TAMPA — The Rev. David Allen stood dejectedly before his Baptist church last summer to accept a leave of absence so he could care for a son wounded in war.
His small flock, seldom numbering more than 50 on any Sunday, was sympathetic. Allen was torn. He loved the pulpit, but he loved his son more.
And so he and his wife, Valerie, left the rural church near Ocala to care for their son at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa.
But Allen said what began as a temporary parting ended in February with a 12-year career upended and his family searching for a home after members of his New Vision Worship Center decided to replace him.
"They say absence makes the heart grow fonder," said Allen, 56. "Well, that's a lie."
The heart of a rural church often beats with the rhythm of a small town. Politics and unspoken hurts can lie beneath calm waters. Navigating these is one of a pastor's great challenges.
But replacing a pastor away to help a wounded son? Allen said he often asks himself:
Is this really God's plan?
• • •
The pastor's son, Mark Allen, 36, is a soldier who couldn't see himself doing anything else.
First with the Army, and then as a full-time member of the Georgia National Guard, the Atlanta-area resident has a tattoo on his calf that says "warrior" in Japanese. He often carried a tomahawk.
In 2009 Mark, a father of two, was sent to Afghanistan.
On July 8, Mark was cut down by a sniper's bullet that passed through his skull. His head was shattered, many of its higher brain functions gone.
Mark was eventually brought to the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in Tampa.
"I told Mark, 'God did not do this. An evil man did this to you,' " said Valerie Allen, 60. "I knew God didn't do this. But he didn't stop it. And that was the part that upset me. Why didn't he?"
But his parents didn't blame God. At times, they questioned why their son lived with his brain seemingly ruined.
Then one day a therapist tried to get Mark to touch buttons on a machine that changed the color of bubbles in a tube. He did it on command. Again and again. It was a revelation to his mother.
"I knew he was in there," she said. "He hears what's going on."
So in the weeks and then months of his recovery, the family said they saw signs that the Mark they loved was still inside him, even if he could not speak or walk. He might follow old friends with his eyes. He started to show emotion. He'd cry when his wife talked about his unit, as if memories were intact.
Mark's wife Shannon said, "It meant at least he could enjoy life."
After several months away, a soldier's father began thinking about a return to his pulpit.
• • •
David Allen said he felt miserable away from his Fort McCoy church. It didn't help that his father died in January. Allen felt like he wasn't doing what God had called him to do.
But after returning from his leave, Allen discovered his church had been pulled back in a direction from which he had spent years trying to lead it away.
In 12 years at New Vision, Allen tried to make the church more contemporary and do more community outreach. A church, Allen believed, should be there for anyone in need. He also wanted to attract younger folks.
With church support, Allen had changed the name of the church to New Vision, getting "Baptist" out of the title to avoid any prejudices. He put away the old hymnals and replaced pews with comfortable chairs. He updated church music.
"We didn't want to get caught up so much in tradition," he said.
But while Allen was away, the congregation had gotten a taste of interim pastors, men with different styles. Traditional Baptist ways began to creep back. Parishioners talked of changing the church's name, getting "Baptist" back in its title.
Small things annoyed them. The new music. Using new-fangled projectors to put the words of hymns on a screen. Allen not visiting the homes of his congregation enough. Elimination of a midweek service that Allen said was poorly attended. The church, some said, was dying.
As parishioner Paul McDermott said, "He was trying to lead the church someplace it didn't want to go."
And quite simply, some churchgoers felt Allen was spending too much time away from his flock to be with his son.
"We couldn't wait for him to get his affairs in order," said Maura Masterson. "We realized he wouldn't be able to put his time and energy in the church. We felt like we'd be a burden."
In early February, the congregation voted 17-3 against Allen, a "no confidence" vote.
Some who voted against Allen said they didn't want him to go. They still love him. But Allen said it was plain. The sheep wanted the shepherd out. He resigned. He and his wife moved out of the church parsonage, their home of 12 years.
"You take a small church like that, 19 people the first Sunday I walked in the door," said Troy Marks, the pastor who replaced Allen, "and you step away six months ... that's not good. A church like that cannot survive without leadership in place."
Others were unhappy with the way Allen was maneuvered out. "It wasn't done by the Bible," parishioner Linda Yourgal said.
Allen said he just wished the church had waited. He and his wife were forced out, Allen said, at the very time they needed the church the most.
"I've been made to feel like an adulterous husband," he said.
Allen concedes he may have still eventually left, but he said the timing was wrong, the procedure flawed. "They took it out of God's hands," he said.
Allen said he waits for God to reveal his plan. He forgives the members and said he still loves them and holds no grudges.
He and his wife are unemployed. David Allen believes he will find work, a new home, perhaps even a new church. It's hard. Pastors who lose jobs in such ways can be viewed as suspect, Allen said. Both are frightened by the future.
For the time being, they live at Haley's Fisher House, which lodges families of veterans.. Mark is still hospitalized, but Allen said people should not pity his family — Mark would not want that.
Anyway, Allen said, "It wasn't my church. It belongs to God."
William R. Levesque can be reached at (813) 226-3432.