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Farewell to a shepherd

A pastor known just by his first name transfers after 11 years. Congregants credit him with building a fun, open church.

By MELANIE AVE

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 21, 2000


TAMPA PALMS -- With teary eyes and a cracking voice, Clark Pickett dropped a bomb on his congregation at St. James United Methodist Church one week after Easter.

The 41-year-old pastor told them he was being transferred after 11 years to a much larger church on Florida's east coast. He weaved his departure notice into a scriptural message about believing in God's plan even when not understanding it.

Several people jokingly refer to the announcement day as "bomb Sunday."

"On June 11, I will stand here . . .," he told them slowly. "And on June 18, I will stand somewhere else and be the pastor of the Trinity United Methodist Church in Palm Beach Gardens, which is an incredibly wonderful place, I'm told.

"Personally, I hate it right now, but it is an incredible opportunity, they tell me."

His replacement at St. James will be Brian James, pastor of the Pine Island United Methodist Church in Bokeelia, near Fort Myers.

St. James staff and members said they are losing not only an inspiring and funny pastor, but a friend.

Pickett is known to everyone as Clark -- not pastor and certainly not reverend. He typically shuns a clergy robe, seldom wears a tie and has been known to flash an Atlanta Braves jersey during a Sunday message.

"Clark's been such a big part of why I go to that church," said Jeff Leonard, who attends with his wife, Sara. "It makes you realize how lucky you are to have had him this long. We all kind of knew or feared it was coming eventually.

"It is shocking and sad."

As the church's third pastor, Pickett oversaw St. James' growth from 100 members in 1989 to 1,200 members now. He also orchestrated the church's move from a nearby rented office building to its 30,000-square-foot, $2.5-million facility at 16202 Bruce B. Downs Boulevard.

"Much of what St. James is is a direct result of Clark," said Jack Carlisle, whose family has been attending the church since Pickett's second service in 1989.

"The thing that's unique about Clark is his ability to speak in the pulpit and relate religious and Biblical concepts to everyday life instead of wagging a finger and preaching."

During one recent message, Pickett imagined how a modern-day Jesus Christ would probably appear to his disciples, walk up to them and exclaim "Whasssup?" like the back-slapping guys popularized in a Budweiser commercial.

"He's just a lot of fun," Carlisle said. "There's always a sparkle in his eye, a funny story to relate. Obviously, we deal with all the serious life issues, death, divorce and taxes, but the predominant mood is one of fun, openness and love."

Pickett was an associate pastor at Lake Magdalene United Methodist Church before being chosen to lead St. James. He has helped create a friendly church that seems small, several members said. They said they are amazed at his ability to memorize names. At times, Pickett has introduced 40 new members at a time, making it a point to know who they are and where they work.

"It's pretty impressive," said St. James Assistant Pastor Terry Tolbert. "If someone asks, "Who's so and so's wife?' he can pull it up. He knows it's very easy to lose sight of individuals."

Pickett, a married father of two, has ridden the highs -- weddings and baby baptisms -- as well as lows -- layoffs, illnesses and deaths -- of his congregants' lives.

"It is by far the most rewarding profession I can imagine," Pickett said. "It allows me to use the gifts and talents I have to make a difference. You get to be a part of the great moments of life."

When Pickett announced that he was leaving, many people mopped tears from their eyes. And some said they are still trying to accept his departure.

Even Pickett said he has struggled to believe that he is really leaving.

"With my head, I know it," he said. "And one of these days, my heart will catch up."

Meanwhile, Pickett is trying to come up with his final St. James sermon, which now only has a title, "I Love You All."

"But," he said, "I probably won't be able to say very much anyway."

-- Melanie Ave can be reached at 226-3473 or melanie@sptimes.com.

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