The Rev. David McEntire presides over his final service at First United Methodist Church on Christmas Day. | Kimberly Moore, LkldNow

In the crowded Christmas Day sanctuary of First United Methodist Church on Lake Morton, the Rev. David McEntire gave his final sermon before retiring after 15 years at the Lakeland church and 48 years in ministry.

One of McEntire’s final acts as a pastor was something profoundly personal to him and his family. With his wife of 47 years, Nancy, and his children Katie, Andy and Molly near his side, he baptized his grandson, Jude Thomas McEntire, son of Andy and his wife Ashley. McEntire’s elderly mother, who lives at Grace Manor, was also in attendance.

The preschooler stayed in his father’s arms, not willing to be held by the grandfather he sees at least three times a week and adores.

“He is very shy,” David McEntire, 68, told the congregation and later reiterated to LkldNow. “We’re very, very close, but he’s in front of all those people.”

It is a trait he said he shared with the boy when he was that age, although he grew up and overcame it. For decades, he stood behind a lectern and gave thoughtful, thought-provoking sermons to hundreds of, sometimes a thousand, people each week at First United. They espoused God’s love for each person in this often hard and broken world – the message he wanted everyone to know and understand throughout his five decades of serving others.

McEntire has conducted about 850 weddings and nearly twice as many funerals in his pastoral career, along with countless baptisms.

“It’s very special to be able to finish with something that close and intimate,” he said. “I was very grateful to be able to do that.”

Florida Methodist Churches

McEntire, along with his wife, has served as a kind of George Bailey to Florida Methodist churches in Ocklawaha, Fort Pierce, the Palm Beaches and then Lakeland, leaving what many call a “legacy of love.”

Throughout a three-hour retirement celebration on Dec. 4, videos were shown and speeches were given by various pastors and parishioners around Florida whom McEntire welcomed into ministry or ministered to – or both.

Buddy Johnson of Fort Pierce explained that when his wife was diagnosed with cancer, he turned to McEntire, who guided him to a specialist he had come to know when McEntire was a chaplain at Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina.

And when Johnson’s wife was getting treatment at Duke, the entire McEntire family trooped into the hospital room during their North Carolina vacation to cheer up the Johnsons. Multiple people said McEntire would drop everything and arrive at a hospital bedside during some of their darkest hours.

On Christmas Day one year, McEntire packed his wife and their young kids into the car and drove to a Miami hospital, with the kids upset they had to leave behind their new Christmas presents. But one of his parishioners was finally getting a heart transplant and the children were able to see another family’s joy of a life extended that day.

Three years after McEntire’s graduation from Duke University Divinity School, he was assigned to a small church in Ocklawaha, Fla., a rural town with no stoplight or grocery store.

Their now-grown daughter Katie McEntire Wiatt, a celebrated filmmaker, recalled an incident that was “seared into her mind” when she was about 3 years old. She said her parents, her little brother Andy and she were at home one Sunday night after dark, watching television, when there was a knock on their door. A man who had visited their church several times was standing in the doorway in front of the family.

“There was a man dressed in camouflage, carrying a chainsaw and a machete,” Katie explained, adding that they later learned the man named Charlie had served prison time for shooting someone. “We were in Central Florida in an area that still had an active Ku Klux Klan … You see, that night at our door, the man holding the machete and chainsaw was black … My mom, she didn’t grab Andy and I up and run to the back screaming. My Dad didn’t slam the door and call the police. My dad simply said, ‘Hi, Charlie. How can we help you?’  That moment – a moment that could’ve gone very differently – showed me that how we treat people is important. How we care for people is important and how we love people is so important. My dad often says hate is a choice. … My dad chose to love … We are called as Christians to drive out the darkness.”

It turned out that Charlie was doing yard work in the neighborhood and simply needed a ride home, which McEntire was happy to give to him.

Saving a Church

In 1989, McEntire arrived at First United Methodist Church of Fort Pierce. As he was greeting parishioners on his first Sunday, the chair of the church council told him they would be holding an important vote in several weeks. The chair said the vote would determine if the church would close its doors downtown and move elsewhere, as the neighborhood was in steep decline.

“I thought he was kidding at first. Then when I realized he was quite serious, I said, ‘You can’t do that. You have to give me three months. I’m new here,’” McEntire recalled in an interview. “And in those three months, we have to answer three questions. Is the reason God put this church here — at that point it was 98 years – has the reason God put this church here 98 years ago changed? I understand everything else has changed, but has that changed? And if it hasn’t, then I cannot see a reason for us to move.”

McEntire then asked that if they voted to move, who would take the cross off the top of the church because he would not do that. The church, he said, was the only place of hope in the poor neighborhood.

“The third thing was one that provoked him, but I said, ‘If we decide to move, who’s putting God’s forwarding address on the front door of the church? I’m not doing that,’ ” McEntire said, adding, “If you do that, I think you ought to paraphrase and change a bit what Dante said was written above the gates of hell: ‘Abandon hope, all ye who live around here.’ The church belongs in places for struggling. And they voted three months later, they voted, in fact, to stay and it’s still there as a vital ministry in that downtown area. So that was important to me, I think because, even though that area was in decline, the church was such a vital presence of hope and stability and love and we didn’t have to change.”

In 1994, he began a 13-year-stint at United Methodist Church of the Palm Beaches. A year after he started there, he established CROS Walk – Christians Reaching Out to Society – to end hunger in Palm Beach County. Since then, the annual walk has continued and raised close to $1 million for food, summer camps and other ministries.

Lakeland Impact

In 2007, he was selected to move from the Palm Beaches to Lakeland, arriving at the church on the swan’s lake at a time when the church was in need.

“Our church 15½ years ago needed healing, a direction, a change of leadership, and God sent our new pastor, David McEntire, and his wife Nancy. We have been able to bless others by sharing our congregational love,” local real estate agent and church leader Russ Rhoades said during the retirement celebration. He added that both David McEntire’s and Nancy McEntire’s lives have been a sermon “on how to treat and love each other, welcome all, show hospitality in a warm and growing church where we are to serve each other … The legacy of the McEntire family is love.”

Harriett Mays worked for and with McEntire for 15 years and called him “extraordinarily wise, fair, respectful, intuitive, always willing to listen to those with different opinions, and a true visionary.”

But, she said, he would occasionally say that seminary hadn’t prepared him for the unusual circumstances that arose, like the time the music staff wanted to bring in a high school drum line for the contemporary worship service but ended up bringing the entire marching band into all services, contemporary and traditional.

The major thing seminary didn’t prepare him for, Mays said, was “how to work with city government and passionate neighbors when a church plans a building project to add 80,000 square feet to campus that will take 2½ years to complete … placing eight or nine portables on the front lawn for 15 months, while simultaneously communicating with your congregation the need for these buildings while navigating the great recession of 2009.”

In 2011, those plans were cemented and ground was broken in 2012 on the $16.2 million expansion.

Church leaders spoke about McEntire walking through the building site – sometimes at midnight using his cellphone’s flashlight to shine his way through construction debris. They said he knew the building as well as the architect did, but he also knew the names of each of the workers, saying he made a ministry of the construction crew. The result was a crew that felt loved and appreciated and a church that got the best buildings possible.

The church, with a combined weekly attendance of more than 1,000, is now undertaking renovating the youth ministry building, refurbishing the gymnasium and improving lighting for $4.2 million, which includes paying off debt. McEntire said he wants the church’s and area’s children – those who use those buildings the most – to understand that they are important and cherished. 

David McEntire’s final service before retiring:

McEntire also planted additional seeds that will grow for generations to come. He started a Lay Leaders program that allows parishioners to serve the church without going to seminary. More than 100 people have gone through the program so far.

During the last recession, he knew members of his own congregation were hurting and he motivated those who could to be more giving. Under his guidance, church leaders decided that “mission giving” (helping those in need) should increase from 18 percent of their annual revenue to 30 percent and sometimes as high as 34 percent.

“And that, to me, defines who we are more than anything else,” McEntire said. “It’s not the buildings – and we’re blessed with beautiful buildings. It’s not the people – we’re blessed with extraordinary people. It’s really what you do to alleviate pain and suffering and to bring hope and light. So the congregation has continued to amaze me with their generosity and quite honestly, they love doing that. They understand that faith has to be expressed and lived in ways that drive away the darkness. And I’ll say that this congregation is extraordinary when it comes to that. They are very generous.”

“It’s not the buildings – and we’re blessed with beautiful buildings. It’s not the people – we’re blessed with extraordinary people. It’s really what you do to alleviate pain and suffering and to bring hope and light.”

The Rev. David McEntire

In addition, the church helps other ministries, like Talbot House and Lighthouse Ministries, which serves Lakeland’s homeless population, and Redlands Christian Migrant Association, which helps migrant farm workers. The church has a food pantry and clothes closet for those in need and it also works with Philip O’Brien Elementary School, filling weekend backpacks with food so children will have something to eat on Saturdays and Sundays. Church volunteers also tidy the campus and help to tutor and mentor students.

“What a great place to make a difference,” he said. “We’re so appreciative of the teachers and staff there. We just want to come alongside and strengthen their work.”

He added that it’s not about money, it is about giving of time and living in a way that provides a witness to God‘s love.

Finally, Mays pointed out that McEntire shepherded the church through a worldwide pandemic. He asked for masks to be worn when people returned to in-person worship and gently encouraged vaccines. All as funeral after funeral was announced Sunday after Sunday, along with requests for prayers for the many who were hospitalized.

“Through it all, David led with love and a firmness that was needed,” Mays said. “He kept us focused and connected, meeting via Livestream, Zoom and Facebook, that turned into months, that turned into years. He reassured us time and time again that we would get through it and we would get through it together … David, you awakened a sleeping church and led us to faith-filled heights.”

Laughter

McEntire also understands the importance of laughter and is known for his practical jokes. One year during the 1990s, the Childs family, who are University of Florida supporters, had Christmas lights in their yard that said, “Go Gators.”

“My dad said, ‘Andy get in the car. I need you to come with me to the Childs’ house,” Andy McEntire recalled. “He changed it to say ‘Go Noles’ and we pulled it off.”

At summer camp one year, after the movie “Flubber” came out about a mad scientist and glow-in-the dark creatures, McEntire hung glow-stick and water-filled rubber gloves in the trees outside camp windows to make it look like dozens of small Flubbers were floating in the air.

“What was hilarious is that all these kids were at the altar praying and they thought there was a giant alien invasion happening,” Andy McEntire said.

A Miracle

When asked if he has witnessed miracles, the Rev. McEntire said he has – addicts who recovered, broken marriages that were healed, and lives that were saved.

“I’ve always had that affirming of the trust that God is in the details, in the midst of this, and I have to follow God’s lead,” McEntire said.

When asked if he had seen any major miracles, he said yes, recalling a time in Fort Pierce when a local citrus grower was hospitalized and his blood had turned septic. The doctor told his wife and daughter to call in any family and friends who might want to say goodbye to the feverish, unconscious man lying unresponsive in the hospital bed.

When McEntire arrived to pray with the family, the wife and daughter asked if he would mind staying there a moment while they went to the cafeteria to get something to eat.

“So I was alone in the room with him and he was hooked up to the IV and the monitor, as often happens when you were in ICU, and nurses were in and out and I said, ‘John, this is David, your pastor. And I’m here to pray for you. And you are not alone. God is with you. And we love you.’ And I took his hand and started praying. And I felt like, well, I felt like I’d been shocked. (I thought) maybe his monitor had shorted out and, you know, basically shocked both of us,” McEntire said. “But I’ll never forget holding his right hand with my left hand and it just jolted me and knocked me back.”

McEntire said that jolt numbed his arm. He took a step toward his friend and saw John open his eyes.

“He said, ‘David,’ and I was like, ‘John, did you feel that?’” McEntire recalled. “He goes, ‘What are you talking about?’ I mean, he was comatose, not responding before. He was not talking to me. He wasn’t nodding his head. He was completely out – burned up with fever. And he said, ‘What are you doing here?’ I said, ‘Well, praying for you.’ I was flabbergasted. I didn’t know what was going on.”

McEntire rushed to get a nurse, who came in and checked all of the man’s vital signs. His 103 temperature had dropped to normal and his blood pressure was fine. And then he asked for something to eat.

McEntire said he told God that he didn’t know how to explain it, “but you just did something that is well beyond my understanding. Thank you, Lord, for that gift.”

When his wife and daughter returned, he met them in the hallway and told them what had happened. They rushed into the room and began crying and his friend began crying.

“It was a miracle. And I will tell you that it wasn’t me. It was always God. I just got to be a witness to what happened,” McEntire said, adding that John lived another 12 years after that. “The doctor came in later and said, ‘There is no explanation for this – this instantaneous recovery. You have to chalk this up to a miracle.’ And we all said, ‘No kidding.’ ”

Marriage and Family

Many people credit Nancy McEntire with making her husband’s ministry as successful as it has been. Her support and efforts with their children allowed him to be where he needed to be to help people. The couple met on their first day as freshmen at Florida State University.

McEntire was born in Atlanta, but lived all over the world as his father’s work transferred him from country to country. As a middle school student, a learned to ski in the French Alps. He arrived at FSU from Thailand.

“She invited me to go to one of the other dorms to meet some people,” said McEntire, adding that it was in that lobby that he met a young man playing the piano, who would later become First United’s pianist. “As I was standing there, turns out that Nancy was standing next to me. So we started talking and then a year later she asked me out on the first date and three weeks after that date, I asked her to marry me. It was just no question in my mind that she was the one and I was smitten with her. I still am, but I fell deeply in love.”

They married in 1976.

However, she thought she was marrying a child psychologist, McEntire’s chosen career path. But he heard the unmistakable calling of God to go into ordained ministry and recognizes now that people were put into his path to guide him on that road.

“The opportunity to raise a family and have a family … and see them turn out to be remarkable people was something we shared,” he said. “Nancy has always been very intuitive and wise about children, creating a loving family environment, making sure that we have a relationship that withstands all the challenges of life, especially my crazy schedule.”

In the age of televangelism, mega-churches and national scandals, he said he decided in the beginning of his career what lines he would simply not cross and he never has. He also implemented one rule from which he never deviated — to put his family first.

“My priority was to be there for my family and when the church needs, the congregational needs, came up, then that became the next priority that I had to respond to,” McEntire said. “But because I put my family first, then I could pivot and take care of the church needs and my family understood. I don’t think they ever saw themselves as secondary – And they’re not. They are primary.”

He said that while some people use a pyramid to describe the fundamental needs of a family, he uses a pie as an analogy. The crust – the foundation of the pie – is God and the other ingredients are added to that.

“For me, God is that crust and the ingredients of my family and my church and my personal life – all that is held together because God wraps around and holds all that together,” he said.

McEntire is grateful to watch his children grow into successful adults with happy relationships and two grandsons. Andy and Katie are in the filmmaking business, with their documentary “Fly Like a Girl” winning multiple awards. It was recently announced that they have secured the rights to Gilbert King’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Devil in the Grove.” Molly McEntire is about to be married. She works in the missionary department of the United Methodist Church’s Florida Conference. She has made multiple trips to Kenya and other places as a missionary.

First United has made arrangements for a familiar face to step in for the next six months. The Rev. Riley Short, who served at the church for several years in the early 2000s, will begin on New Year’s Day. The 88-year-old is coming out of retirement for the short-term position. McEntire said Short is still sharp and feisty.

Following the last hymn on Christmas Day, McEntire stood before the congregation and urged them to spread the love of God.

“That’s what this is about – love that baby. It is a love that’s meant to be shared. Let it transform your heart. Let go of any doubts and darkness. Let go of anything holding you back. And then go share that love, and it will change your life forever in the most remarkably wonderful way,” said McEntire, who then concluded the service in the same way he has for 48 years. “Brothers and sisters, Go in peace and go in love.”

SEND FEEDBACK, corrections or news tips: newstips@lkldnow.com

Loading...

Something went wrong. Please refresh the page and/or try again.

Kimberly C. Moore

Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

Leave a comment

Your Thoughts On This? (Comments are moderated; first and last name are required.) Cancel reply