Worship pastor changes beats, slows tempo
Jacksonville celebrates James Whitmire for over 5 decades of ministry before his return to Memphis
May 15, 2013

CELEBRATION Mac Brunson, pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville (left) and James Whitmire, executive pastor of worship, at a churchwide celebration April 21 of his 7 years at FBC Jacksonville. Photo by Joni B. Hannigan
JACKSONVILLE (FBW)—In over half a century of conducting choirs and congregations, James Whitmire has masterfully set tempos, executed beats, and faithfully used the gift God made him aware of when he was 15 years old.

Now, at 73, Whitmire said, “I’ve learned to slow down my tempo.”

Not missing a beat, but changing beats, Whitmire, executive pastor of worship at First Baptist Church in Jacksonville since 2007, has no plans to retire—he’s already done that—but will stop when he no longer enjoys what he’s been called to do.  

“I am not retiring, that will come again, sometime,” Whitmire told Florida Baptist Witness. “I feel like I’ve got years to where I’m valuable to work and there will come a time when I won’t be and I don’t want to quit.”

An April 21 Sunday night “Celebration” honored the veteran worship pastor who began in 1958 at First Baptist Church in Winter Park and then continued at First Baptist Church in Merrit Island with the legendary Adrian Rogers whom he eventually teamed with at Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn. Of 55 years in vocational music ministry, Whitmire served 38 of those with Rogers.

The April 21 service in Jacksonville marked Whitmire’s long tenure and signaled his return to the Memphis area where will resume teaching a Mid-America Seminary following a short stint there and at Germantown Baptist Church after his 2005 retirement from Bellevue Baptist.

Since his arrival at the Jacksonville mega- church, it has   become known for its annual Passion Play, featuring a choir, cast and orchestra of more than 400 persons celebrating the life, the Passion, the death, and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In 2012 a Singing Christmas Tree also made its debut and each Memorial and Veteran’s Day patriotic specials have warmed hearts of veterans and their families in the huge military town. 

YOUTH CHOIR James Whitmire has led thousands in adult, youth, and children’s choirs over a ministry spanning 55 years since beginning part time music ministry at First Baptist Church in Winter Garden as a student at Stetson University in Deland. Photo by Joni B. Hannigan
At the April 21 service a group of servicemen presented Whitmire with a statue depicting the Iwo Jima memorial.

Whitmire said he will be a “better teacher” since spending time at First Baptist Jacksonville.

“It scared me more to think I was handed this beautiful program and I would see it die while I was directing it,” Whitmire said. “That was the pressure, to accept the challenge and thank God for the heritage of what was already built.”

He credited the music leaders before him with providing the congregation with a comprehensive and age-graded program, noting elsewhere choirs are asked to maintain a 50 percent attendance rate, but that at First Jacksonville, they are required to maintain a 70 percent attendance rate, something he said they readily comply with.

“I’ve learned the value of memorizing everything,” Whitmire added. “I’ve learned the legacy and the heritage of seeing the way the choir was organized through others.”

The perpetually smiling Whitmire said times don’t change, and many churches expect a lot less from people than what they are able and willing to give in terms of time and commitment. 

“The Holy Spirit still draws people,” he said seriously, “and when they see something that is really doing something and going somewhere, they want to be a part of it.”

Whitmire said he was told in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and he still hears today, that youth choirs are a thing of the past, and that “young people won’t come on Sunday night.”

The youth choir at First Baptist Jacksonville is an example, Whitmire said. They regularly lead worship on Sunday night and memorized Handel’s Messiah for the April 21 service. In fact, all the choirs, including a children’s choir with those as young as 4-years-old, learned the same selection for a massed presentation at the conclusion of the service.

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