MANATEE -- Gasps were heard throughout Emmanuel United Methodist Church during the first service Sunday when the Rev. Charles Rentz informed his congregation that an adored former pastor there was dead.
The Rev. John Bartha, 64, who served at Emmanuel United Methodist during a period of extraordinary growth from 1988 to 1999, died Saturday of a gunshot wound to his chest.
Bartha, who currently was pastor of Ruskin United Methodist Church, accidently shot himself while handling a gun, according to the Tampa Tribune, who attributed the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
His body was found about 4:50 p.m. in the 2000 block of West Ravine Drive in Ruskin and detectives do not suspect foul play.
The Hillsborough County Medical Examiner’s Office will release the official cause of death in several days.
The Rev. Bartha was known to many simply as “Johnny.”
“I was quite choked up during the opening hymn,” said Rentz. “I don’t know anyone who didn’t love Johnny. He was one of the good guys.”
By the second service Sunday, most of the 454 members of Emmanuel at 5115 Cortez Road had heard about Bartha’s death and were stunned, Rentz said.
“I can tell you, he was still very much loved at Emmanuel,” Rentz added. “Under his ministry, we enjoyed incredible growth. He had a young family then and he brought in many young families, probably 100 new people.”
Rentz had no further details about Bartha’s death.
“I don’t know what might have happened,” Rentz said.
Bob Moore was music, youth and visitation pastor under Bartha for eight years.
“He was a classic,” Moore said. “He was his own man. He would always preach in his cowboy boots until he had diabetic problems, then he preached in Sunday shoes. He would tell people, ‘We had three kids, one of each.’ He meant a redhead (Jamie), a brunette (John) and a blonde (Stephanie).
“He preached the gospel and stayed with it,” said Moore, who teaches second grade at Seabreeze Elementary and is now music minister at Calvary Baptist Church in Bradenton. “He had the best jokes and his sermons were classic.”
Bartha had the confident demeanor of a U.S. Marine, which he was in his younger days, Rentz said.
“He was the most unpretentious person I ever met,” Rentz said. “He was salt of the earth and easy to talk to. He would make you comfortable.”
The Kentucky-born Bartha served in Vietnam and, when he came home, put his yearning for church work into action, graduating from Asbury Seminary. That led to a lifelong passion of being a pastor in the Methodist church and raising a family with his wife, Wanda, and his now-adult children.
Bartha left Emmanuel because he was called by the Methodist hierarchy to another church in the Tampa Bay area, Rentz said.
“He was needed elsewhere,” Rentz said.
“While Pastor Bartha was here, we burned the mortgage,” said Gareth Olson, director of music at Emmanuel. “He was well-liked by a lot of folks.”
Donations from congregation members poured in during Bartha’s tenure, enabling the church to purchase a new grand piano and other items, Olson said.
”We received gifts from people who appreciated his ministry,” Olson said.
Rentz recalled teasing Bartha about his popularity, one time calling him “Saint Johnny.”
“He related to common people and common struggles,” Rentz said.
Emmanuel honored Bartha with prayers Sunday; if the family requests, the church will hold a special service, Rentz said.
“I’m sure our people would want to take part in whatever service the family decides to have,” Rentz said.
Richard Dymond, Herald reporter, can be reached at 748-0411, ext. 6686.