SPRING HILL — Friends agree that the Rev. Paul Clemons' choosing to become a member of the clergy was perhaps the best decision he ever made. His warm smile, affable demeanor, and ability to engage people in conversation were gifts that endeared him to many. It didn't hurt that he could also recite Bible verses at will.
"When it came to the Scriptures, Paul was a guru," said longtime friend Walter Dry, who attended a Bible study group that the Rev. Clemons hosted on Wednesday nights at First United Methodist Church in Spring Hill.
A pastor for more than 50 years, including 30 years as founding minister at Grace Presbyterian Church in Spring Hill, the Rev. Clemons, 76, died Friday after a long illness.
One of Hernando County's most notable civic leaders of the past three decades, he served on the Hernando County School Board from 1971 to 1992, including two terms as chairman.
In addition, he served as president of the Oak Hill Hospital steering committee and was on the boards of the Hernando County Chamber Of Commerce, the Hernando County Salvation Army as well as the Timber Pines community.
As pastor of Grace Presbyterian, the Rev. Clemons' talents as an orator and biblical scholar made him a popular figure. However, the same church that welcomed him three decades earlier would turn on him later.
The Rev. Clemons arrived in Spring Hill in July of 1968 as a 35-year-old minister hired by the Tampa Bay Presbytery to establish a church in the fledgling retirement community.
With his garage serving as an office, the Rev. Clemons canvassed neighborhoods introducing himself and welcoming people to come and worship at the Spring Hill Community Center. By the third Sunday, the congregation had grown to 21.
During his 30-year tenure as pastor, the church grew to become one of Spring Hill's largest with more than 1,200 members. But by 1998, the Rev. Clemons decided he had had enough. He informed church elders he was retiring.
It didn't last long.
Within a few months the Rev. Clemons started a Bible study group in Timber Pines. In addition, he signed on as volunteer chaplain for the Spring Hill Fire Rescue District and began making informal visits to Grace Presbyterian parishioners in the hospital. Such behavior, however, didn't sit well with the Presbytery. In 2000, an investigative committee filed ecclesiastical charges of professional misconduct. They included accusations that he was ministering on behalf of the church without its approval, had presented the Presbytery questionable credentials about his doctorate degrees, and was inappropriately dispensing financial advice to church members.
Rather than fight the charges, the Rev. Clemons chose to renounce his ministerial title with the church.
Longtime friend Nick Morana remembers the ordeal as a low point in his friend's life. He felt the attacks on the Rev. Clemons were due to his being viewed as a competitor to the church's interests. "He was hurt by it," said Morana, former school services director with the school district who served during the Rev. Clemons' tenure on the School Board.
"I went to a couple of those Bible group meetings and I didn't consider it to be a religious service," Morana said. "I thought he was giving people advice on life."
In 2006, the Rev. Clemons became a member of First United Methodist and quickly found a welcoming atmosphere for his extensive Bible knowledge. According to Walter Dry, the weekly Bible study group was popular with church members, who frequently came early and stayed late to talk with the Rev. Clemons.
"His spiritual gift was a blessing to us," Dry said. "You could go to him with a question about something going on in your life and he would find a Scripture that seemed to explain it all. He could make you understand the Bible and make it useful in your life. That's something I'm going to miss."
Reach Logan Neill at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.