07/21/16 — Church turns to solar farming

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Church turns to solar farming

By Brandon Davis
Published in News on July 21, 2016 1:46 PM

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First Baptist Church trustees president Charles McLendon, left, stands with trustee Angelo San Fratello, center, and pastor Dr. Dennis Atwood in front of a 38-acre solar farm owned by the church.

MOUNT OLIVE -- A local church is making money from the sun to use in its ministries.

First Baptist Church in Mount Olive is operating two solar farms on land bequeathed to the church by a late member. Its pastor says the purpose is to keep the church solvent and doing God's work.

"This is just what God has brought to us and it's become a part of who we are," said Dr. Dennis Atwood, who has pastored First Baptist for 13 years. "We're going to keep riding that as long as God puts it before us."

Atwood began preaching at the 153-year-old church the year member James Everette Joyner passed away. Joyner started a trust fund the previous year, which would furnish First Baptist with farmland, timber land, homes, stocks, bonds and cash.

Among the gifts Joyner gave First Baptist, two tracts of land in Mount Olive have proven to be the most beneficial. Property on West Main Street has 130 acres, while Bert Martin Road has 56 acres.

The tracts remained farmland throughout the recession of 2007, when the church watched its finances dwindle and could no longer survive off of individual offerings alone.

The 400-member church had doubts about First Baptist's future.

"Things were tight," Atwood said. "I think we were doing OK, (but) we couldn't think forward really. We were just trying to hold our own, maintain our ministry and staff year to year. That's expected."

First Baptist depended on the rent from farmers who grew crops on the land, but a company gained interest in the 186 acres to produce clean energy. In 2011, Birdseye Renewable Energy contacted the church and offered to place solar panels on the West Main farm land for clean sun-generated energy.

Since solar panels were unknown around certain areas of eastern North Carolina during that time, First Baptist formed a team to check the credibility of Birdseye. The team included the pastor, a lawyer, a banker and a state senator and other professionals in the church.

First Baptist found Birdseye to be a credible source for solar farming and paying rent. The entire church accepted to move forward according to trustees president Charles McLendon and trustee Angelo San Fratello, who said Joyner's trust fund was required to be monitored by a president trustee only.

"We had a 100 percent positive response from everybody," San Fratello said. "So we felt good about who we were doing business with. Everything that Birdseye said would happen, happened, just like they said it would."

The church rented the land to Birdseye, and First Baptist's revenue from the solar farm increased by 833 percent, according to San Fratello.

But in 2012, the 89 acres of potential solar panels on the West Main property dropped to 36 acres when a clean energy policy from N.C. legislature prohibited large solar farms. San Fratello said the state government and Duke Energy approve solar farms under 40 acres only.

San Fratello worked closely with Birdseye to add 26 acres to the West Main property.

By 2015, nearly 20,000 solar panels began gathering sunlight and dispensing energy to power lines, making First Baptist's solar farms the first in Wayne County according to San Fratello.

Now the Joyner Trust Fund is the Joyner Endowment Fund, and has increased church revenue by 35 percent, and the church's new VISION 2020 takes on a new mission -- reach the community.

"It's freed us up to do mission and ministry in ways that we're not constantly going, 'How are we going to pay for that?'" Atwood said. "The way we move forward from here is, 'Now what? What else is there that God might be bringing toward us that we can sink our efforts and resources in to make our community a better place and fulfill our mission?'"