PALMA CEIA — When he arrived at Palma Ceia United Methodist Church in 2005, pastor Kevin James met mixed reactions.
As the church's first African-American senior pastor, James preached a message of inclusivity. Most church members welcomed the idea of bringing diversity to a primarily white congregation. Still, some people left the church and never returned.
In his seven years, James has welcomed members of different backgrounds and ethnicities to the church. According to staff, he has also reduced church debt, energized contemporary worship, updated the church's website, strengthened the youth ministry and developed a homeless outreach program. He put a Bible in every pew and increased church discipleship.
Now the 51-year-old pastor is moving on to serve another congregation. On Sunday, he will deliver his last sermon in South Tampa.
He will begin work next month at Palm Coast United Methodist Church, north of St. Augustine. He has written a book and plans to release it June 15. Guess Who's Coming to Church: The Cross-Racial Cross-Cultural Experience will include writings about his experiences serving in South Tampa. Bruce Toms, a pastor from Palm Harbor, will replace James beginning May 13.
"He's been wonderful and we're going to miss him," said Jean Leone, a member at Palma Ceia since 1952. "In the beginning it was quite an adjustment for people having him here but he's served us well. He's an excellent minister."
A graduate of Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta, James began his work with the United Methodist Church as pastor of Emmanuel United Methodist in Palatka. He later ministered at Florida A&M University and Bethune-Cookman College. In 1998, he became the first African-American to serve as a church district superintendent in St. Petersburg. The position was James' first of what the church calls cross-cultural appointments.
It was Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker, resident bishop of the United Methodist Florida Conference, who took notice of James' accomplishments and sent him to Palma Ceia.
"Having a cross-cultural pastor in Palma Ceia kind of puts the church on the map," Whitaker told the Times in 2005. "It sends a signal to the city and to that neighborhood that this is a new day."
James said he planned to stay in Tampa indefinitely but this year Palma Ceia church officials decided it was time for another change. Whitaker then suggested James make the move to Palm Coast. There, church members represent more than 23 nationalities, James said.
"It's the most diverse church in the Florida Conference," James said. "The church thought my gifts and graces would be of good use there."
In the weeks prior to starting his new job, James will travel on vacation to Israel. He will then attend the Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church in Lakeland, where he is a delegate. He also served as a delegate at the United Methodist General Conference, which concludes today at the Tampa Convention Center.
James said he will miss Tampa. He and wife, Linda, enjoy going to sporting events and dining at local restaurants. Most of all they will miss their friends at Palma Ceia, James said.
"I have a tremendous love and respect for the people of the church, especially the staff," he said. "They have gone above and beyond to serve this ministry."
Mary Steele, church administrative coordinator, said the feeling is mutual.
"He's the best boss I ever had and I'm over 80, so I've had a lot of bosses," Steele said. "He's considerate and fair. I am going to miss him."
James said he isn't worried about Palma Ceia reverting back to old ways in his absence.
"My belief personally is that the diversity at the church can and should continue," James said. "Whether Kevin James serves as senior pastor or not."
Sarah Whitman can be reached at (813) 661-2439 or [email protected]