The congregation of Northminster Presbyterian Church wanted the Rev. Christopher C. Carlson for their pastor so much they sent a team to brave the Minnesota winter in January.
It was worth it, says Sally Kirby, chair of the pastor nominating committee.
What they saw was an insightful and inspirational preacher. The committee watched Carlson preach in person, watched him on webcasts, and watched him on tape, Kirby says.
They came away with the belief that Carlson could help members grow in their spirituality, and that he would help the church at 3131 61st St., Sarasota, just south of University Parkway.
Carlson, now in his mid-50s, has pastored six churches since he was ordained in 1983, ranging from the very small to the very large.
He still has the physical look of a defensive tackle, which he was for the University of Pennsylvania football team, until a knee injury cut his athletic career short.
And he has the bearing of a military officer, which he has been since 1987, serving as a U.S. Army Reserve chaplain.
He has been mobilized three times during his career, including for Desert Storm, Enduring Freedom, and to Afghanistan in 2008-09.
Despite his imposing presence, church members find him approachable, down-home and comforting, Kirby says.
Carlson was born in Memphis, and grew up in Atlanta.
He was as surprised as anyone when an Ivy League school recruited him, a through and through southern boy, for the football team.
Not particularly religious at the time, he rented a home in a frat house. Although not a fraternity member, he took readily to the party lifestyle.
Until he got his knee hurt and spent the night in the hospital.
When he returned to the frat house the next day, he discovered there had been a fire, and everyone suspected the cause was frat boy hijinks.
But Carlson learned the fire had started from his own malfunctioning electric blanket that he had failed to turn off.
“It’s part of my salvation experience,” he says.
That knee injury, Carlson believes, might have saved his life by taking him out of the room when his bed and most of his possessions were destroyed.
“I thought God had saved my life,” he said. “I took a leave of absence to get my head together, and a lot of good things began to happen to me.”
He transferred to Duke, met his future wife, Cindy, got involved with a local church, and began to feel the call to the ministry.
After graduating cum laude -- a surprise for a previously indifferent student -- he went right into the seminary.
He married Cindy, and both worked during seminary and welcomed the first of three daughters, Nancy, who would be followed by Cathleen and Melissa.
He took on his first church at 28 as associate pastor in Greensboro, N.C.
When he joined the Army Reserve as a chaplain, he found the experience nourishing to his own spirituality, as well as rewarding for the comfort and help he has been able to render to men and women in uniform in difficult times.
His deployment to Afghanistan came in the midst of a seven-year stint as senior pastor in Minnesota.
“I began to believe God was saying I should move on,” he said.
And with his in-laws living in Venice, Carlson was open to a move to Bradenton-Sarasota.
He was attracted to the 225-member Northminster congregation, drawn from Manatee and Sarasota, by the people and their vision.
Northminster was organized in 1958, when what is now University Parkway was still a dirt road, and that part of Manatee-Sarasota was true country.
The congregation is preparing to break ground for a new sanctuary in July on its six-acre campus.
The congregation is mostly over 65, and that’s where Carlson will place his early focus.
“Preaching Christ and helping people grow in their relationship with Christ” is how Carlson describes his thrust at the pulpit.
“We are a very Christ-centered church. Part of that is going out and helping people who are hungry and homeless. Part of our mission is to do missions.”
James A. Jones Jr., East Manatee editor, can be contacted at 745-7021.
IF YOU GO
What: Northminster Presbyterian Church
Where: 3131 61st St., Sarasota
Services: 10 a.m. Sunday
Pastor: Rev. Christopher C. Carlson
Information: (941) 355-4729; www.npcsarasota.com