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Pastor's prayers answered in Seven Oaks

Maybe it's a miracle.

Or maybe it's the happy ending to a love story, this rambling five-bedroom house with butter-cream walls and dining room big enough for serving Spanish bean soup to a crowd of church volunteers.

"The Lord knew," says the Rev. Jane Hillman-McDonnough, 48, pastor and founder of Tampa Bay Word of Faith Church.

Put it this way: He definitely knew something.

In spring 2003, Hillman-McDonnough, a petite woman with a calming gaze and steady voice made for sermons, was still single. Long devoted to her ministry, she had given her life over to preaching God's word, a journey that took her throughout the United States, Canada and South America but always brought her back to Tampa.

"You know, when you're a pastor, it's easy to get caught up in the work all the time," she says.

Though she had owned her own home for a decade in Brandon, she was looking for something bigger so she could more readily have groups of church volunteers over for dinner.

"We have so many volunteers and staff who are committed to giving so much of their time," she says. "Something about having people over to your home makes it so much more special."

Friends told her to look for a bigger house in Pasco because of the spate of new development in the area and the easy commute to her church.

Her sister, Gail Anderson, a real estate agent who lives in Meadow Pointe, urged her to consider Seven Oaks, a 2,500-acre development off State Road 56, because of its proximity to Interstate 75.

The search didn't take long: At Seven Oaks, she fell in love with a 3,800-square-foot home because of its flowing floor plan and generous natural light. There was also ample room for big tables in the dining room and kitchen _ perfect for entertaining church volunteers.

"I told the salesman, "This is the house I've been looking for. Now I just need a husband to help pay for it,' " she says with a laugh.

Kidding. Only kidding.

Sort of.

No sooner had she put a down payment on the house than the right man walked into her life. A church member, Jeff McDonnough, whose job as a territory sales manager had recently brought him from Minnesota to Tampa, was also looking for a house in Pasco County.

He was single.

And crazy about his pastor, too.

"She was beautiful, gorgeous, incredible," he says. "But I wasn't going to ask her out because I wasn't going to be known forever as the guy the pastor shot down or, worse, dumped."

Hillman-McDonnough thought that might be the case and invited him for an early dinner at her favorite Spanish restaurant in Brandon.

That was March 2003.

The rest is history. In October 2003, they tied the knot.

A picture of the two taken through the window of a car as they pulled away after the ceremony sits framed on the side table in the den.

"Boy, I remember thinking recently that this house would have been way too big for one person," Hillman-McDonnough says. "But it was all part of the plan."

The plan, remember?

That divine plan didn't miss a beat. Now the newlyweds have a family of five temporarily living with them: a single mother and her four children, ages 16, 13, 10 and 8. The family, whose mobile home was destroyed in September during Hurricane Frances, goes to Hillman-McDonnough's church.

The pastor invited them to stay with her.

"There were so many people in need it was the right thing to do," she says. "We have this big house, and we really get to use it. What a blessing."

The family, which will move out in February into its own home, has been living mostly in the upstairs bonus room and guest rooms. Adjusting to living with a big family has been part of the fun for the couple who would someday like to adopt children. Even the occasional teenage mess merits a laugh.

"Not bad for a 16-year-old boy," Hillman-McDonnough says jokingly as she peeks at a pile of clothes balled on the shower floor.

Her congregation has gotten into the act, helping decorate the house in a deep, harvest palette of forest green, gold, silver and burgundy. One member _ also a good friend _ University of South Florida professor Carol MacKinnon-Lewis, lent her keen design abilities, offering advice on framing the bathroom mirrors (a good-looking touch) to arranging plants, pots and baskets over the kitchen cabinets.

MacKinnon-Lewis' mother-in-law, Joyce Lewis, a florist in Greensboro, N.C., donated all of the silk floral arrangements.

Even church members unable to come to the house in Seven Oaks have done their part. In her office hangs a painting of a country church by a young man serving time in a Florida prison.

His family attends the church.

"A wedding gift," she says softly.

Born in Dade City and raised in Tampa, Hillman-McDonnough taught for years at Christian and public schools and worked as an associate pastor at other churches around the Tampa Bay area. She started her own church in 1998 in a small, rented reception hall across from USF on Fowler Avenue.

Two years ago, her 200-member congregation moved to its own building at 4902 Busch Blvd. in North Tampa. Hillman-McDonnough's sermons can be heard every day about 11:30 a.m. on WTIS-AM 1110.

Her flock is a multiracial patchwork of professionals, university professors, business owners, single moms, families and working people.

The job consumes every minute of her days: When she and her husband aren't visiting his children and grandchildren in Minnesota, she's typically working.

"I don't do a lot in my spare time because I don't have a lot of spare time," she says.

But the couple always manage to keep Friday night open as date night, an evening they usually spend at a beachfront restaurant such as the Hurricane on Pass-a-Grille beach.

"We love walking on the beach," she says.

Grouper sandwiches, a stroll in the waves, what more could a person ask for?

"I waited a long time to get married," she says. "But I'm glad I waited because I found the right one."

The same goes for the house.

"We're here to stay," she says. "We have no plans to move for a long, long time."

Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at ebettendorfhotmail.com. My House profiles the people behind Pasco County's housing boom.

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