Forty Years of Grace
by Pastor Bob Burridge 1997

Grace in the 50's
A Bible Presbyterian candidate for the ministry named William Albany came to St. Petersburg in October 1957 and started working with a couple from Lakeland to begin a Bible Presbyterian Church in the St. Petersburg area. They worked under the Carolina Presbytery.

By February of 1958 the group began meeting at the D & D Missionary Homes under the direction of Mr. Thomas Waldecker. They looked carefully to find an effective area for ministry in Pinellas County and, by November, they settled on the Skyview Development in the Pinellas Park region. On the 13th of that month Rev. Thomas Waldecker was ordained to serve as the founding pastor.

In December Rev. Jay E. Adams, General Secretary of National Missions visited them to help select a location for building a place of worship, and to organize officially into a mission church.

At a meeting in the home of Miss Elizabeth Shoemaker the new congregation met to constitute itself officially and to adopt the name Grace Presbyterian Church.

Rev. Adams helped them select a property on 58th Street where 110th Avenue North intersected. It was planned at that time that US 19 would likely use that as the main North-South road connecting St. Petersburg with Clearwater. Four lots were purchased with an option on a fifth. A loan was received from National Missions in the amount of $1,300 to purchase the four lots. The first public baptisms took place on December 28th placing the sign of the covenant upon four believers.

1959 began with the church's first Lord's Supper being served on the 4th of January. By March, 18 charter members were officially received. In May the church voted to purchase the remaining fifth lot bringing the total acreage to 1.5.

That December the plans were finalized to move their meeting location to the Skyview Recreation Building and a new pulpit was custom built and donated by Mr. and Mrs. Payerl. That pulpit is kept today in the library of the church in memory of those historic early days. The first church piano was donated by Mr. and Mrs. Allen.

Grace in the '60's
The 60's began with the first services being held at the Skyview building on January 24th. As the year progressed plans were made to raise $15,000 to begin work on a building at their future location on 58th Street. By February of 1961 Pierce Land Clearing Co. was contracted to begin clearing the property. In March additional lots were purchased expanding the land area.

In 1961 a farewell party was held for Walter and Mary Cross who were returning for service in Chile. They had served there from 1949 to 1956. While in the states they had been ministering to migrant workers here in Florida.

A congregation meeting was held on January 15th, 1964 electing the church's first elders: James Barbee and Clyde Schrum. Elder Schrum was elected as the first Clerk of Session. At that same meeting the church voted to be a part of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church as the organization of American Presbyterian denominations were going through changes. In 1965 that group completed its merger with the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America General Synod to form the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod.

In January 1966 Walter Scott, James McGee and James Fagan were elected to become the church's first deacons.

In God's providence Pinellas County decided to route US-19 toward the Southeast to connect with 34th Street rather than using the 58th Street corridor. This left the church property in a somewhat isolated and quiet neighborhood.

Grace in the 70's
In January of 1972 Rev. Paul Taylor became the pastor of the church ministering for almost a year and a half. During that time air conditioning was added to the church building and its first phone line was installed.

When Rev. Taylor left, the pulpit was filled by Mr. Bob Burridge who had just graduated from Seminary. While he taught full time at Skycrest Christian School, the church searched for its next pastor. By March of 1964 Rev. George Birchler was installed to lead the congregation. The layout of the church interior was changed and remodeled into its present configuration to create a better worship area and more classroom space.

Grace in the 80's
In 1981 Pastor Birchler left and Pastor Joe Easterling was installed. The following year the church welcomed Walter and Mary Cross back to the group as they retired from their years of missionary service. In September of 1982 the congregation voted to adopt the PCA constitution as the Reformed Presbyterian Church Evangelical Synod was received into the Presbyterian Church in America.

In 1985 the sanctuary seating was changed from wooden pews to the present chairs to allow for an increased number of worshippers. The session established three committees in 1986 to help share the increasing responsibilities of ministry. The committees were charged with the work of Christian Education, Youth and Activities, and Missions and Evangelism. In June of 1986 Pastor Easterling left to take another charge and Mr. Bob Burridge, who was now a ruling elder and candidate for the ministry under the Central Florida Presbytery, again became the stated supply preacher. During this time the church began recording its morning sermons, a computer was added for the pastor's use and a maintenance shed was added to the property.

In June of 1987 Pastor Burridge was ordained and installed as the church's fifth pastor. The first copy machine was purchased and an in-house printing ministry was started to produce the bulletins and various booklets authored by the pastor for use by the congregation. A Worship committee was established to help the pastor with bulletin preparations and to help with worship music.

In 1988 the church held a 30th anniversary dinner to commemorate its first three decades. Founding Pastor Tom Waldecker spoke and Pinellas Park Mayor Cecil Bradbury presented the church with a certificate of commemoration from the city.

In the last years of the 80's the church offered some special programs which included; special speaker Dr. John Skilton, seminars in education for Sunday School workers, the showing of the Francis Schaeffer film series How Shall We Then Live?, and some Moody Science films. Pastor Burridge was the guest of Dr. James Kennedy on his radio program to discuss his booklet The Truth About Christmas. That program has been rebroadcast nationally a number of times seasonally.

Grace in the 90's
The 90's brought some changes. In 1990 a few families, who had been attracted by public programs of the church, did not agree with the stated beliefs and goals of Presbyterianism and sadly left to find churches more in agreement with their own ideas and practices. This caused a reorganization of church ministries but never left the leaders with any uncertainty of the biblical soundness of their stand.

This same year Central Florida Presbytery divided and the Southwest Florida Presbytery was formed. Pastor Burridge was elected to serve as the first year's moderator for 1991. He has since served two other one-year terms as moderator and between moderatorships served several terms as chairman of the Minister and His Work committee which advises churches with pastoral matters and examines all pastors entering our presbytery.

In 1991 Pastor Soeng Je Kim was called as Assistant Pastor to serve a Korean mission work that began meeting in the Grace Presbyterian facilities. That work was able to reach several Koran families before Pastor Kim was recalled to Korea due to immigration problems.

In the 90's the church family settled into having a monthly church fellowship time organized primarily by the Women In the Church (WIC). They also worked very closely with the local Pregnancy Center taking part in its fund raising activities, volunteering at the center and having the pastor serve on the board of directors over which he served a term as chairman of the board.

In 1992 the fellowship area was remodeled and later carpeted. A new sign was placed on the property with a flower box to improve the church's public presentation.

In the mid 90's Dr. Skilton was again invited to speak and Dr. Jay E. Adams presented a question and answer time about Christian counseling. An operations handbook was produced by the session to help direct its work toward the primary goals previously adopted. A playground was added for the children and the kitchen and nursery areas were remodeled.

The mid 90's also saw the birth of The Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies. It began with classes on Wednesday nights to provide a study showing the biblical foundations for the church's convictions. It was oriented for those interested in a more in-depth study than the regular worship services and Sunday School classes are able to offer. The study was arranged around the contents of the Westminster Confession of Faith.

In these latter years of the 90's, as the fourth decade of Grace Presbyterian drew to a close, the church suffered another setback as the economy of Pinellas County changed and several leading families were transferred out of the area due to job transfers and promotions. Again the session had to adjust the ministries to continue to provide all that God calls a church to do for its communing families. Hard challenges have always brought deeper commitments and have in many ways expanded the outreach of the church, though sometimes in ways not expected.

A Presbyterian Men's Training Program was begun by the pastor which continues to be used in preparing men for leadership in the home, church and community. It has been used as part of a training program for new groups of church leaders.

The Genevan Institute has drawn some new members into the fellowship of Grace, brought in several winter visitors, and has helped prepare some men for the ministry. There are now students attending who are candidates for the ministry and licentiates in the Southwest Florida Presbytery.

The Institute outreach became world wide with the introduction of a website at which continually draws hundreds of visitors from all over the world. It distributes articles on biblical issues into places where little true Christian education is available. Through this ministry, several of the pastor's booklets, prepared for this congregation in the past, are being distributed and used in churches all around the world. A chat channel was established on the DALnet system which is open for fellowship on a continual basis. The chat channel is called #Calvin'sCorner. It is attended on Sunday nights for live internet fellowship and Bible discussion.

Grace in the Years to Come
Grace Presbyterian is a small church but it has had a vigorous outreach and has impacted the world greatly. For this God is to be thanked and praised. As the new millennium approaches new challenges and opportunities are sure to arise. Please pray for the continued work of this congregation and its leaders as it stands boldly before a watching world holding forth the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Pray for the families that make up Grace Presbyterian Church. The children are the future of this work. Some who are parents in the congregation now were once the children of the church. God's grace has brought this work to this point in time and has placed it where it can shine brightly. But God has always worked by means of the prayers of his saints who love him dearly and who work sacrificially to serve their King according to the ways in his Sacred Word.

Grace is a wonderful name for a church. As the hymn writer John Newton wrote in 1779,
  'Tis grace has brought me safe thus far,
  and grace will lead me home.

To be sure -- this has been a work of God's Amazing Grace!

Author's note: This history was reconstructed from what information was available in the church files. It is mostly taken from session records, newspaper clippings, denominational magazine notices, collections of church news letters and bulletins. Some periods were hard to fill in. This does not mean that little was done during those times. It just reflects what was placed in the records available to this author.

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