Wilhite ending 40 years at Calvary Baptist Church

lgierer@ledger-enquirer.comApril 12, 2014 

During his 40 years at Calvary Baptist Church in Columbus, the Rev. Don Wilhite has spoken to many local congregations and always asked the same question: "If you were to go out of business today, if your church closed, would it make a significant difference in the city?"

He believes closing Calvary would have a big impact on the Columbus area.

And, if so, much of the credit for that goes to Wilhite, who is retiring April 27 and passing the position of senior pastor to the Rev. Jeff Struecker, his co-pastor for the last year.

During Wilhite's leadership of Calvary Ministries, facilities have been built that aid many families in the area.

Those include:

• Calvary Christian School for K-12th grades.

• Calvary Community, a 108-unit apartment complex for the elderly and those with mobility impairments.

• The Gardens at Calvary, an assisted-living home licensed for 100 residents.

• The Green House at Calvary, a memory care unit for the elderly dealing with illnesses such as Alzheimer's.

• The Columbus Christian Counseling Center, which provides biblically based counseling for those in need.

"Most of the people who take advantage of our services have no connection to Calvary," Wilhite said.

He is proud of the work that Cavalry has accomplished over the years, especially at the school that began in 1976 with 13 students and now has about 575.

"At the time we opened, we were the only private Christian school in the city other than the Catholic schools," Wilhite said.

A new baseball field for the school is currently being built.

Calling to ministry

Wilhite describes himself as "a Christian who is biblically conservative and wants to demonstrate what Jesus teaches about living with each other."

He grew up in a housing project in Birmingham, Ala., which he compares to the local Booker T. Washington complex.

He went to Phillips High School but dropped out his senior year. When asked why, he replied "because I was stupid."

"I used to blame all of my problems on others," he added.

Five years later, he got his GED and then a degree from Samford University in Birmingham. He would later earn a master's degree and a doctorate from Luther Rice Seminary in Jacksonville, Fla.

It was at a Billy Graham crusade that he first felt the calling to the ministry.

He did not come from a religious background and when he told family and friends of his plan to preach, he recalled, "they did not believe me or care."

He preached at a few churches in Birmingham, the last being Fairfield Highlands Baptist Church, before coming to Columbus.

Emmett Williams, a pastor who served as his mentor in Birmingham, gave him the advice to "marry a church and stay there."

"A lot of pastors move around, go to a church then bail out. That wasn't me," Wilhite said. "When I came to Calvary, I was committed to stay. Like in any marriage, there have been ups and downs, some hard times, but I never wanted to leave."

A move for growth

Calvary, which now has about 550 attending Sunday services, was established July 4, 1908, as a mission of Rose Hill Baptist Church.

When Wilhite joined the staff as co-pastor to Byram Glaze in 1974, the church, originally called Jordan City Baptist Church, was located on 13th Avenue.

It was not long after Wilhite came on board that the church moved to its current location.

"We moved out here for growth," he said.

For eight years, however, church members met in two locations.

It was an intentional transition, Wilhite said.

Older members just would not leave their familiar church home, he said: "This made the change not so traumatic."

But Calvary continued to grow, though the process was difficult.

"Some chose not to go with us," Wilhite said. "It was unfortunate."

Struecker said he plans to do the same and is looking forward to a long relationship.

Continuing to grow

Wilhite, a 70-year-old married father of two, believes in caring for people from the cradle to the grave. To do that, Struecker said Calvary must continue to grow.

"We have got a couple of more steps, God willing, that we would like to get accomplished," said Struecker, a 45-year-old married father of five.

Those include a nursery component for children under 3 years old and a nursing home facility that would provide hospice care.

Perhaps, not all of that could be at the church's Old Moon Road location.

"We are always looking for land," Struecker said, laughing. "Anybody who wants to donate some, give us a call."

Struecker said his family was drawn to Calvary three years ago by its commitment to helping others and by Wilhite.

Struecker said it is rare to see a great pastor who is also a great leader such as Wilhite.

He called replacing Wilhite a "daunting task," one that will be demanding.

"Our pastor is deeply loved in this

community," Struecker said. "He loves and serves this city."

While Wilhite battled prostate cancer in 2013, undergoing two surgeries and 35 radiation treatments, Struecker handled most of the senior pastor duties.

A new leader

Struecker first came to Calvary as a guest speaker. Wilhite called Struecker dynamic and said he saw "great potential." The church created a position for Struecker in 2011 as associate pastor.

Struecker comes from a military background. Before spending his last 10 years as a U.S. Army chaplain, he served as a combat soldier who won the Best Ranger Competition in 1996. His battlefield heroics were described in the book and film "Black Hawk Down." He has a master's degree from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Struecker has written several novels and a non-fiction book "The Road to Unafraid: How the Army's Top Ranger Faced Fear and Found Courage Through Black Hawk Down and Beyond." He said he is "excited and terrified" about his new position.

"When I joined the Army, never in a million years would I have expected to be here," Struecker said.

Wilhite and Struecker have split time giving Sunday sermons over the past year. Wilhite has already delivered his final one as senior pastor. He said it took him three months to write.

"It was emotional," he said.

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