BRADENTON -- It had been seven years since the Rev. India Dennis stepped foot inside Palma Sola Presbyterian Church.
Yet when she heard the congregation was once again looking for a full-time pastor, something called her back to Bradenton.
"I just really wanted to be back here with these people that I served and loved and worked with," she said. "I sent in my resumé, and the Lord opened the door. I'm really thrilled to be back."
Dennis, 60, was recently named pastor of the church at Third Avenue West, reuniting her with a congregation she served as an associate pastor from 2000-07.
"The church went through a lot of turmoil during my time as associate pastor," Dennis said. "There was a lot of conflict when the pastor left in 2002, and the next few years, they had interim pastors. And I was there a lot of times by myself, even though I was the associate."
So Dennis headed to South Carolina, where she volunteered at a number of churches before being named pastor at Eastminster Presbyterian Church in Simpsonville. She served there for 1 1/2 years before returning to Bradenton, where she and her husband of nearly 38 years, Ron, and son, Robert, 23, now rent a house.
"It's five minutes from the church," she said. "So it's convenient, and it's close to the beach. So I can get out to the beach any time I want, too."
Thomas Sprenger, the church's pastor nominating committee chairman, said Dennis beat out more than 120 applicants for the position leading a congregation of about 200. The search lasted more than 18 months, he said.
"She was the one to bring this church back to where it used to be," Sprenger said. "She has the
passion and she has the enthusiasm, and the interest in the community."
Dennis has a master's degree in French and worked as a French teacher for six years. She stayed home to take care of her two boys -- the family's oldest son, David, 27, now lives in California -- and get involved with churches around the Philadelphia area.
"I started teaching the scriptures and working in the educational side of the church," Dennis said. "Then in 1996, in a church just outside Philly, I was teaching a lesson on discerning God's will. And as I was teaching, I had the sense that God was calling me to Princeton seminary."
So the family sold their house in Philadelphia and moved to Princeton, N.J., where Dennis completed her Master of Divinity in 2000 thanks in part to her French studies, which she said made learning Hebrew and Greek much easier.
"Then Palma Sola kind of popped up," Dennis said. "God just called us down here, and I loved serving the congregation as the associate pastor."
The Dennis family knows what it's like to live in other parts of the country -- Dennis was raised in Georgia, and the family has also lived in Tennessee, New Jersey and South Carolina. Bradenton, however, has always felt like home, she said.
"We love the beaches, the weather," she said, "and the lifestyle really suits us."
As for her job, Dennis hopes to help reconnect her church with the community.
"I want to get to know the congregation -- people are in a different place seven years later," she said. "I want to start talking to them and leaders in the community, and painting a fresh vision of how Palma Sola can serve God in the community, and really connecting the church with the community around it.
"What are the passions and gifts that we can use to serve the neighborhood?"