SAVANNAH, Ga. - The Rev. Da'Henri R. Thurmond had heard of the massive St. Paul Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Savannah when he was offered the job of senior pastor.
The Augusta native had heard of its large membership, soup kitchen, shelters for the homeless and drug addicts and private schools.
But Thurmond had never actually visited the historic African-American church. And he didn't want to.
Before accepting the job, he just wanted to pray about it.
"It was just that I didn't want to be influenced by what I saw," Thurmond said. "The Bible talks about man looking at the exterior, but the Lord looks in our hearts. I wanted to be led by what the Lord wanted me to do."
In July, Thurmond became the new pastor of St. Paul.
With an estimated 5,000 members, the church stands as one of the largest in Savannah and as the largest church in the 800,000-member Christian Methodist Episcopal denomination.
Technically, St. Paul's is a "megachurch," according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. The group manages a database of Protestant churches with more than 2,000 weekly attendees with a "charismatic, authoritative senior minister" and a "multitude of social and outreach ministries."
"I don't see us as a megachurch," Thurmond said. "I think we're a church with an opportunity for mega ministry."
Thurmond replaced the Rev. Henry Delaney Jr., who retired in July, two years after passing the mandatory retirement age of 74 for CME pastors.
In his nearly 20 years at St. Paul, Delaney transformed the church from a weekly worship home for 216 members to a massive outreach to the poor involving thousands of people and ownership of more than $5 million worth of downtown property.
The soup kitchen distributes hot meals and groceries from American's Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia to roughly 125 people a day, six days a week.
St. Paul's also created two substance abuse recovery centers, Hallelujah House, for men and the Chestina House for women; a technical training program; St. Paul Academy for Boys and St. Paul Academy for Girls.
When it comes to social service agencies, St. Paul CME has emerged as a major local player next to the Salvation Army, Union Mission, Social Apostolate, the Old Savannah City Mission and Inner City Night Shelter.
"They're one of the larger ones," said Second Harvest executive director Mary Jane Crouch. "They're just a local church that has seized their mission and seized what they need to do to help the community on an ongoing basis."
Finding a successor for Delaney wasn't easy, said Bishop Othal H. Lakey, head of the 6th District, which encompasses 292 congregations in the state.
"St. Paul is very unusual for almost any church, especially an African-American church," Lakey said. "It's not easy to find a pastor who will come in with an open mind and heart to what has gone on before."
Delaney and Lakey saw potential in Thurmond, then pastor of a small congregation in Augusta.
Known for his success as a businessman, administrator and preacher, Thurmond had led Rock of Ages CME Church out of a slump, boosting membership and relaunching the vacation Bible school program.
While serving as Rock of Ages' pastor, Thurmond worked full time as a respiratory therapist and later as a pharmaceutical sales representative.
"He seemed well fit to make the transition," Delaney said.
In 2008, Lakey appointed Thurmond as pastor-in-charge of St. Paul CME and then as senior pastor when Delaney retired in July.
Member and trustee Daniel Brown admits members have felt some natural anxiety over Delaney's retirement.
"Before Delaney, the average pastor probably stayed two or three years," Brown said.
But many are "excited" to see Thurmond build on Delaney's work.
"We've done a good job helping the poor and the drug users, but have we really reached out to help the man who's dealing with everyday life, everyday pressures of life?" Brown said.
"I think Rev. Thurmond is going to put us in touch with that."
THE CME CHURCH
Through the first half of the 19th century, Southern blacks and whites worshipped in the same churches. However, black members were usually restricted to balconies or back pews.
After the Civil War, African Americans created self-governing denominations such as the National Baptist Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.
The Southern Methodists formed the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church (CME) in 1870.
The church changed its name to the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in 1954.
While the polity and theology are similar to their Methodist brethren, the worship style resembles that of other black mainline churches.
Sources: "From Mounds to Megachurches: Georgia's Religious Heritage," David S. Williams, University of Georgia Press, 2008; georgiaencyclopedia.org; The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church Web site, www.c-m-e.org.
St. Paul CME Timeline
1871: Trinity Church on Telfair Square provides a building at 501-3 Maple St. for the creation of a church for black Methodists.
1910: A new building is erected at 711-713 West Broad St. (now Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard).
1964: The former Calvary Baptist Temple (now Calvary of Savannah) and surrounding property at Barnard and West 32nd streets was purchased for $150,000. At the time, it was one of the largest transactions in the denomination's history.
1989: Bishop Joseph C. Coles appoints Rev. Henry Delaney Jr. as pastor. Membership totaled 216.
2009: Delaney retires having established a massive social ministry, private school and church membership of an estimated 5,000.
Source: St. Paul CME Church