PORT RICHEY — The walls in the Rev. Jim Poyner's office at Gulfview Grace Brethren Church are bare and prepared for fresh paint. The renovation is evidence of transition — almost a metaphor, said his son, Paul, for the big change ahead for both of them.
After 33 years as the church's pastor, Jim Poyner will retire Dec. 7 and his son will replace him.
"There's a time to accept a church, and there's another time to realize I've slowed down," said Jim, 70. He realized his limitations on Valentine's Day this year after a surgeon implanted a pacemaker and defibrillator in his chest.
"I looked at (my son) and said, 'Paul, … the church needs you.' "
• • •
In high school, Jim Poyner planned to be a veterinarian. But at a basketball game, he pushed a glass door open and it shattered.
"It cut a tendon and a series of nerves," he said. He permanently lost feeling in his right ring finger and pinky. "I wouldn't be able to do any kind of delicate surgical procedure," he said.
After the injury, he discerned that he wasn't supposed to be "a doctor of animal's bodies," but "a doctor of men and women's hearts." So after high school, he pursued the ministry.
He married Charlotte in 1965, graduated with a bachelor's degree in English from Grace College in Winona Lake, Ind., in 1966 and entered Grace Theological Seminary, also in Winona Lake. During seminary, he was drawn to mission work. He expected to finish his master's degree and move to Africa as a full-time missionary, but when a pastor visited the seminary and delivered a series of talks about being a pastor, Poyner's focus shifted.
"In that week's time, God clearly changed my attitude," he said.
He knew, then, he would stay in the United States and start a church. He graduated with his master of divinity degree in 1970 and moved to Dayton, Ohio, where he "planted" a church he led for 10 years.
During that tenure, he took a trip to Florida for a conference.
"The heat and humidity overcame us," he said. "I remember saying to Charlotte, 'one thing is for sure, I would never come to Florida to pastor a church.' "
• • •
In January 1981, he received a call from Grace Brethren Missions Council — then the "church planting arm" of Grace Brethren, an international network of independent churches that share a statement of faith. The counsel introduced him to Lonnie Miller, owner of Ja-Mar Travel Parks in Port Richey. Miller wanted to start a church for the park's residents.
"He said, 'How'd you like to come to Florida?' " Poyner said. "I enjoyed thoroughly the opportunity to plant a church from scratch (in Dayton), so I wanted the challenge to try again."
He accepted Miller's offer, and his family moved, despite Florida's heat.
"I've never met a pastor that loves people more than he does, and I really mean that," said Miller, 71. "He always had a special love for the people in the park."
For the church's first three years, the congregation met in the recreation hall at Ja-Mar while saving money for what would become Gulfview Grace's sanctuary, which was built on land Miller donated. Poyner led the church through three other building projects: a fellowship hall, an addition of rooms that connect the sanctuary to the fellowship hall and a family life center, which doubles as a gymnasium.
He also watched his son grow with the church. Paul Poyner, 39, worked as youth pastor at the church for 16 years until June 1, when he became interim pastor and his father stepped down to assistant pastor because of his health.
The pacemaker-defibrillator "is nice," Jim Poyner said. "It's like having a guardian angel. If you have a heart attack, it's going to save your life. But it's gone off seven times, and that causes some anxiety. I didn't know if I was going to live there for a while."
His son applied for the permanent pastor position and in September, after an interview process, the church's board of deacons and elders voted he should replace his dad.
"Knowing Paul is coming has made (retiring) much easier," Jim said.
And Paul said his dad's influence on the church won't change.
"My dad's DNA is in our church," he said. "The reason we are such a caring, loving church is because of who he is."
Arleen Spenceley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6235.