“Who am I, O LORD God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far? And this was a small thing in your eyes, O God. You have also spoken of your servant’s house for a great while to come, and have shown me future generations, O LORD God.” – 1 Chronicles 17:16-17
The Palm Harbor Grace Community Church was not always a church grounded in reformed theology. The following is a history of how God in His providence brought the church to where it is today…
In 1979 the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches, under the leadership of Dan Younger, started a work in Clearwater, Florida. Theologically they were generally dispensational, and premillennial in eschatology. A small group of Grace Brethren individuals were meeting in an elementary school but were unable to flourish and eventually disbanded.
Pastor Kurt Miller was asked by the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches to start the work up once again so he and his wife and three daughters moved to Dunedin, Florida from Pennsylvania in 1982. A Bible study was held in their home until meetings began the next year at the Palm Harbor Senior Day Care Center which is now where the Palm Harbor YMCA is located. In 1985 Ann Davis and her family moved from Ohio to the Palm Harbor area and began helping with the work alongside the Millers. She played piano and assisted in developing the musical ministry.
God blessed the original group of Grace Brethren individuals by having a local businessman, “Pop” Stansell of Stansell Trucking, donate five acres of land on Nebraska Ave for the purpose of building a church. Under Pastor Miller the startup group began to grow and God enabled them to obtain a mortgage to build a facility. Construction began in 1987 and in August of 1988 the first worship service took place in the finished building.
In 1989 our current Ruling Elder Ron Brightwell and his wife, Sue, and two children joined the church to act as a lay minister of music. Following after Ron and Sue a number of people from Trinity Baptist Church in Clearwater became a part of the church. Attendance at that time was around two hundred and fifty.
Pastor Miller’s passion had always been Home Missions and he eventually left in 1992 to go to Winona Lake, IN to join the Grace Brethren Home Mission’s team for planting churches. The church then called Grace Brethren Pastor George Traub, and his wife Charlotte and two children, to be the new pastor in 1993. Pastor Traub served the church for two years and in May of 1995 left to take over his retiring pastor father-in-law’s church in Pennsylvania. The pastoral search committee then called Reverend Tom Hickey and family in the fall of 1995. They had been missionaries in Lyon, France for the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches and were returning to the states after their service overseas.
It was under the leadership of Pastor Tom Hickey and our current Ruling Elder Ron Brightwell that the move toward Reformed Christianity began. God had enabled both of these men to understand that to be faithful to the Lord a church must believe in the absolute authority of Scripture and the Divine Sovereignty of God. With this in mind they began to look for a denomination under whose authority they could reside. Seeking to be scriptural in both its government and doctrine they settled on the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). It is a conservative evangelical denomination in the Reformed theological tradition, and primarily amillennial in eschatology. Presbyterian means the local churches are governed by “presbyters”, or elders, who are elected by the people. There are two kinds of elders. Teaching elders are pastors and Ruling elders are ordained laymen. This was the kind of government the New Testament Church enjoyed (Acts 20:17; Titus 1:5-7) and it has been the form followed by the great Reformed and Presbyterian branches of the Church since the days of John Calvin in Europe and John Knox in England and Scotland. The church changed its name from The Palm Harbor Grace Brethren Church to the Grace Covenant Church and became part of the PCA denomination.
Of course, once this decision was made in 1998 to leave the Fellowship of Grace Brethren Churches, it became necessary to pay off the existing mortgage. God in His graciousness and providence blessed the congregation and arranged for an anonymous outsider to loan the church the money needed to pay off this debt.
Unfortunately, the change to Reformed theology wasn’t totally accepted by some of the congregation and they began to leave the church. Pastor Hickey ended his ministry in 2001 due to some personal family issues and the church was once again without a pastor. The church was at a low point at this time but God continued to sustain us.
Sustain us He did and in 2002 God, in His graciousness once again, arranged a merger of two struggling PCA churches. Grace Covenant Church merged with the Safety Harbor Community Church already under the leadership of Pastor John Hopwood. We took the two church names and combined them into one which became the Grace Community Church. The Safety Harbor Community Church sold their building and brought the proceeds to the new combined congregation. Part of those proceeds were used to pay off the anonymous donor who had paid off the original mortgage. Pastor Hopwood served the church for two years.
In 2004 Tom Sandoff, who had been serving as an associate pastor at the Seminole PCA Church in Tampa, FL, was called to serve as our pastor. He was instrumental in directing renovations to the original church building and was with us for two years before retiring from the pastorate.
The pastoral search committee went to work once again and in October of 2006 called Pastor Brent Bergman to be our senior pastor. Brent, his wife Victoria, and son Cortland moved from their home in Sebring, FL. Brent had been serving Covenant Presbyterian Church (PCA) as an associate pastor and youth leader in Sebring, FL. The church offered him the senior pastor role. He was made aware of the difficulties the church was facing financially at the time but stepped out on faith and came to be our pastor placing his trust in the Lord. God blessed that move and within a couple of years we had surpluses in our budget and were able to give those surpluses to the missionaries we supported.
In his ministry at Grace Community Church Pastor Bergman has focused on the Ordinary Means of Grace. These means are the ministry of the Word, the ministering of the Sacraments, and the ministry of Prayer. God’s will for His Church is for the Church to proclaim and defend Truth (John 14: 6) to the world. We are to go and make disciples (Matthew 28: 18-20) and as God’s people we may avail ourselves of the ordinary means of grace in order to grow in grace and manifest the fruit of the Spirit to accomplish this goal for His Glory.
God continued to bless the church with Godly leadership when He directed the paths of Pastor Stephen Jennings and his wife Mary to become members of Grace Community Church. Pastor Jennings had been a PCA pastor for 30 years serving three different churches and just recently retired in 2016. His last pastorate was at the Westminster Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville, FL where he served the Lord for 17 years. At the Congregational Meeting in January of 2017 the church called Pastor Jennings to become our Associate Pastor.
This history of our church demonstrates God’s sovereignty at work. He has been merciful, gracious, and faithful to us through the years. We give Him all the glory.