ministers, elders and deacons. Deciding it was time to abandon the denomination, Martin left Northeast Presbyterian, established a new congregation a short distance away and aligned himself with the small 70,000-member Evangelical Presbyterian group.

What Martin did was not that unusual, said Jerry Van Marter, director of the Presbyterian News Service, the communications arm of the Presbyterian Church (USA).

"There's been a small but significant move in the last year of churches seeking to leave the denomination," he said. "Less than 50 of 11,200 have made the move to leave. In some cases, it's been virtually unanimous. In some cases, congregations have been badly split."

What kept Vanderbleek and others at Northeast Presbyterian Church?

"Even when your best sports team has a tough time, you stick with it," Vanderbleek said.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at or (727) 892-2283.



Monthly movies

Family Movie Night, Northeast Presbyterian Church, 4400 Shore Acres Blvd., St. Petersburg. Free movies, popcorn and soft drinks. Oct. 20, Chronicles of Narnia; Nov. 17, The Theory of Everything; Dec. 8, Because of Winn-Dixie. Call (727) 526-6083 or go to Call Jim Vanderbleek at (727) 385-4045 for information or to save a seat.


[Last modified September 15, 2007, 22:32:16]

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