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'This is where God wants me to be'

The Rev. Brian James has taken over the helm at St. James United Methodist Church.

By MELANIE AVE

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 25, 2000


TAMPA PALMS -- It's easy to follow in the footsteps of someone who has failed.

But replacing someone who is enormously popular, as Brian James has done, well that's another story.

"I made it through my first Sunday," joked James, who delivered his first sermon last week as minister of St. James United Methodist Church on Bruce B. Downs Boulevard. "No casualties."

James' debut came days after the departure of the gregarious Rev. Clark Pickett, who was transferred to the larger Trinity United Methodist Church in Palm Beach Gardens by the state's United Methodist conference. Pickett was senior pastor at St. James for 11 years, overseeing its growth from 100 members to 1,200 and the construction of its $2.5-million building.

James, senior pastor of Pine Island United Methodist Church near Fort Myers for seven years, said he and his new congregation are now adjusting to one another.

"I really believe in my heart that this is where God wants me to be," he said. "Jesus Christ is the head of the church. I'm not. We're just going to see what he has in store."

The 38-year-old minister said he doesn't plan to make any dramatic changes to the church because "they had a great church before I got here."

Today, the church will hold a reception for James, his wife, Dustin, and three children, 6-year-old Kelsey, 4-year-old Hannah and infant Lanie.

"Everybody is very positive about Brian," said George Bartlett, chairman of the church's trustees. "He's a fine young man. Everyone's welcoming him with open arms."

These days James is unpacking and getting to know his new congregation. Pictures wait to be hung in his office and boxes of his family's belongings remain unopened in their Pebble Creek home.

Roberta Rowland, James' administrative assistant at Pine Island, said she was sad to see him leave. During his tenure there, James oversaw construction of a new sanctuary and began new programs such as small group ministry, Saturday evening services, a Wednesday night prayer and praise service and a youth ministry. Membership more than tripled.

"He has a great personality," Rowland said. "Very outgoing. He liked to deal with people one on one. . . . He has a great sense of humor and was always telling stories from the pulpit."

James said he decided to become a minister during his junior year at Florida Southern University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in physical education.

It seemed an unlikely calling for someone with a stutter and a dislike for crowds. But his other "good ideas" were taking him nowhere. Floating on a ski raft and watching the sunset during a summer Methodist children's camp, James gave his life over to God.

He enrolled and completed Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. After graduating with a master's of divinity, he worked with the First United Methodist Church of Orlando's youth group and became associate pastor of the First United Methodist Church of Fort Myers. He was transferred to the retirement community of Pine Island as pastor in 1993.

James said he and his family are getting used to a much different church and community.

Where Pine Island had no fast-food restaurants, New Tampa is chock-full of quick food joints. Where Pine Island was made up mostly of retirees, St. James attracts young families. Where Kumbaya on a guitar "was stretching it" musically at Pine Island, St. James has a band.

James described himself as a "real person," who, like his parishioners, is just one of God's shepherds.

"People are really being fed here," James said. "It's exciting to be a part of that."

* * *

Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3473 or melanie@sptimes.com.

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