South Charlotte

Brush with death revealed his true calling

A.J. Thomas grew up as a Methodist pastor's son, never thinking he would follow in his father's footsteps.

But a brush with death led him to reconsider his life path, and now he is the youngest senior pastor in the history of St. Paul United Methodist Church, located in the Sedgefield neighborhood.

Born and raised in Niagara Falls, N.Y., Thomas, 31, attended Roberts Wesleyan College in Rochester. While in college, he worked as an intern with a food retailer and was assistant manager of one of its stores.

Thomas and several customers were held at gunpoint one evening. Thomas and the other customers were fortunate to leave unharmed, but that day - coincidentally his parents' 30th wedding anniversary - was life-changing for him in many ways.

After intense reflection and conversations with friends, family and teachers, Thomas decided to complete his communications degree and continue to Divinity School at Duke University.

At 25, he became the associate pastor at Boone United Methodist Church. Serving the 1,300 members helped solidify his decision to serve in ministry. He focused on faith development of young Christians and new members and oversaw the young adult ministry for those in their 20s and 30s.

In 2009, after four years in Boone, Bishop Larry Goodpaster, who oversees more than 1,100 United Methodist churches in western North Carolina, placed Thomas as senior pastor at St. Paul United Methodist Church. At 29, Thomas became the youngest senior pastor in the 63-year history of the church.

The church, in the heart of the Sedgefield neighborhood, was founded in 1948. The intent was to be a neighborhood church.

During the 1960s, the church had more than 800 members, mostly young couples and families.

However, as Charlotte began to expand south, the church struggled to maintain a large congregation. When Thomas joined the church in 2009, the congregation had approximately 150 members, mostly senior adults and a few young families. Thomas was determined to revitalize the church and reclaim its identity as Sedgefield's neighborhood church.

"We have 34 new members since 2009 and our average attendance has grown to the low hundreds," said Thomas. "At our best, we were a neighborhood church, and we're recovering that identity.

"Out front is a banner that says, 'We love our neighbors.' We mean it. We hope that everyone in the neighborhood will give us an opportunity to be their church."

Thomas, his church staff and the congregation are working hard to ensure the neighborhood knows the church is there. They provide a venue for the Sedgefield Neighborhood Association meetings, host neighborhood barbecue dinners, sponsor a mentoring program in the Fellowship Hall on weekday afternoons for Sedgefield Elementary School students and partner with Avondale Presbyterian Church every summer for Freedom School, a literacy enrichment program for students from nearby schools.

In addition, the church hosts several family events where the entire neighborhood is invited: Fall carnival, Easter egg hunt and Vacation Bible School. There even is a music-on-the-lawn series in development for summer.

The tradition of ministry continues for Thomas. His fiancée, Ashley Pickerel, is the associate pastor at Davidson United Methodist Church. Both congregations are helping with the wedding, planned for October.