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Pastor in Ireland answers call _ a long-distance one

A monthlong stay at a Citrus Springs church turns into something unexpected.

A year ago, the Rev. Brian Anderson and his wife were contented in Northern Ireland, where they had lived all their lives and where he had been the pastor of a large church for 5{ years.

Then God called him, he said _ to Citrus Springs. He now leads Community Congregational Christian Church.

"How I actually came to be here was the fact that I took part in a pulpit exchange in July 1999," Anderson said. "The pastor who was here at that time, the Rev. Gordon Condit, and I exchanged. That meant that he went to Ireland in Belfast and lived in our home and drove our car and looked after my congregation, and I came and did the same here."

Anderson and his wife, Heather, enjoyed their monthlong visit and made many friends at the church, he said. When they returned to Belfast, they received letters, cards or phone calls almost every week. One couple even visited them. Then, a year ago, they received an unexpected call.

"It came totally out of the blue," Anderson said. "We had a wonderful experience when we were here a year and a half ago. People were warm and kind and we had a great deal of hospitality. At the end of it we felt it was a very special time, and we went home and we thought well, that was the end of that.

"But at Christmastime last, Gordon announced that he would be retiring in a year's time. When the congregation heard that, they had a church meeting and they thought about it, prayed about it, and they contacted us and asked us if we would consider accepting a call to become the new pastor."

The Andersons took time to think and pray.

"We were immensely happy in Belfast. It was hard to think of not being there," he said.

As they continued to pray about the offer, they became convinced it was the call of God on their lives, he said.

"The first exchange I did was in 1997," Anderson said. He had placed an ad in a Congregational newspaper to find other pastors who were interested. "I exchanged with a pastor in a church in California."

One of the pastors answering the 1997 ad was Gordon Condit. But the California pastor needed a quick reply to his application, so he called Anderson rather than apply in writing, and Anderson agreed to make the exchange with him. When Anderson wanted to participate in another exchange in 1999, he remembered Condit's letter and contacted him. The exchange was arranged.

"Had I come here in '97," said Anderson, "they would have totally forgotten all about me by the time that Gordon was retiring. But we did come in '99, and then a short time after that it was announced that Gordon was retiring, and so they thought of us."

According to church records, attendance increased while the Andersons were here, and since becoming pastor of the church in January, attendance has increased by 40 percent.

Anderson, 44, entered the ministry at age 34. But he says he felt called to the ministry when he was converted at 17.

"I was taken to church every Sunday by my parents and enrolled in Sunday school and was involved in a lot of church activities, but when I was 17 I realized that all of these things didn't make you a Christian. You had to accept Jesus Christ in a personal way as your Lord and savior and commit your life to him.

"A number of things had been working on me, but I suppose it was a lot of the preaching that I was hearing in our local church about the necessity for this, and I realized that whilst I was going along and doing various things within the church, I didn't have a conversion experience.

"After hearing this preaching on Sunday, I felt that God was speaking to me and challenging me, so I accepted Christ and asked him into my heart and began life walking with him."

Though he felt God was calling him into some kind of full-time ministry, he was expected to get a job and contribute to his family, so he took on various sales jobs and later worked as a manager for a couple of national companies.

Eventually, he attended seminary in Belfast and earned a bachelor of theology degree and a master of arts degree, and was given an honorary master of letters for work he did with the university there. He was also a tutor for the Potchefstroom University of South Africa.

Anderson said he could see the hand of God in the timing of his entrance to the ministry.

"I was 34 when I started, so there were 17 years when I knew I was meant to be in the ministry, but I did take the view that if God wants me there, he'll open doors and allow me to do it. For a number of years the doors didn't open, although I was taking services in various places. It all worked out and looking back, I'm quite certain that I would have been a disaster at 17 if I'd have come out (of school) at about 22 or something.

"A lot of young guys go straight from school into college and college into seminary and they have absolutely no idea how people live. They go to congregations and they have a very theoretical view of how people cope with the everyday problems, whereas I think if you've been out in the world and you've had an ordinary job, you can identify much better. I don't think any of those years were wasted."

What about the inevitable culture shock? He misses being 15 minutes from the sea and the many hills and mountains. Heather misses her family there. But, he said, they like the warmth and friendliness of the people here and "they've given us a wonderful welcome to the church and to Florida." He said they have many plans for seeing the church grow and develop its potential.

"We want to see people's lives changed and transformed," the pastor said. "We believe God has brought us here, and we feel that we are going to be here for quite some time, unless he knows differently."

If you go

Services at Community Congregational Christian Church of Citrus Springs, 9220 N Citrus Springs Blvd., are as follows: Bible study, 8:30 a.m., and worship at 10 a.m. Sunday; Bible study, 7 p.m. Wednesday. For information, call (352) 489-1260.