BROOKSVILLE — How does someone go from a bitter departure from the church to becoming one of its shepherds? Gene Maddox, who will step into the pulpit Sunday as the new pastor at First United Methodist Church of Brooksville, says it was a journey that began in his teens.
Maddox will replace the Rev. G.H. Trumbo, who served as interim pastor since November, and will be the congregation's 53rd pastor since 1879.
Growing up in Miami, Maddox regularly attended Presbyterian church services. Later, to be able to sing in the choir, he joined the Methodist church. In his teens, he became vice president of the Methodist Youth Fellowship.
Then tragedy struck. When he was 14, influenza claimed the life of his father. Three years later, his mother died of cancer. His church was no comfort to him in his time of grief.
"I stayed in church a couple more months, but basically the main topic in Sunday school was the Vietnam War," Maddox said.
He knew something was missing from his church life.
"I didn't know what it was, but I knew there was more," Maddox said. "So I pretty much stopped going."
A short time later, a new pastor came to Maddox's church. He called the 18-year-old on the phone, not to offer comfort or counsel, but to ask for a financial pledge. Maddox agreed to a pledge of $50 and gave half that amount. Later, he received what appeared to be a bill asking for the remainder.
"(The pastor) had no idea who I was, and here I was getting a bill now," Maddox said. "I thought, okay, that's it. I'm done. I was sure I'd never be in a Methodist church or any church again."
As a college student, Maddox began to enjoy having Sunday mornings free to play golf. He also met some new friends.
"God blessed me with wonderful friends," he said. "I didn't know Christ at the time, but the Lord was always looking after me."
Maddox's new companions attended a nondenominational church that met in the cafeteria of an elementary school. That seemed strange to the young man, and despite invitations from his friends, he had no plan to attend. But he did want to be on the church's softball team, and to play he was required to attend services. So he began attending, leaving early and returning in time for the final hymn.
Despite "playing hooky," he was there long enough to notice something different.
"When the people were singing, it was like they were singing to God. And on their faces was a glow, a love, a passion I'd never seen before," he said. "These people clearly had something I didn't."
After a time, and having run out of excuses, Maddox agreed to attend a youth retreat with his friends in the summer of 1974.
"That weekend I met Christ, and he met me," Maddox said. "He became more real to me than a person sitting next to me. His love was so real I could almost touch it. I immediately fell in love with him."
Though he'd heard the teachings of the Methodist church all his life, Maddox said no one had ever asked if he had met Jesus Christ.
"I hate to say it, but I think we just assume people know Christ if they're in church, and, boy, is that ever a wrong assumption," Maddox said. "I'd known all the Bible verses, but I didn't know Christ."
That weekend, Maddox said, he learned three truths that would shape the rest of his life: that Christ had taken Maddox's place when he died on the cross, that the Bible was God's word and that he'd just learned the best news the world had ever known.
"I had to use my life to share it," he said.
Maddox began working with a group of about 60 junior high students in North Miami.
"We had kids coming to know Christ every Friday night," he said. "As I look back over my whole ministry, it was one of the most amazing times I've ever seen."
Maddox decided to enter the ministry full-time, graduating from Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Ky., in 1982. Returning to the denomination he had spurned, he was ordained as a Methodist minister in 1986 and has served in several churches in Central Florida. He earned a doctor of divinity degree in 2004.
Along the way, he married Leslie. They have two married daughters and a new granddaughter.
After ministering for the past 12 years at Trinity United Methodist Church in Palatka, Maddox, now 59, is excited to be coming to Brooksville, where he says he intends to be a servant-leader to his new congregation. He is especially looking forward to being part of a church that has a quality Christian school, he said.
"I want us to become a John 3:16 church," the new pastor said of his goals, referring to one of his favorite scripture verses.
" 'God so loved the world,' and that means every skin color, every nationality, every language, every financial status — it's all inclusive," Maddox explained. "He called the church to have a John 3:16 heart. His love is so great that he gave his only begotten son. He gave everything. And that's what the church is called to do."