BROOKSVILLE — Stuart Swann began serving as the new rector at St. John's Episcopal Church in October, but his journey here was not without struggles.
Swann and his wife, Michelle, have happily settled into the area, believing God has led them in this direction. Swann, 55, will be formally installed in a special service Sunday.
The path to ministry for Swann began as a child, with the inspiration of a great-uncle.
"Uncle Cam was an Episcopal priest serving rural parishes in Virginia and West Virginia," Swann said. "He was also headmaster of a mountain home and school for orphans and abused and neglected kids in the 1950s."
Swann was 3 years old when his parents became cottage parents to 20 young boys at Blue Ridge School under his uncle's tutelage.
"Suddenly, I had 20 brothers and boundless memories in the making," Swann said. "This shaped my sense of vocation, I'm sure."
Swann grew up in Largo, but he would never forget his early experiences, which would later draw him to social work.
His direction in life would also be shaped by an experience in college.
"Oddly enough, it was my frustration with church and religion as a teenager that compelled me toward ministry as an adult," Swann said. "I was raised with a deep appreciation for formal worship, but later found an evangelical core for my faith — a 'born again' faith. In college the person of Jesus Christ became the focus, not organized church."
Swann said it took him years to reconcile the tensions in his own faith and experience. Could God truly be experienced in the formalized liturgies of the church? he wondered. His family thought so.
"My family and friends encouraged me through the years to follow a call to parish ministry as an Episcopal priest," he said.
Not yet ready to enter parish ministry, and with a master's in social work, Swann worked for a time in that field in rural western North Carolina and in more urban areas like Richmond, Va.
"I was a youth minister and social worker for many years because of the influence of the Gospel on my life as a teenager, and also because of those early experiences that shaped me as a young child," he said.
Later, feeling a call to pastoral ministry, Swann obtained a master of divinity degree at Virginia Theological Seminary and in 1992 began serving as a minister in Virginia.
Then, in 1999, his personal life "upended" and a time of confusion began.
"I went through a divorce and a period of disillusionment with church and ministry as well," he said. "Some would call it burnout or midlife crisis. Whatever it was, after seven years of effective parish ministry, I entered a period of questioning about religion and whether or not I could be an authentic person while serving in a pastoral role."
It took Swann between 2000 and 2007 to determine that God's call remained a part of his life. During that time, he worked in a computer software business owned by his family, and later became a geriatric care manager in Pinellas County.
"Both of these undertakings helped strengthen me for a return to ordained ministry when I came to St. John's," he said.
In 2001, he married Michelle, his high school sweetheart.
"This was a second marriage for both of us. So we are the proverbial blended family, dealing with all the stresses and blessings of life after divorce and remarriage."
Swann said his experiences will help him as he guides the congregation at St. John's. Family and community, he said, are central to the focus of his ministry, which teaches that the practice of faith begins at home and works outwardly from there.
"A church leader is easily misconstrued by the people as an icon to Christ," Swann said. "Virtues can be easily imputed to the leader that are not true to the leader's life. A pastor, a priest — these are just people, too."
Home life, Swann said, is the best testing ground for a leader's character.
"There, in the reality of close relationships — marriage, parenting — the pastor's true fiber is tested and refined," he said. "A spouse can see and know you as you are. The sermon isn't what you say, but how you live each day. Having experienced the rending of this fiber in my own life, I am now more sensitized to this than ever."
Swann has high hopes for the ministry here.
"The caliber of the people at St. John's is what attracted me to this parish," he said. "They are survivors, visionaries, brave and humble leaders who have a deep love for Christ and the potential for ministry in his name.
"It is my priority to establish and maintain bonds of affection within our denomination, but also with the larger community of faith. This is not a season for any religious body to be strident or to exist in isolation from the larger body of faithful people. On issues that divide God-seeking folks today, I hope that St. John's can find a way to mediate a compassion that unites rather than ideologies that separate."