When Harold R. Bowman joined the Glen Burnie Church of God 25 years ago, he was pastor, piano player and choir for the 37-member congregation.
His church, now in Severn and renamed the Heritage Church of God, has grown into one of the largest in the county, with more than 1,000 members. It also is the second largest Church of God congregation in the Maryland, Delaware and Virginia region.
Mr. Bowman has 11 ministers working for him, a 35-piece orchestra and five choirs.
"That's what makes a great church. It's not me," said the $H 56-year-old pastor, who this month marks his silver anniversary at the church. "Sure, I sit behind a desk and set the programs in motion, but I can't do it by myself."
That may be the preacher's belief, but congregation members credit him with the church's growth. "He preaches the word, lives the word, and I think it's paid off," said Joseph P. Jewell, 74, who has been with the church since Mr. Bowman delivered his first sermon in 1970 on the second Sunday in September.
The minister said there is no secret to attracting parishioners, just hard work and doing what God would do: reach out to everyone.
A year ago when a deaf man attended a service and had trouble reading lips, Mr. Bowman decided to hire a pastor of deaf ministries. Two years ago, when the number of youngsters in middle school grew, he hired a pastor for sixth- through ninth-graders. That's in addition to having pastors for children and teens.
His church has programs for senior citizens, couples, prisoners and drug addicts. It also reaches out to Christians as far away as Haiti, where members will travel to build a church in time for Christmas. "As long as there are people with needs, I will meet their needs," he said.
When Mr. Bowman and his wife, Betty, came to the church, it had gone through five pastors in 15 years and its membership had shrunk. In a decade, the pastor built the congregation to more than 400 members, and soon the Persian Avenue sanctuary was too small. In 1983, congregation members pulled their money together to buy 24 acres at 8146 Quarterfield Road and built a large, $1.4 million brick church, three miles from the old one.
"I had a vision in my mind, and I always dreamed of having something like this," said Mr. Bowman as he walked through the 1,147-seat sanctuary. "But the day we got this, I dreamed of something bigger."
Already his new dream is forming: an addition that will accommodate 5,000 people.
"It's disappointing to me when people can't find parking spaces and they leave. So we have to expand everything," he said. "If you don't expand, and remain the same, you're going to lose."
Having so many members, however, does require more legwork. The pastor doesn't get a chance to meet everyone right away. So he makes up for it by writing each visitor a letter and asking for a postcard critique of the service.
After several visits, he'll ask a newcomer to pose for a Polaroid picture and fill out a form, listing information such as birth date, blood type and skills he or she can offer to the church.
He then staples a picture to a form, files it in a binder and thumbs through it every day, choosing a different parishioner as the object of his prayers.
The Baltimore native became an evangelist at 18. His father, the late Charles R. Bowman, was a pastor, and growing up the younger Bowman knew that's what he wanted to do. "It seemed to have a call to my heart," he recalled. "I felt that I had something to say, and people needed to hear."
For several years he traveled the East Coast, preaching and singing the word of God. He met his wife at the Church of God in Ellicott City, and they were married in 1960. They have one daughter, Sherri Robinson.
Congregation members have planned a weeklong celebration to honor their pastor's 25 years of service. The activities have been organized by a 12-member committee, which has met nearly every week since March. Most of the events will be surprises, although the pastor has been told there will be a picnic, a banquet at Michael's Eighth Avenue in Glen Burnie and a service with a guest speaker.
"We've really enjoyed doing this -- planning something for someone you love," said Al Gilbert, a committee member. "He has never turned his back on me. He supported me and brought me back."