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Young pastor is doing fine at big church

Eighteen months ago, we told you about the Rev. Craig L. Oliver, a St. Petersburg native who had been appointed pastor of a 1,500-member Baptist church in Atlanta. What made the story remarkable was that Oliver, a graduate of Boca Ciega High School, was only 22 years old when he got the job.

The article appeared under the headline The Kid.

So how is the Kid doing now?

"The peace and harmony that exists between the pulpit and the pews has been mind-boggling," Oliver said from his home in Atlanta. "I never thought it would be this comfortable."

There was reason to wonder. Oliver, the son of Attis and Sadie Oliver, was 15 when he heard the calling to be a minister. Within a month, he stood in the pulpit at Greater Grand Central Missionary Baptist Church, his home congregation, and preached his first sermon.

After high school, Oliver went to Clark Atlanta University on a tennis scholarship. He joined Elizabeth Baptist Church, which made him its $300-a-month youth minister. When Elizabeth's longtime pastor resigned, church leaders _ virtually all of them old enough to be Oliver's mother or father _ asked him to be their leader.

Oliver was a compelling presence in the pulpit, but pastors must do many things besides preach. They must also comfort the sick and dying, counsel married couples, mediate squabbles among members, and oversee the finances of the church. Did Oliver, who had never had a girlfriend or a checking account, have the wisdom to handle the job?

"I was concerned, I guess you can say, as to whether or not Elizabeth would despise my youth," Oliver said.

Not to worry. Since Oliver became pastor, Elizabeth has moved into a new, $7-million church building (construction was under way when he arrived) and taken in 750 new members. The church, which had never before raised more than $632,000 in a year, last year brought in $1.2-million, Oliver said.

"A change of locality, as I shared with the church, oftentimes brings a change of mentality. It seems as if our minds have been renewed," he said.

The demands on Oliver are great. He preaches two sermons on Sunday and teaches Bible study on Wednesday nights. He estimates that he has performed 25 weddings and 250 Baptisms by immersion. That is a lot of time in the water, even for a Baptist.

One of the most important skills Oliver has learned is time management. This is how he described his weekly schedule:

"Monday is known as my day of relaxation. Tuesday is my day for administration. Wednesday is my time for preparation for Bible study. Thursday is my day for consultation and also visitations. Friday is my day of preparation for Sunday morning's proclamation. Saturday is known as the meditation for the proclamation. And Sunday is the proclamation and celebration. That's the schedule that I live by."

Oliver was back in his hometown a few months ago to preach at Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, whose pastor, the Rev. Dr. Henry Lyons, is one of his mentors. He said he is "not completely familiar" with the events that led to racial disturbances in St. Petersburg last fall. (Violence broke out after a white police officer shot and killed an 18-year-old black motorist, and after a grand jury declined to indict the officer in the shooting .)

Still, Oliver said he has learned some disheartening lessons about the lives of some young, African-American men in his new city. "I'm touched and I'm moved by the number of funerals that I've performed for young men that are not even my age, and young men that are just beyond my age," he said.

Oliver has started a men's ministry at his church. He wants men to take what he considers their rightful place as head of the family. A man "should be the king, priest and prophet of his home," Oliver said, citing the Bible as the source of that belief. Only then will men begin to be each other's keepers instead of each other's killers, he said.

Some would dispute Oliver's interpretation of the Bible, but he isn't changing beliefs he has held since he was, well, a kid.

"Sin, I firmly believe, has a way of eroding our reverence of God," he said. "Our hearts become calloused and we give vent to our anger rather than allowing ourself to work out a way to deal with the conflicts."

_ Mike Wilson can be reached at (813) 892-2924 or by e-mail at