Born in Knoxville, Tenn., and raised in the South, Don Carlton, 57, wanted to be a pastor since he was 16 years old.
"I got a pretty dramatic call in a Southern Baptist church in Atlanta, Ga., during a revival," he said. "And I was licensed to preach by that church when I was 18."
Carlton is now in his 34th year in the ministry and he and Samantha Jesse are the two new pastors at Centreville United Methodist Church. As for the previous pair, Bert Sikkelee and Tim Tate, Sikkelee retired and Tate's leading a church in Williamsburg.
Carlton graduated from Wake Forest University in 1968 with a bachelors in religion. He attended Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., changing his denomination to Methodist after his second year.
He graduated from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. in 1971 with a masters of divinity. While there, he was associate pastor at Fairfax United Methodist Church. Afterward, he served churches all over Virginia — Roanoke, Shenandoah Valley, the Tidewater area and Northern Virginia — as a pastor.
At CUMC, it doesn't bother Carlton, a bit, to step in after two long-term ministers. "Congregations become accustomed to leadership and personalities," he explained. "But if the church is doing well, I'd much rather follow in a church that has good, strong pastors, than one that hasn't."
He said the transition here was handled wonderfully. "The congregation welcomed us in a very gracious and warm way," said Carlton. "It was a tribute to both Bert and Tim, as well as to the congregation."
He described the congregation of 2,800 members as "dynamic" in many ways. "Its outreach to the Centreville community and to the region — and internationally with its mission teams — is exemplary," he said. "It's conscious of the church being universal in nature."
Carlton said the things he enjoys most are pastoral care and preaching. "They really ground me in my ministry," he said. "The more you're able to serve others, the more you're present in their lives and are able to know their needs. And those needs are in your heart and mind as you prepare sermons and teach."
Now at the turn of the century, he believes the church is facing unique challenges — which are the themes he's been putting forth, the past 10 years. For example, he asked, "How does the church remain relevant in a new age? I've been asking church leadership and members to join me in that quest of helping the church be all it can be for a new age."
CARLTON ALSO stresses that he's not a lectionary preacher, organizing his preaching week according to an assigned text on a three-year cycle. "I create my own preaching schedule," he said. "And visitation and pastoral care allow me to have a pulse of the congregation — what are those issues stirring in people's lives? That forms the basis of my sermon preparation."
Indeed, said church member Kathryn Rudkin, "He's tried to visit every member of the congregation in an effort to get to know them. People have responded very well [to both new pastors]. Don is terrific — very warm — and we're very fortunate to have them both. We were sad when Bert and Tim left, but we got such good replacements."
They also got another church family. Carlton and his wife Amy have been married 33 years and have two grown children. Their son Mark is an attorney in Richmond, and daughter Laura works for DuPont in Waynesboro, Va.
After 9/11, said Carlton, people changed in how they viewed the world. "That's a part of culture that's being assimilated into ourselves — an uncertainty about our world — and a lot of our physical security has been challenged, perhaps as never before," he said. "The church is one of those places where people come to find that word of security and permanence."
He's still forming long-range plans but, by spring, he hopes to bring together a three-year emphasis on programs and ministries in Centreville. He wants church members to look within themselves and ask who they are and why they're here.
Carlton said the toughest part of his job is "meeting the high expectations of people. The church simply has to be involved in excellence — and growing and maintaining excellence in ministry, programming, missions and the whole scope of the church's life is difficult."
BUT HE FINDS great satisfaction in seeing transformations take place in people's lives. "That can happen in counseling, service, worship and education," he said. "Transformation is exciting for me."
Similarly the church members are pleased with the transformations brought by their two, new ministers. "They're both wonderful — a breath of fresh air," said Ken Huntsman. "They both keep us riveted in our seats. We love our new pastors and the changes they're bringing with them."
While noting that she "loved Bert and Tim," member Maureen Cook called Jesse and Carlton a wonderful team. "Don's a mature, senior pastor who has an absolute gift for oratory. He's a very dynamic, powerful and passionate speaker."
Long-time member Nancy Rowland agreed. "I think they're great. They both come to this church with gifts. And Don is a very skilled preacher, using both story and Scripture, plus practical application, in sharing God's word."