When Pastor Phil Hunter chose Citrus Grove Lutheran Church as the name for his new congregation in Wesley Chapel, he took inspiration from Florida’s most famous produce, saying that it reminds him of people’s lives.
“It’s a nod to the development in Florida and that people are now growing where the oranges used to be,” Pastor Hunter says. “But, also, that there’s not just one tree by itself (in a grove). At Citrus Grove Church, you have other people supporting you and growing with you. You’re not alone.”
Pastor Hunter and his wife Andrea moved to Wesley Chapel from Wisconsin in mid-2020 with two kids, who are now ages five and three.
They have since also become foster parents and are now raising five kids ages five and younger.
Pastor Hunter says when he saw the opportunity to be a missionary pastor to start a new church in Pasco County, he thought it sounded like fun.
“It was snowing in May 2020 on the last Sunday I preached at my old church in Wisconsin,” he says.
Prior to coming to Wesley Chapel, Pastor Hunter served as pastor at Bethel Church in Menasha, a bilingual English/Spanish church where he taught, preached and counseled people in both languages.
He says the church here in Wesley Chapel is all English, but he is willing to serve neighbors who speak Spanish, and that a Spanish service could be a way Citrus Grove might grow in the future.
Citrus Grove is a mission congregation of the WELS (Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod) network of churches. It started because a congregation in Zephyrhills was getting smaller and closed its doors, and requested that a new church from the nationwide organization be formed in the Wesley Chapel area.
Although WELS originally started in Wisconsin and remains headquartered there, there are now 1,300 member churches across North America, including nine in the Tampa Bay area.
Pastor Hunter comes from a line of pastors, including his dad. He knew he wanted to follow in those footsteps, so attended Martin Luther College in New Ulm, MN, and earned a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree in 2011. He then attended Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary outside of Milwaukee to earn his Master of Divinity (M.Div.) degree in 2015. During that time, he spent a year working at a church in suburban Atlanta.
“Being part of a larger church body is a long-term partnership,” he explains. “Some new churches have to grow very fast, but we have a church body that sustains us and supports us over the long haul. We don’t need a ‘gimmick. (We) can build more realistically.”
Visiting Citrus Grove
“We’re here to help people in Wesley Chapel have healthier hearts and more fruitful lives,” Pastor Hunter explains. “We sing hymns, have hymnals and Bibles in our church, teach from a section of the Bible every week, and emphasize people learning the Bible for themselves and using it as a guide for their lives.”
The church started gathering as a small group in the fall of 2020 and opened its doors publicly in December 2021, meeting at Pinecrest Academy on S.R. 54.
Pastor Hunter says the best way to learn about the church is to show up any Sunday morning at 9:30 a.m.
“We meet inside the cafeteria,” he says. “It’s not fancy and there are no bells or whistles, but we meet you in the parking lot and our members will walk you in. Your kids can join my kids in the Kids Zone.”
The church is participating in events and doing outreach to let people know they are here to serve the community.
“We’re meeting our neighbors, bringing lunch to offices, bringing our volunteers to events — especially those that support worthy causes, being a presence at different events around town,” Pastor Hunter explains. “We can also donate supplies and send a financial gift to agencies in our area that are doing a great job, and encourage people with notes, cards and prayers.”
For example, he says, the Wesley Chapel District Park on Boyette Rd. recently needed breakfast food for an event for underprivileged kids and their parents, so Citrus Grove Church members cooked and delivered breakfast, as a way to let the community know they care.
He says he recognizes that Wesley Chapel is known for being a beautiful place to live with lots to do.
“All the shopping, dining and entertainment can be fine, but it can also wear a heart down with guilt, debt, and insecurity,” he says. “It can cause people to look around and say, ‘I have everything I could want, but I’m angry, lonely, or jealous. What am I missing here?’”
He says people don’t need more entertainment. They need to look deeper.
“My encouragement to (Neighborhood News) readers,” he says, “is to not put off thinking about the biggest questions of life. Have those big conversations with your kids and your spouse about our purpose in life and what happens after this life. I’m here to encourage you to find answers to those big questions.”
Elaine Miller and her husband, Ralph, are members at Citrus Grove Church who want to grow and serve alongside others in Wesley Chapel.
“We had been involved in a mission congregation that our son and daughter attended in Minnesota,” Elaine says. “We watched it grow from meeting in a cafeteria to meeting in a strip mall, to now they have their own building.”
The Millers retired to Florida from Minnesota, and say they love living in Wesley Chapel.
“People in Florida seem so much happier, and we love the sunshine.”
Elaine also says she likes that her church is relaxed and comfortable, and that the people are friendly and welcoming. “If you need anything, people are willing to help out. It’s like a family.”
She adds that the world around us can feel very uncertain and like it’s constantly changing.
“Covid kind of turned us upside down, too,” Elaine says. “But, the church provides a constancy because God is constant. There’s a sense of peace (here) that I think a lot of people are looking for.”
Citrus Grove Lutheran Church meets Sundays at 9:30 a.m. inside Pinecrest Academy, located at 33347 S.R. 54, near New River Rd. in Wesley Chapel. For more information, visit CitrusGroveChurch.com, or call or text Pastor Hunter at (813) 788-4126.