Pastor charged with DUI finds support at Grace Lutheran

CARROLLWOOD — Members of Grace Lutheran Church are embracing their pastor after he was charged with driving under the influence last week.

John Hillmer, senior pastor of the church at 3714 W Linebaugh Ave., attended the worship service Sunday.

"He received total support from the congregation, council and staff," said Kathy Crouthamel, who has been a member of the church for 13 years and manages its office.

Hillmer's arrest was still under review by Bishop Edward R. Benoway, according to Adam Bost, a spokesman for the Florida-Bahamas Synod, which serves as a regional administrative council for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

But he is not expected to face any disciplinary action, Bost said. "Although the pastors are certainly held to higher standards," Bost said, "they are still human beings and just as sinful as any other human being."

Indeed, other church leaders have made headlines. In 2003, the Rev. Daniel Stahl, who led Bay Life Church in Brandon, resigned after admitting he cheated on his wife. And in 2007, Randy and Paula White, the founders of Tampa megachurch Without Walls International, announced they were divorcing.

On July 31, at 12:46 a.m., a Hillsborough sheriff's deputy spotted Hillmer speeding and driving erratically, headed south on Dale Mabry Highway near Fletcher Avenue, according to a report.

His Toyota drifted into the far right lane twice and jerked back to the left. The deputy stopped Hillmer at the intersection of Hudson Lane and N Dale Mabry.

Hillmer, 57, had slurred speech and smelled of alcohol, according to the report. He was given three blood alcohol content tests and registered almost twice the legal limit of 0.08.

He was taken to Orient Road Jail and held on $500 bail. He has since been released. He declined to comment for this article.

Almost 300 people attend Sunday services at Grace Lutheran, according to an ELCA report. The church was founded in 1970, and members perform various outreach activities, including feeding homeless female veterans, the church Web site says.

It's not surprising that church members would support their leader at a time like this, said Steven Graham, a psychologist at Life Connections in Lutz and a former pastor. Making mistakes and forgiving others who do — even pastors — is part of being Christian, he said.

"Am I a good Christian because I keep all these rules? Or am I a Christian because the grace of God holds even though I will make mistakes?" Graham said. "That's the message of the cross — despite our sins, despite our mistakes, God loved us enough to die for us."

Nicole Hutcheson can be reached at nhutcheson@sptimes.com.

Pastor charged with DUI finds support at Grace Lutheran 08/06/09 [Last modified: Thursday, August 6, 2009 5:30am]

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