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story.lead_photo.caption Carlton Cross, the lead pastor at Salem United Methodist Church, stands on the ramp of a replica of Noah’s Ark on the playground. The ark was built by scratch in 2013 after winds destroyed the previous play area. - Photo by Sam Pierce

At 14 years old, Carlton Cross gave his very first sermon — it lasted seven minutes.

“And that’s including one of my daddy’s favorite poems and the prayers, the ending and the closer,” Cross said. “I can pray longer than that now.”

Cross has been the lead pastor at Salem United Methodist Church in Benton for six years. In that time, he has helped the church nearly double in size.

“When I started, we had 128 in worship, and now we are running about 230,” Cross said.

“I have a deep love for God and for the people. I love my Savior, and I love God’s people. I want to do whatever I can to help that.

“And my church has embraced that in a very big way.”

Cross said he started a youth ministry when he was 17, and from there, he went on to a full ministry.

“I just felt the calling. That’s what God wanted me, from a very early age, to do,” Cross said. “It’s always been evident that’s what God wanted me to do.”

Cross, who now lives with his family in Bryant, graduated in 2002 from Arkansas State University-Jonesboro and from Memphis Theological Seminary in December 2005.

“My grandfather was a Methodist preacher; his name was Noel Cross,” Carlton Cross said. “My daddy’s middle name was Noel, my middle name is Noel, and my son’s middle name is Noel.

“It is kind of a legacy for my family. I was named after two Methodist preachers, and my last name is Cross.”

The Rev. Chester Jones of Hot Springs said Cross has a unique gift to grow churches.

“His numbers have gone up everywhere he has gone,” Jones said. “He blooms wherever he is planted. Some pastors camp out until larger churches are open and ask, ‘When are you going to put me in a larger church?’

“[Cross] would just make his churches grow. He just had that gift.”

Jones, who is now retired, formerly served as district superintendent of the South Central District of the Arkansas Conference, United Methodist Church.

“[Cross] has always done a good job as a pastor …,” Jones said. “They loved him.”

Jones said the relationship Cross has with his congregation is superior.

“I don’t ever have any complaints about him …,” Jones said. “It makes my job much easier. … He has a real passion and love for God.”

Before being appointed at Salem UMC, Cross served at First United Methodist Church in Prescott. He said he also served in two “little bitty” churches in south Arkansas.

“I have been [in all parts of the state] except southeast Arkansas. We go where we are sent,” he said.

“I was just appointed here, but I love it here. These are good people. They are kind, friendly, loving people,” Cross said. “We are a family-oriented, friendly church. Visitors come in, and they are just almost overwhelmed by the love.

“If you can’t be accepted in church, where can you be accepted?”

Becky Griffith, who has been a member of the church all her life, said Cross is a loving and nurturing individual.

“He is all about God and wants you to know more about God and his son, Jesus Christ,” said Griffith, who also serves as chair of the Staff and Parish Committee. “He is a very positive person.”

She said that not only has the church grown since Cross joined it, but members have also grown in their faith.

“People in our church grow because of him — from perhaps being introverted to becoming more personable,” said Griffith, who lives in the Salem community.

“He turns them into better leaders and disciples of Christ through example and encouragement,” she said. “He promotes a lot of self-confidence and helps them recognize their full potential.”

Griffith said that a few years ago, she watched as Cross shared his love of Jesus to a family who had a child who was struggling with her faith.

“And before her death, she took Jesus into her heart,” Griffith said. “Because of Carlton’s continuing love for her and what he was able to show her, she did decide to trust in God and Jesus Christ.

“A lot of people saw that, and it was quite an experience.”

Faith has guided his family since early on. As an infant, he was diagnosed with nephrogentic diabetes insipidus. Cross said the disease — which primarily affects the kidneys — caused him to quit breathing, and he died momentarily at 6 months old.

It was Jones’ sister, former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders, who resuscitated Cross, who was under her care until he was 18 years old.

“When we first met, we hit it off the first time,” Jones said. “We had that kind of connection.

“That’s a story within itself — a lifesaving story.”

Cross said Salem UMC is a very mission-oriented church.

“We do an unbelievable amount of missions,” he said. “We are one of the leading CJCOHN (Churches Joint Council on Human Need) contributors in Saline County, and we have been a Boy Scouts sponsor for almost 40 years.”

The church also participates in Habitat for Humanity, the United Methodist Core on Relief (UMCOR), the Arkansas Food Bank, Operation Christmas Child, Canvas Community Church, the Salem Christmas Family Ministry, the Stone Soup Kitchen, Methodist Family Health, Gideons International, Camp Aldersgate, Heifer International and Saline County Hospice.

“We have been Apostle Build members with Habitat for Humanity since it has been in place,” Cross said.

Cross said the church also has a very good community-outreach program, especially around the holidays.

The church will host its 10th annual Thanksgiving dinner from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 23, in the church’s Fellowship Hall. Cross said approximately 120 people showed up for the dinner last year.

“It is free to the public,” Cross said. “Church members donate food and donate money for it.

“It is a place to be on Thanksgiving. I know people look forward to it all year. It serves as an outreach for us and to make sure people get a meal.”

Salem UMC will also host the eighth annual Pancakes With Santa from 5-7 p.m. Dec. 9,

which is also free to the public.

“This year, we are going to have two Communion candlelight Christmas Eve services,” Cross said. “The first will be at 6 p.m., and the second at 11 p.m. in the sanctuary.

“You don’t have to be a Methodist to take Communion, and we will have a section where we will sing ‘Silent Night’ by candlelight.”

The church also has a playground area that is open to the public, and it includes a basketball court, swings and a replica of Noah’s Ark.

“The ark was built by scratch in 2013,” Cross said. “It is not a kit or anything. … We had a play area over there, and then in 2011, straightway winds came through Salem and destroyed the playground.”

Jones said Cross is what you call “a good pastor.”

“Hatch, match and dispatch — he does a good job in all those areas,” Jones said.

For more information on Salem United Methodist Church, visit or call (501) 316-2282.

Staff writer Sam Pierce can be reached at (501) 244-4314 or

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