As an early teen, Rodney Ellison didn’t see himself becoming a pastor. By the time he was 15 he had become so disillusioned with church he completely lost interest in attending.
Ellison stopped believing in the version of God that had been presented to him, even as he had grown up regularly attending Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church with his family.
Now pastor of that church, he says the gospel message he heard as a child did not always come with grace. Instead, he remembers hearing mostly fire-and-brimstone messages that created a crisis of belief for him.
“I always thought God was love and forgiveness, but all I heard, for the most part, were messages of condemnation and punishment,” Ellison says. “I became increasingly uncomfortable with that version of who God is and what God is like.”
Ellison now believes his former pastor, Herbert Dixon, focused primarily on these things out of love because he didn’t want anyone to suffer the consequences of not having salvation. He now refers to Dixon as his “greatest mentor,” but he says as a teenager he didn’t understand why his pastor overwhelmingly preached on condemnation and not often enough about the love of God.
While he now sees that message as commonplace for the older generation of preachers, he says today’s worshippers require new approaches that address hopelessness and despair.
“When you are struggling, particularly if you have made poor choices that created the struggle, you need a message of love and restoration. You need to know how God can fix it, not just how you broke it,” says Ellison.
His sister Penny ended up being the tool God used to help restore Ellison’s faith as a teenager and put him on a path to one day preach the gospel.
When he was 15 his mother asked him to accompany his sister to a church event where she was a participant. He wanted no part of it, but his mother gave him no option.
When he got to the church he felt very uncomfortable and remembers feeling trapped and not able to leave when he wanted. It taught him a great lesson.
“Sometimes we go in with one idea and God not only has a different idea but will drastically change our entire life once we discover God’s idea for our life is better than our own,” Ellison says.
That’s precisely what happened to him that day.
He heard a message through song that really touched his heart. Through the song God spoke to him and Ellison began to understand he had a responsibility to be a part of the growth and change he so desired to see in the church. That day he fully and wholly dedicated himself to God and has not looked back since.
He says he also gained a different and better appreciation of his mentor as the years went on. He quotes a Bible verse from I Corinthians 13:33 he says explains the process – “When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child, but when I grew up, I put away childish things.”
“When I was young, I was so busy criticizing what I didn’t understand about my mentor I tended to take some things for granted,” he says. “While he was certainly a fiery and serious preacher, he had a heart of gold and taught me things that have sustained me in ministry all these years.”
Ellison doesn’t necessarily believe fire-and-brimstone messages have no place in the pulpit today. He says preachers have a responsibility to teach the full gospel, which includes a message of repentance and the remission of sins. He teaches about both eternal salvation and eternal condemnation, but the message of God’s grace and love is the cornerstone of each sermon.
Under Ellison’s leadership Mt. Zion has had a major impact in the Flint community. The church provides clothing, food and water to local citizens in need. The church is also a meeting place for many non-profits and serves as a conduit of information and resources for its members and Flint residents.
One of the most important endeavors Ellison and the church are involved with is promoting healthy eating and living. The effort stems from his personal battle with Type II diabetes.
“Having diabetes really opened my eyes up about prevention Type II diabetes, which I have. It can be stopped a mile away if we are eating and living the right way,” says Ellison, who now walks daily to help promote good health.
Ellison does all this with quiet determination. He doesn’t like to be the center of attention and says it is better to lead by example than to pursue accolades or awards for serving God’s people.
As time has gone on and he has grown and learned, Ellison considers himself to be a different version of his mentor, Herbert Dixon. He is simply a pastor who knows God will always tell him what his congregation needs and how his messages can serve that need. He says what he is sure of is “grace is more powerful than condemnation.”
Editor’s note: Stacy Swimp was a guest of Pastor Ellison on March 4. He says it was quickly obvious there is a culture in the church that reflected the character and personality of its pastor. Every commentary and every greeting he heard exemplified love and kindness.
What becomes of a community without faith? Flint’s residents hope they’ll never know. Made up of not only a mix of churches and other worship centers, the city has a devoted number of mission outlets and faith-based outreach programs. These parishes and organizations offer guidance, encouragement and a sense of stability, even during the city’s most challenging times. TheHUB’s Keeping the Faith series profiles the work spiritual leaders and their meaning to the community they serve.
See more of TheHUB’s coverage of Flint’s faithful: