A dead church is resurrected. On a stretch of road in North Carolina’s Sandhills region, the Rev. Gil Wise’s entrepreneurial leadership and clear vision have helped create a thriving community.
May 26, 2009 | One day in 2000, not long after arriving, the Rev. Gil Wise stood in his dark, dirty storefront church. The concrete walls were crumbling. The previous pastor had taken a leave of absence, and the congregation was split into factions. Week to week, Wise didn’t know if the offerings would be enough to keep going.
In a moment of despair, Wise felt God speak to him: “I came here with nothing and if I leave here with nothing, I’ve not lost anything. But if I don’t follow what God is doing, I will have lost everything.”
Since then, Wise has followed God to lead the congregation -- which includes low-income people, ex-cons, rural folk and military families -- in a remarkable resurrection. Solid Rock United Methodist Church, in Harnett County, N.C., has a budget of $1.5 million and 40 fulltime employees. The church has 425 members, whose ministry reaches beyond the plain, blue metal building where about 200 people worship each Sunday.
Solid Rock and its nonprofit arm operate three daycare sites and are opening a fourth. A food ministry gives away provisions to 600 people each weekend. They also distribute toys and clothes. A prison ministry reaches 285 men behind bars. They’ve started a theology school and are reaching out to other congregations to share their methods.
Solid Rock serves the community, reflects the community, has grown out of the community. For many of the people who are part of it, Solid Rock is the community.
“They are so authentic. They are so alive. They’re real,” said Bishop Al Gwinn, of the North Carolina Conference. “They like doing church, they like being church. They’re in love with their calling, they’re in love with God, they’re in love with one another.”
That love blossomed slowly.
Wise gave up on his storefront church, which was called The Rock, and held a funeral for it. He invited people to join him in a new venture. Just one family stayed.
To regroup, Wise sent 20,000 mailers and put up roadside signs promoting the first service for his new congregation, Solid Rock. On March 25, 2001, he held his first service in an elementary school auditorium.
Questions to consider:
- What key risks were taken to make Solid Rock the community it is today? Have you taken similar risks as a leader?
- What creative ways could your organization secure funding for its ministry during this time of economic uncertainty?
- How does a leader discern “where God’s moving?” Where do you see signs of God’s movement in your organization?
About 200 people -- many suspicious of institutions, including the church -- showed up. When he saw who had come, Wise understood he had to break free of the traditional, by-the-book Methodist model. Harnett County had a 17 percent poverty rate in 2007; according to the 2000 U.S. Census, the mean per capita income of $17,000. Only about 15 percent of the schools made “adequate yearly progress” last year under state accountability standards.
“Formality was the furthest things from their minds -- their lives were chaotic,” Wise said. “They didn’t need someone to fix them and put them in order. They needed someone to meet them where they were.”
Wise discovered something else that day: God had called him to be that person.
“When I looked out, I was glad I was there,” said Wise, who grew up in nearby Cumberland County. “These are my people. This is where my heart is. This is what I’d call family.”
The vision and the community
Wise’s vision alone doesn’t pay the bills -- or his salary. Three years in, Solid Rock had run out of its startup funding from the Annual Conference. About the same time, Wise got wind that the teachers at the school where they were holding services were concerned about a lack of daycare. At least one feared she’d have to quit teaching -- a loss to the community.
In 2002, Wise created a nonprofit called Solid Foundations, modeling it on an enterprise in Louisiana. A nonprofit could engage in activities a church couldn’t do; it allowed Solid Rock to hold property, for example, before it was officially chartered as a church. And it also could do business with the school system.
So, working through Solid Foundations and funded by a $55,000, three-year grant from The Duke Endowment, the church renovated a building for a daycare. Solid Rock now has received more than $500,000 from The Duke Endowment and is one of seven partner congregations across North Carolina in the Thriving Rural Communities program, an initiative to help rural congregations and pastors.
Wise became one of the first employees of the daycare, doing administrative work and even subbing in the classroom. The first year, the daycare had nine children; by the next year it had 45. The church is proud of adhering to high standards and providing good quality daycare – two of its teachers won national awards last year.