Endurance of pastor and church

As the fundraising nears its goal, the needy in Angola are not the only beneficiaries. Solberg’s example of discipline taught his church. So did his absence. Dick Nielsen, who took over leadership of the governing council on the eve of the pastor’s departure last July, says he didn’t want the extra responsibility at first. “I asked, ‘Why am I the leader when Mike’s leaving for four months?,” Nielsen recalls. But the next months were a revelation for the 68-year-old retiree and others in the church. “The congregation and staff just pulled together. We got stronger and closer by realizing what we could do.”

Second Congregational Church is a symbol of perseverance in downtown Rockford, a city of 150,000 with one of Illinois’s highest poverty rates. Situated 90 miles west of Chicago on the Rock River, Rockford was hard hit by the Rust Belt’s industrial decline. Once the city’s largest church with 3,000 members, today Second Congregational has 600. Many of Rockford’s poorest residents live nearby the downtown area where the church stands.

When a fire destroyed the sanctuary 30 years ago, the church members had to choose whether to move or stay. They chose to stay.

“They stayed even though Rockford was dying,” says Sally Hoff. “Those people who stayed are the ones who have that true commitment to downtown.” As part of that commitment, the church recently opened a new gym and community center used by local chapters of the national Boys and Girls Clubs.

“The young adult population in our church has really been thriving,” says Sally Hoff’s daughter, Maggie, now an engineering student at Duke. “I know that [Mike] had a lot to do with that. We all appreciate the way he walks the talk. He took on this lifetime goal and made it helpful to people in need.”

The pastor has accomplished his goal, but he says the willingness to risk failure is more important.

“Maybe the church doesn’t pay enough attention to risks that are worth taking,” Solberg says. “You have to be very careful, prepare, and plan. You just don’t launch out and swim the English Channel without proper preparation. But sometimes that risk can really be full of renewal.”

Ned Barnett is a freelance writer based in Raleigh, N.C. He is a former editor and writer at The (Raleigh) News & Observer.

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