CLEARWATER — The interdenominational Chapel by the Sea, the only place of worship on all of Clearwater Beach, has its first new pastor in three decades with the retirement of the Rev. Herb Frietag in June. And when the Rev. Dr. Rhonda Blevins gave her inaugural sermon July 2, she also became the first female pastor in the church's nearly 70-year history.
Blevins, 46, worked as the Baptist campus minister at the University of Georgia and served congregations in Tennessee and Kentucky before coming to Clearwater. She said she wants the congregation's priorities to drive her vision but has made one thing about her philosophy clear: "We welcome all people to the table."
Blevins talked to the Tampa Bay Times about the church's direction and diversity. Her responses have been edited for length and clarity.
What does being Chapel by the Sea's first female pastor mean to you, and how will that affect your approach?
It won't change how I approach the congregation. In my mind I'm the pastor, I'm not the female pastor. But personally, for me, it's a milestone. The tradition that I spent most of my years in, Southern Baptist, they don't affirm women as pastors. More recently, as part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, they do affirm women pastors but the churches are slow to want to call women as pastors. So in this congregation it has felt like a non-issue throughout the search and call process. They tell me, and I believe them, that they wanted to try to call the best pastor and they didn't care about the gender. I deeply appreciate that. But for me it has been quite a journey to get to the place to be called as pastor.
Can you tell us a bit about Chapel by the Sea for those who are unfamiliar?
It is the only church on Clearwater Beach. (The next closest is St. Brendan's Catholic Church on Island Estates). In my first sermon July 2 we talked about what an opportunity that is for the congregation. As the only church on the island, we have a responsibility to extend a welcome to all people. Hospitality is what I talked about in my sermon. In this beach area, as a community, we welcome the stranger to come enjoy the beautiful island and all it offers. As the chapel we want to be a central part of that welcome, that we can be a place where people who live here year-round can find community, where people here only for a week can find a place to worship. I have a goal personally of getting to know the people who work on the island and live on the island to become their pastor, whether or not they attend church. I hope to become the pastor for all those people, almost like a chaplain.
What exactly does it mean to be interdenominational?
As an interdenominational congregation, we welcome people from all Christian traditions. We think each tradition people bring to the table has a value and a purpose and we affirm that, and we try to take the best of those traditions and bring them together with a central belief in Jesus Christ as our Lord. In that vein we try to keep the minor things minor.
What sets this congregation apart?
It's pretty unique to be the only church in a given location. I've spent some time thinking and praying about what that means. Not a lot of churches will be a melting pot like this church. People from all over the world visit. Over the past few months we've had visitors not only from various states but from overseas: the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, United Arab Emirates. Not only do our guests represent a very diverse geographic body of people, but our membership does as well. That obviously means they have a diversity in experience. A unique challenge with that is in coming together as a church to bring together all those diverse ideas and upbringings and world and life experiences. On social issues, as a denomination, the International Council of Community Churches doesn't take doctrinal stances. That's how we can hold communities together.
What are your priorities and goals as the chapel's pastor?
The way I operate is that this is not my church. This is the people's church, and most importantly, this is God's church. In my first few months, I am doing an intentional study, asking the people of the church where they see God leading us to be, to compile all of the information from church members, and together we will see our course for the future. I don't bring anything to the table by way of "here's what we're going to do." I will continue the tradition of being an open and inclusive congregation. We will continue that tradition as I lead the church forward.
Contact Tracey McManus at [email protected] or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.