Their pastor’s big plans had caught some of his congregation by surprise.
“When Mike initially shared the idea of swimming the English Channel, I thought he was nuts,” says Kathi Ferrero. “But as he paired the swim with his dream of a school in Waku Kungo, I knew he could be successful.”
Dick Nielsen, the moderator of the church’s governing council, says Solberg’s proposal left the congregation “a little bit in awe and surprised.” But their surprise didn’t last very long.
Swimming the channel was a goal Solberg had first set for himself at age 15. Over the next three decades, he had neither the time nor the resources to pursue it. But after seven years as senior pastor at Second Congregational, Solberg had the opportunity for a three-month sabbatical. Suddenly, all the pieces seemed to come together.
He approached his congregation with a plan to connect his time away, his swimming goal, and the church’s ongoing commitment to the West African country of Angola, a nation torn by a long civil war that ended in 2002.
He would use the channel swim to raise $50,000 to help the city of Waku Kungu. The money would be donated to the Evangelical Congregational Church of Angola for a school that will serve children during the day and adult vocational students at night.
In his doctoral thesis at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, Solberg argued that observation of the sabbath should be about more than worship and rest: it should also be about play and service. As an extension of the sabbath, he believed, a sabbatical should include physical activity and service to others.
The connection impressed Sally Hoff, a longtime member of Second Congregational. “Everybody is so proud that this endeavor was not just to fulfill a lifetime goal of his own,” she says, “but to make it count for so many other people.”
In the fall of 2008, Solberg and an enthusiastic church committee learned that Lilly Endowment had approved their application for a $44,760 National Clergy Renewal grant.
In addition to supporting a three-month leave and expenses associated with his English Channel attempt, the grant would allow Solberg to travel to Angola to present a check for the school.
On the Saturday of his swim, many of Solberg’s parishioners from Second Congregational United Church of Christ were at the church’s annual golf tournament. Someone had brought a laptop computer so they could track Solberg’s progress through a navigational device attached to his escort boat. Family and friends across the United States, in Angola, and around the globe followed, too.