A vision across the road: God’s ‘new thing’

SUMTER – When the third snake in eight months showed up, a faithful helper was ready to go. But it wasn’t long before everyone had to go. The congregation was kicked out of its church. “God was definitely doing a new thing.

“It was God’s way of showing us what contemporary worship looks like,” reasoned the Rev. Telley Gadson, pastor of St. Mark United Methodist Church.

The United Methodist Conference of South Carolina shut the church down because it was unsafe.

Hold that image and go back a few years.

As the events surrounding the old building began to unfold, “All we had to lean on was God and each other,” Gadson said.

Gadson greeted 35 active members when she came to St. Mark in 1999. It was part of a two-point charge that got seven new pastors, usually probationary elders, in 11 years. It was conditioned to instability.

Gadson’s mother, Linda Gadson of Rural Ministries, had shocked her, made her uneasy before her new congregation, when she spoke of the idea of having a church across the road in her daughter’s first service there in June 1999.

In August 2000, a white man named W. A. Henderson called. “I see cars parked along the road. You’ve got overflow parking and I believe you all need a church. I own the land across the road and I’d like to see you have it.”

And, probably out of curiosity, they’d already made a call when the for-sale sign went up across the road: $180,000 – and the congregation, taking in $200 to $300 a Sunday, didn’t have that kind of money.

Henderson offered it to them for $75,000. “How long can you hold my check?” Gadson joked with him. Soon he made a better offer, owner-financing. “It was evident God had touched him,” Gadson said. The church gave him $2,500 earnest money and it was financed for five years – a loan they paid off in two years.

Into this process, members were afraid Gadson would be moved and then where would they be, shackled with a financial commitment. Adding to their burden were the snakes and other problems causing the conference to close their old church down. “What!” members said. They “would have to raise money and pay to lease a building, too?” They met at a sister church, Bethel/Oswego, for a short while, but that was temporary.

They moved into a little commercial building in downtown Sumter.

By April 5, 2010, St. Mark’s pastor was showing the former insurance office on South Sumter Street they had called home for three years to a committee from another church who wanted to rent what had become “sacred space.”

On April 9th, they met to talk about their journey. On April 10, they walked the three and a quarter miles to their new brick church on 1093 Oswego Highway, across the road from their former home. On April 11, their new church was consecrated.

As Gadson led a whirlwind-tour of the downtown storefront as she reeled off a litany of acronyms, JPs: Judah Praise, 17- to 30-year-olds; VIPs: Voices of Inspiration, a dance ministry; AA: Aaron’s Army, youth and college boys who perform mime; DD: Deborah’s Daughters, young females who do a flag ministry; NuCreations, praise dancers age 10-15; WOP, Women of Praise, ages 50 and up; Primary Praisers, girls and boys to age 12; AH, Anointed Harmony, a praise team; MOF, Men of Faith; WT, Women’s Team. And the dizzying list goes on: UMYF, YAMs, Middlers and GAs (Golden Age). Family ministries are called “The Village.”

You quickly get the picture that there are more than 35 active members now; the number has more than quadrupled, to a conservative 160 and it is no longer part of a two-point charge. “People like to be connected to a winner,” so new members came, and she credits members’ “tenacity to stick and stay.”

Other than the force of Telley Gadson’s personality and faith, what happened to produce a 6,000-square-foot brick church on a large spread?

“You have to have a healthy relationship. Ministry is a marriage between the pastor and the congregation. The pastor has to have a clear vision and the congregation has to have a clear commitment,” Gadson said. She shared her vision, “This is what God is calling us to do,” and then asked them, “Let me hear what you’re hearing, and what is your commitment.

“I’d rather struggle with limited finances than with limited vision,” she said. “With great resources and no vision, you get a social club for the intellectually elite; with a clear vision, you’ve got real church.”

Her values and vision didn’t allow for any raffles or rallies to raise money. (“They’ll think if they worked on a fundraiser, they don’t have to pay their tithe.”) “We had this huge incentive across the street” while they were in the old church. To pay off the mortgage on the land, in addition to the $803 a month, they concocted, “$30,000 in 30 days” – and it took only 60 days; and “$15,000 in 11 days,” and it took about 20 days. The bank financed the building, but not furniture and fixtures, but much of that was donated. She’s still passing out envelops for contributions.

Gadson attributes some of the success to the very thing that raised fear in her congregation – that she was becoming known all across the country as a rising African-American female pastor, and she would leave them. That national contact, however, brought a larger group of contributors, a $1,000 here and $2,000 there.

She also credits the coach training she had in Nashville.

“I’m of the persuasion this church is built for struggle,” Gadson said, and that doesn’t seem to scare her one bit.

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