LAKEWOOD RANCH — The Rev. Chip Bennett may be the only pastor in town with a decades-old Van Halen record on his bookshelf and three electric guitars hanging behind his desk.
The theology books lining two walls of his new office only account for 20% — or less — of his collection. He jokingly calls himself “the pastor of disaster.”
As he puts it, he doesn’t fit the “mold” of a traditional pastor.
Three years ago, he never dreamed he’d be preaching again, after having left the ministry because of frustration about denominational politics.
But Bennett, the pastor of Grace Community Church, is soaking in his role and newest venture, as he leads the 2-year-old church into new territory — Lakewood Ranch.
“I’ve realized I’m wired to do what I’m doing,” Bennett said.
After nearly two months readying part of an office building in the Lakewood Ranch Corporate Park for services, Grace celebrated its grand opening March 3. Bennett is excited to see what happens next and is getting acclimated to the church’s new home.
He hopes East County families will find the church to be refreshing and welcoming, particularly to individuals who may have been hurt by experiences at churches.
Bennett knows well that sense of disillusionment.
“I, like many ministers, got disenfranchised with the political part of church work,” Bennett said. “I got to the point (where) I stepped out of ministry.”
Bennett didn’t lose faith, but he never intended to go back.
When people asked if Bennett would go back into the ministry, he answered honestly; it would happen only “when God parts the Red Sea for me,” he said.
Simply put, it would take a miracle, of sorts.
Bennett got into the car industry by working at a Land Rover dealership in Tampa. Then, he moved eight years ago to Sarasota to manage a different dealership.
In 2010, the owner of the dealership — who knew Bennett’s pastoral background — approached Bennett with an odd idea: to buy a church.
“That was my ‘Red Sea moment,’” Bennett said. “That’s how Grace Community Church really got started.”
The owner purchased the former Youth for Christ building in Sarasota. Bennett began preaching on Sunday mornings. Bennett was counseling churchgoers, raising seven children with his wife, Mindy, and working on his doctorate in theology, all while managing the dealership full time.
“We grew (as a church) in spite of me never being there, except to preach,” Bennett said. “I really was an absentee (pastor).
“I was wearing out,” he said. “That’s when (the church’s business administrator) said we needed to start thinking about relocating so we could grow, and I could do this full time.”
Grace sold its church building in Sarasota in late 2012 and found a new home in the Lakewood Ranch Corporate Park.
“I knew Lakewood Ranch is where we wanted to come,” Bennett said of why the church chose the location. “We followed the biblical ways of Paul. He went to the cities. Lakewood Ranch is the ninth fastest-growing (community) in the country. We wanted to go where people were going.”
Grace invested monies from the sale of its building into building out the Corporate Park space; it focused on making the facility appealing to children and youth with fun colors and themes on the walls and solid programming.
Bennett said he hopes to see churchgoers grow spiritually, which leads to church growth. He also wants to let people know they don’t have to look or act perfectly to have a relationship with God or attend church.
“I believe God meets us all where we’re at,” Bennett said. “We want people who would never step into a church or who have been bruised by the church (to feel welcome).”
Bennett envisions Grace will stay at its new location for about three years, before purchasing and building on a permanent site.
Contact Pam Eubanks at email@example.com.
GRACE COMMUNITY CHURCH
Where: 6932 Professional Parkway, Lakewood Ranch
When: Services are held at 9 and 11 a.m. Sundays and 7 p.m. Wednesdays. Dress is casual.