Driving up the entrance to Peace Presbyterian Church in a quietly secluded area of East Manatee County, a clean, stately building surrounded by a lake and lush landscaping emotes a feeling of peace.
Whether it emanates from the building, which once housed a ministry that serviced the blind, to the simple-yet-cozy chapel that the congregation has outgrown, to the pastor who founded the church in 2006 with her husband, Peace Presbyterian Church is a special place that embraces relationships, family, tolerance of opinions, community and above all, love.
The church is housed in a 15,000- square-foot building on 25 tranquil acres along State Road 64 East, past Lakewood Ranch on property once owned by Tropicana founder Anthony T. Rossi, who purchased the building for religious pursuits. After starting as a small worship group that met at State College of Florida and then moved to the Manatee Association of Realtors headquarters in Lake
wood Ranch, Peace Presbyterian Church settled in its current East Manatee location and has steadily grown to 285 members from all walks of life.
Next year will be an exciting time for Peace Church, as plans are under way to begin construction of a new $1.5 million, 400-seat sanctuary next to the current building, which will help accommodate church members who are now squeezed into the small chapel.
"We treasure authentic relationships. What people really want is to know, be known and be loved. If you come and find the friendship we all believe in but don't often discover, that's very important," said the Rev. Elizabeth M. Deibert, founder and pastor of Peace Presbyterian Church, who leads with the elders of the church's governing body.
Deibert, who grew up in a small town in North Carolina where close relationships were valued, said she got her calling to become an ordained minister when she was in college and studying music. She eventually married, had a family, and started her first church in Montgomery, Ala., with her husband ,Richard, who is also an ordained minister and a hospice physician. The couple, whose children are grown with the exception of a son who attends Lakewood Ranch High School, moved to Southwest Florida in 2005, and shortly afterward, started Peace Presbyterian. The church has attracted members of all ages and backgrounds, including a growing number of families because the church places high value on youth participation through creative approaches to Sunday School, active fellowship youth groups, and a family ministry.
"Our services are rooted in tradition but they are relevant to modern culture, and not formal. We actually encourage conversation. I'll ask a question during my sermon and oftentimes, members will respond. That's just the sort of give-and-take we have," said Deibert, who has been known to play a trumpet and piano during Sunday services where traditional communion is served and open confession is performed for God's recognition and healing.
"Elizabeth is a big part of the reason why I am here with my family. She has a certain enthusiasm and feel for people that's hard to achieve," said David Thornton, a Bradenton lawyer whose wife discovered the church a few years ago, after they adopted three children. Thornton, who was never a regular churchgoer growing up, volunteers with the youth group and said his experience at Peace Presbyterian Church is unique.
"This church seems to be a notch above what I experienced in the past. My wife had the goal of wanting our children to experience religion and I was skeptical at first. There's a certain acceptance of people's viewpoints. We all have our faults, but here we acknowledge them and accept them. That's what I feel," said Thornton, who said he enjoys Deibert's sermons because they are relevant to everyday life, positive and rooted in scripture.
"We welcome all people and we do not let social issues dominate our life together. We have careful conversations devoid of negative energy and we're willing to listen to differences of opinions and learn from one another," Deibert said about the feeling of acceptance the church carefully nurtures.
Kathryn Moschella, Lakewood Ranch reporter can be reached at 941-745-7010. Follow her on Twitter @MoschellaHerald.