Bouncing back: Survival of the faithful
By Kirk Noonan
Things were going real well.
The church had opened its doors in 1962 and gone from one building campaign to the next. Staff members were added regularly to accommodate the ever-growing congregation.
With a reputable name in the community, church leaders and laypeople unashamedly took the gospel into the marketplace and neighborhoods. The church even publicly supported and promoted two nationally known televangelists. In the early ’80s the congregation pledged nearly $2 million to build a new sanctuary.
“Then the testing time came,” says Hugh Rosenberg, founding pastor of Tri-County Assembly of God in Fairfield, Ohio.
A local automobile plant closed. Workers were laid off, including some 100 congregants from the church. Many of those families moved to the South drawn by the prospect of new jobs. With them went close to $1 million in pledges.
Things got worse for the church.
Building engineers discovered poor soil where the new sanctuary was being built. Before construction could continue, they said, the soil needed to be removed and replaced. Doing so would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Interest rates soared past 20 percent. Even worse, the congregation’s weekly tithe dropped from $30,000 to $11,000.
Both televangelists the church endorsed suffered moral failures within 14 months of each other. People in the community and even in the church suspected the church’s leaders also lived double lives.
More people left.
In an attempt to keep the church open, salaries were slashed and several staff members laid off. The bloodletting helped, but something even more drastic needed to be done to pay the bills. Rosenberg obtained a loan for $3 million to keep creditors at bay. Advisers also told Rosenberg to do something he felt would be fatal to the church.
“They told us to drop our missionaries so the church could survive,” he says. “I told them, ‘If we do that, we have no reason to exist. Missionaries are our lifeline.’ ”
Sticking with it
Rosenberg grew up on the plains of Kansas during the Great Depression. The son of an Assemblies of God minister, he never eschewed hard work and embraced the concept of holding onto material things loosely — especially any wages he earned.
“Tithing and giving were normal happenings in our family,” he says.
To earn money he plowed fields on the family tractor. Doing so earned him $3 a day, which he used to buy school clothes and other luxuries he wanted. Called to ministry, he sought license with the Assemblies of God. His first pastorate was in a gas station where three people met for services. In little more than a year the tiny congregation grew to 40 people.
A year and a half later Rosenberg moved to northern California to be an associate pastor. He bought a $75 trailer, loaded up his family’s belongings and moved to Sunnyvale.
There, Rosenberg, his wife and baby daughter moved into a small house. They sold the trailer for $300. For the first time in Rosenberg’s life he felt rich. Not sure what to do with the windfall, he decided to save the money because it felt good to finally have a cash reserve.
A few weeks later, during a Sunday night service, a missionary talked of the need for the gospel to be spread in Fiji. Compelled by the Holy Spirit, Rosenberg gave the $300 to the missionary.
“That was the beginning of a journey with missions for us,” he says. “Ever since then, missions has been our heartbeat.”
That fact didn’t change when the Rosenbergs moved to Ohio to start the planting of Tri-County AG in 1961. And it certainly didn’t change, adds Rosenberg, when the church faced potentially lethal financial times in the 1980s.
“Despite several impossible situations, we continued to support our missionaries without reducing or dropping our financial pledge to them,” he says.
But the church was spiraling toward financial ruin. Rosenberg found refuge each night at the church’s altar where he cried out to God. An answer to his prayers came in the most unexpected way.
Rosenberg learned of a family in the community embroiled in a controversy at a local hospital. Doctors wanted to amputate a boy’s cancer-plagued arm. The boy’s grandparents, his guardians, wanted to pursue other medical alternatives.
Rosenberg went to the boy’s room and prayed with him and his grandparents. Through his subsequent visits to the hospital he developed a friendship with the family.
After a period of time the cancer took the boy’s life, and the grandparents asked Rosenberg to conduct the funeral service. He did.
After the service the grandfather thanked Rosenberg, handed him a check for $50,000 and asked how the church was doing financially. Rosenberg admitted the church was in poor financial condition. The man asked how much debt the church had. Rosenberg reluctantly told him about the $3 million debt.
The next day the man gave Rosenberg a check for $3 million to pay off the loan.
Keeping the faith
Twenty-five years after the Rosenbergs gave their $300 to the missionary from Fiji, their eldest daughter, Renee (whose last name is now Carlson), went to Fiji as a missionary.
Today the church, now pastored by Rosenberg’s son, Brad, is debt free and continuing to reach people with the gospel.
“As Christians we must give out of our resources,” says Rosenberg. “But why not go beyond that and embrace a true faith challenge — something we can’t do alone, but only with God’s help? That’s when things get exciting.”
So exciting that a church springs to life and suddenly the unexpected happens. As Rosenberg found out, it’s all part of the art of bouncing back.
Kirk Noonan is associate editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.
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