In his "previous" life, John Ohmer wrote persuasive speeches to win popularity and votes for political candidates. His job as pastor at St. James' Episcopal Church in Leesburg requires some of the same skills--with a different message.
"I want to make God real in ordinary circumstances of people's lives," said Ohmer, 38. "So much of my past has made me an effective pastor now. When you write speeches and sermons, you have to think of who's your audience and know what land mines to avoid and know what their passions are.
"I picture a bored 10th-grader in a pew going, 'So what? Who cares?' " he said. "If I can reach that person, it will have a ripple effect."
Since he arrived in February, replacing a beloved rector who retired after 20 years at St. James', the youth group has grown from a membership of one to more than a dozen teenagers who meet weekly to socialize and study scriptures. Attendance at the weekly services has grown, sparking the creation of several small groups, including young mothers who meet for fellowship and support.
"John's just so enthusiastic and funny," said Sally Moffett, 17, of Leesburg, who is active in the youth group. "He has a good way of relating everything to everyday life. You feel comfortable talking to him."
The timing of the change was important. Although many congregations in eastern Loudoun are expanding because of the county's explosive growth and many new churches are being formed, St. James'--established in 1770 and in its current sanctuary since 1895--was old and comfortable and staying that way.
Like many established churches, the number of congregants who claimed St. James' as their church was steady, but attendance was less so, waxing at the holidays and waning in between. Average attendance on a Sunday, over three services, was about 250.
"Our population was maintaining an even keel, even as the county was growing," said Elaine Nunnally, who lives in Sterling and has been a church member for 19 years. "People were looking for growth."
Now the average number at Sunday services is approaching 300. Meanwhile, the church's pledge drive grew from $288,000 last year to $402,000 this year. To show his appreciation, Ohmer sent personal, handwritten thank you cards to each donor--a touch that surprised and pleased some parishioners.
"Rather than the usual humdrum of 'We need your pledge,' he got different people to speak about why the money was needed and what it would be used for," Nunnally said. "It made you feel that you were truly making a difference in giving."
The youngest son of a Michigan dairy farmer, Ohmer went to Wabash College, a small liberal arts school in Indiana, and planned to go to law school. But during an internship on Capitol Hill after graduation, Ohmer's interest in politics was piqued.
For seven years, he served as a legislative aide for senators--including then-Sen. Al Gore (D-Tenn.), and also did a stint as a lobbyist for an immigration group. Then he became a speech writer and press secretary for Indiana's secretary of state. Then he became a minister.
"I've never had one of these callings where God appears on a cloud and tells you to go into the ministry," Ohmer said. "It's always been more like background music. It's always present but not quite audible."
Ohmer's professors at Wabash had encouraged him toward the seminary. During his internship, he took theology courses at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington "to sort of figure out" whether his path lay in that direction.
He laughed, recalling that he knew he was ready to enter the ministry when he went to a fancy victory party for a politician. "There I was, and I thought, 'I have arrived,' " he said. "But I felt like a fish on a bicycle."
Ohmer graduated from the Virginia Theological Seminary in Arlington in 1994 and spent 4 1/2 years at an Arlington church before being called to St. James'. In the Episcopal Church, the parish vestry selects its minister, fitting the candidate's strengths and preferences to the church's needs.
Since Ohmer's arrival, Nunnally said, "there's a real feeling of life at the church. We see new people come in who are church-shopping, but they've continued to come back because it has a good feel."
Just as growing churches in the east have increased their emphasis on families and children, Ohmer has started "Children's Chapel," a short sermon designed to give children Bible lessons during the adult service. He and his wife, Mary, have three children, ages 8, 6 and 2 1/2.
Ohmer keeps a map of Loudoun County outside his office door so he can mark with pushpins where he expects the next Episcopalian churches in the area will be. He said he sees his church as a "mother ship" for the ones that have yet to be created. The nearest Episcopal churches are in Lucketts, Ashburn, Purcellville, Oatlands and Middleburg.
"I don't think it's within the DNA of this church to become a mega-church," Ohmer said, referring to expanding churches in the east. "Those stones have been saturated with 100 years of prayers."
The church's first parishioners "built it in 1895 to seat 400," he said. "We have to think about what kinds of decisions are we making now in the 1990s for the people in 2090."
CAPTION: The Rev. John Ohmer helps Lexi Vangsnes, 8, get ready for the church's Christmas pageant.