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First Baptist Church of Guilford's pastor welcomes new challenges

The Rev. Tyrone Jones, who arrived in November, prepares for big move

By Janene Holzberg, Special to The Baltimore Sun

5:53 PM EST, March 3, 2012

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Preaching in a makeshift sanctuary in a school auditorium, the Rev. Tyrone P. Jones IV frequently punctuates the ends of his sentences with a quick "amen."

As only the fifth pastor in the 112-year history of First Baptist Church of Guilford, Jones says he has many reasons to infuse his sermons with such affirmations. Stepping into a job held by a beloved minister for nearly 40 years is one of them. Starting a fresh chapter of church life with his new congregation by shepherding their move into a long-delayed church building is another.

"Thank God we're going in the right direction," said Jones, who assumed his role as senior pastor in November. "Ownership of your own facility is great. No one can dictate any rules, and you're in charge 24/7."

The congregation has been holding its Sunday worship services at Howard High School in nearby Ellicott City since Labor Day. Staff and members look forward to worshipping in their new space, a brick building that will connect to the old church on Oakland Mills Road and quadruple sanctuary seating to 1,700, leaders say. Additional classrooms, a commercial kitchen and increased parking are among the project's new features.

And they will finally put behind them the legal setbacks that had delayed construction several times since the groundbreaking in 2007, along with a lengthy zoning battle that had stalled expansion plans before that.

The new leader will work with his associate pastors and church members to focus on "reaching out beyond the African-American population to minister to all who live here," said Jones, 39.

"First Baptist has held strong for so long," he said. "Now there's a bright light at the end of the tunnel."

Jones, who is commuting weekly from the Bridgeport, Conn., home he shares with his wife and two children until the school year ends, said the church is 95 percent complete.

He estimates that the congregation will be able to occupy the 70,000-square-foot facility by June after receiving a judgment of nearly $1.2 million in early February in Howard County Circuit Court.

After the congregation's first general contractor went out of business before completing construction of the new church, First Baptist's costs rose when a new contractor had to be brought in. A jury ruled that the church shouldn't have been charged additional money since it held a performance bond with Fidelity and Deposit Co. of Maryland, according to the church's attorneys.

Even before its construction woes, the church had endured a seven-year zoning dispute with neighbors who opposed expansion plans. That conflict was finally resolved when the zoning of the church's property was changed in the 2004 countywide comprehensive rezoning plan, which remains in effect.

Deacon Wendell Stone, who served as facilitator of the church's pulpit search committee, said the congregation has been waiting a long time for the new church.

"This is our former pastor's dream come true," she said, referring to the Rev. John L. Wright, who served First Baptist as senior pastor from 1972 until his death Jan. 28, 2010. "This is what we've prayed for, and it's given us a new lease on life."

The new sanctuary design is "just beautiful," she said. "Just driving around the building gives us an idea of what we can expect inside."

The church had outgrown its previous building, which opened in 1981, because seating capacity was limited to 400, Stone said. That 10,000-square-foot building will be renovated for use as a chapel and child care facility. Site work and installation of pews are all that remain before the new building can be put into service, she said.

Stone said Jones was chosen from among 100 applicants nationwide for his potential to "lead a growing church to a new level." The search committee had first narrowed the pool to eight and then cut it to two by last August; church members then voted by secret ballot.

"We expect him to speak out, just as Reverend Wright did," she said, referring to Wright's well-known penchant for social and political activism. "Columbia has a rich history, and we've all been in this together. Pastor Jones will be forging new relationships."

Jones, who said there are 2,000 names on the church's rolls, said the new sanctuary will give First Baptist room to grow again.

"I did a lot of great work [at his former church], but I had reached a ceiling there," Jones said of the search that led him to First Baptist. "Sometimes you just get comfortable, and there's no ministry challenge left."

But it wasn't just the idea of leading a church with potential to grow in numbers that drew him to apply; he was strongly attracted to the opportunity to "put forward a mind-set of inclusivity," he said.

"Reverend Wright was a champion for civil rights and the African-American community, which I also will be," he said. "But I'm looking to reach out on a wider scale" to the community at large, including new housing complexes near the church.

"The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has said that Sunday morning at 11 a.m. is the most segregated hour of the week," he said. "But there's not going to be a segregated heaven. We are all children of God."

Calling himself "a big proponent of evangelism," he said the church will begin passing out tracts in the community and leaving fliers at neighboring homes to encourage residents to visit and consider joining. "We'll be marketing ourselves as a church open to diversity, though we're never going to deny our history," he said. "We'll be standing on the shoulders of those who came before us."

Jones, who earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at Howard and Princeton universities, respectively, said he will draw on his community-based background to take in new members "in a radius around the church."

He is currently pursuing his doctorate in ministry at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, N.Y., his wife, Elizabeth, earned a doctorate in pastoral care and counseling from Hebrew Union College, also in New York.

"It's like two for the price of one," he said with a grin. "We're definitely looking to work together, and she'll weave into the church after we fully move here in June.

"We're going to reinvigorate the current congregation to get involved by building up the core and reaching out," he said.