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Georgia native returns to lead Gainesville congregation
New pastor makes changes at St. John Baptist Church
The Rev. Stephen Samuel leads the intercessory prayer Sunday at St. John Baptist Church. The service was the first one at the church for Samuel. - photo by Tom Reed
Despite a gray and overcast sky Sunday morning, the spotlight in St. John Baptist Church shined brightly on the church’s newest member and pastor elect, the Rev. Stephen Samuel.

Samuel led his first official church service on Communion Sunday, the first Sunday of June.

Though it was only his first week, Samuel changed things up a bit, having the church members walk up to the ushers to give offerings and reducing the number of announcements.

The church was more full than usual, said church member and usher Deon Turner.

Turner, a member of St. John for more than 10 years, said the new pastor is "doing great."

"Change is something we need. ... We need leadership, and now we have it."

Another longtime member of St. John, K.D. Graham of Buford, agreed that leadership was something the church needed.

"I think he (Samuel) is a wonderful, spiritual leader that will take St. John to the next level — growing spiritually and growing in membership," Graham said.

Graham said that the transition to a new pastor in the church is tough, but also said "change is always good. We’re all worshipping the same God, and that’s what’s important."

"It’s wonderful to have a permanent pastor," he said.

Before Samuel’s official arrival, the church was led by an interim pastor, the Rev. Arthur Jones.

Jones led the church for about a year after the former pastor of more than 15 years, the Rev. Eugene Green, left for a church in South Carolina.

Samuel was a pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in Trenton, N.J., when a friend informed him of a job opening at a church in Gainesville. Samuel was born and raised in Rome, and his wife was born in Atlanta. After much consideration, they decided to come home.

Samuel always had a knack for public speaking, as his mother was a high school English teacher and the director of many community plays.

"From the earliest that I can remember, I’ve been on stage, so that’s where the artistic side comes in," Samuel said.

He did not decide to become a minister until after high school, when he joined the ministry at age 18.

After high school, he attended Morehouse College as a pre-med student and was looking at law school. He later changed his major to African American Studies and history to become a teacher before deciding to join the ministry full time.

"During those college years, I truly felt the call of God to do ministry full time. My mentors in ministry truly opened up my relationship with God. It wasn’t like I went to bed one night and woke up in the morning and said, ‘I have to do ministry.’ It took a couple of years for me to make the full transformation," Samuel said.

Samuel moved to New Jersey for college and eventually set up a church in Trenton, which he said was very successful and community oriented. He had opportunities to leave his church in New Jersey before, but says he’s very happy with his decision to come to Gainesville.

"With the other opportunities, the timing wasn’t right. With this time, when God opened this door in particular, in my church (Calvary Baptist) everything was well. I looked at the ministry’s growth and thought, ‘OK, I think my time here is done,’" he said.

Samuel said he hopes to pastor one church for the rest of his life and told his church in New Jersey that "the thing that would make me leave Calvary, is if God sends me to Georgia, and they laughed. ... But they were really happy for us, knowing that we wanted to come home."

Samuel spoke throughout the service Sunday about change and how to deal with "transition and the frustration and uncertainty of it. But ... we must always be progressing and evolving and changing."

"I’m sure there were some people today that thought, well that’s not the way we do things, and I get that," said Samuel, who said he realized that conflict within the church is inevitable.

"We will deal with (conflict), not based upon personality, not based upon our opinion, but we will set a standard among us," said Samuel, who bases his standard on the articles of faith of the Baptist church.

Beside the minor changes during the church service, Samuel also plans to continue the church’s community advocacy by addressing any possible issues.

Samuel, whose last service in New Jersey was on Mother’s Day, has only seen a few places in Gainesville, but said it reminds him of home.

Samuel will become senior pastor of St. John in August.

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