Click to listen to the Audio interview              <<    Heroes    >> 


Rockwell Dillaman

A well-known pastor who had stayed in one church was asked what was the secret of his success. He answered, “I didn’t quit!” That can be said of Pastor Rock Dillaman, who has been the pastor of Allegheny Center Alliance Church (ACAC) on the North Side for almost 30 years. There are not many people in the area who don’t know something about ACAC or know someone who goes there, for today ACAC is one of the areas largest churches, maintaining a strong presence in the North Side community. In this excerpt, Pastor Rock shares some of his ministry philosophy for a city church.

JS: And I’m here today with one of our pastoral Urban Heroes, Pastor Rock Dillaman. So, Pastor Rock, welcome to the Urban Heroes program.

RD: Thank you, John.

JS: Tell the listeners and readers a little bit about you.

RD: Well, I’m from Butler, PA, so I never got very far in life! I came to the Lord at age 19½ after boasting that I would never darken a church door the rest of my life.

I wanted to be a jazz musician, but after coming to faith in Jesus, felt a clear call to ministry, and have been serving 35 years in pastoral ministry; the last 29 here on the North Side [of Pittsburgh] in an exciting multi-ethnic, multi-economic, multipolitical, diverse congregation that is attempting to make a real difference for Jesus in the world, and in this community.

JS: How did you end up in Pittsburgh and the North Side?

RD: Well, I was pastoring in a little town called North East. I heard that this church was coming open and looking for a pastor. Immediately upon hearing that, felt a confirmation from the Spirit that I would be called here. I put my name in the ring, was interviewed, and asked God if He would confirm His calling by giving us a unanimous call. The elder board, 13 members, convened, and with no discussion whatsoever, voted by ballot what they felt God was saying to them. And the first ballot was unanimous. So I knew that God clearly was calling and had confirmed that.

JS: Was urban ministry something you had thought about very much? Or was this opportunity the first you had been presented with?

RD: Yes, it was the latter, a totally new paradigm. I didn’t have any training in urban ministry. I didn’t have any real cross cultural experience growing up in Butler, at a time when I think there might have been one African American in my graduating class of 1,100. So it was a totally new paradigm for me. And sometimes, I think that’s advantageous. Because I came in realizing I was in over my head. And if God didn’t do something, I certainly couldn’t do anything. So I just came and threw myself on the Lord and said, “God you’re going to have to show me what to do, because I don’t have a clue.” And I think God delights in doing things through people who don’t know what they’re doing, because then they don’t get in the way of His glory.

JS: So talk to us about the condition of the church, the neighborhood, or both, in 1984 when you came to the North Side.

RD: Well, the church was about 400 discouraged people, an older congregation. I remember my first Sunday looking out at a sea of white hair, and thinking, “Oh my, what have I done,” because I left a younger congregation. They were discouraged. They were talking about closing off the balcony, that they’d never need it. They passed on the opportunity to acquire adjoining property that we later fasted and prayed to acquire.

And they had a bad reputation in the community, and they had attained it the old fashioned way – they had earned it. Because, sadly, the church for a number of years , not everybody in it, but some of its leadership and people had been bigoted. And, that’s not conjecture; I’ve talked to people who were on staff in those days. And so, they had a reputation as the white church that didn’t care for black people, sitting in a community that’s probably 60%-65% black. And one young lady who was later on our staff and preached in the pulpit, as a young black woman in the neighborhood, used to sit on the front steps and smoke weed just as an act of defiance against the church that didn’t like people like her. So it was a discouraged congregation.

The neighborhood, the North Side of Pittsburgh, is sort of synonymous with urban blight decay. A lot of people, when they hear North Side, think crime, poverty, drug-selling, violence, death, and so on. And certainly, all of that is here. Quite literally across the street in every direction. So it was a needy community, and a needy church.

But the church was needy spiritually, and the community needy in every way – spiritually, economically, socially, and so on. So I had friends tell me that I was a fool to come here. That the church had no future in this neighborhood, and it seemed sort of strange coming from people who advocated for cross-cultural missions all around the world, but who saw this church as one being in a place where there was no hope of ever having any kind of success. But again, God obviously overwrote all of that.

JS: Now, you must have been confronted with people who thought that it was time to move the church, as many intercity churches have done; fled to the suburbs for big land and a big parking lot. How did you respond and what did you say?

RD: Well, one of the earliest things that God impressed upon my heart was that this church had been strategically placed here by God when it was founded. And He didn’t found it here, just to have it move somewhere else. But this is where God planted this church. It had a rather remarkable beginning with manifestations of the Spirit. And I sensed clearly the Lord saying that there are enough strong evangelical churches in the suburbs. Those folks matter to Him as well. But there’s a dearth of strong evangelical churches in the city. And He put it here, and He wanted it to remain here. So I broached that idea at the time [with the elders], and thankfully they concurred and we just went on record as saying, “We believe this is where God called us to be, and we’re going to strive to obey God and be effective here, and put the matter of ever moving off the table and off the agenda and just put all of our energy here. And that’s what we’ve done to this day.

JS: So it’s off the table. You can’t move. But what do you do after that? What are some of your first steps, do you remember, to try and prepare people to stay?

RD: Yeah, stay! Haha! Forget about the new ones coming; just getting the old ones to stay. The first thing the Lord impressed upon me was that the congregation needed hope, because they were discouraged. And, they knew they had a bad reputation. Knew that they were almost entirely drive-in and no one was from the immediate community, like many old historic churches. So they weren’t very hopeful.

So, the first thing the Lord led me to do was preach on the book of Acts, and the dynamics of the Holy Spirit. And he affirmed it with words of knowledge and healings, and things of that nature, to give the Word greater credibility. And the people began to believe that God wanted to do a new thing, a fresh thing, and that the church’s best days rather than being behind them, could indeed be before them. And I think that was critical, because without hope you can have a great strategy, but nobody’s going to sign on. People have to have hope, especially to embrace change.

And that was the next thing the Lord led me to do, was to lead in efforts of change. Not for change’s sake, but to create the kind of church environment that would be welcoming to people from the urban community. And that meant we had to get over some charis-phobia (charismatic-phobia), that raising your hands didn’t mean the church was going to go down the slippery slope of Pentecostal-ism and so on, but that it’s normative and beautiful and ordered by God’s word. So, we had to get past charis-phobia, we had to change music to reflect who we were trying to reach and not just who had been there previously.

We had to change our children’s curriculums to be sensitive to our multi-ethnic neighborhood. Had to change preaching style. Had to make all kinds of changes, and with each of those changes, some people jumped ship. But, with each of those changes, God brought in, back in those days, probably a 100-1 ratio of new people. It still took us 11 years before we began to see any appreciable black presence in the church.

Prior to that, we were seeing many black children and young people in our children and youth ministries. But we hadn’t won the confidence of black adults. And I understand that, and understand why it took a long time. Most folks had been on the receiving end of a lot of empty promises. But around year 11, we began to see a trickle. And then the trickle became a fairly steady flow. And then the flow got stronger and stronger, to the point where today, we really do reflect the Pittsburgh area and probably close to 30% of our congregation would be black, and then Hispanic and Asian and so on. But, a true cross section of the North Side, which is now our largest zip code in terms of membership, but also of Allegheny County.

So, we had to create an environment open to the Spirit, and open to all kinds of people. And when I came, there really wasn’t an openness to either one. It was a fear of the Spirit, and probably some fear of all kinds of people.

JS: Did you ever have a time where you were really discouraged?

RD: Oh! The Lord gave me a word that, I think it was in my first year, He gave me a word, I sort of kept to myself, that in ten years, there would be 1,000 people. There 400 on a good Sunday when I came. Well, in the early years, I’d say the first 4 or 5 years, we’d see 40 new people come in and 25 leave. Not because of dissatisfaction primarily, but moving to the Sunbelt, to Chicago, and Boston, and North Carolina – work related. Because those were the days of a great exodus out of Pittsburgh, when Pittsburgh was on way to losing half its population.

So at one point I remembered thinking, “Well maybe God meant over 10 years time, I’d minister to 1,000 different people!” But I knew that wasn’t what he was intending. But because it took so long before we won the confidence of the black community; so long before we saw any appreciable growth, there were times when I was tempted to think “Well, maybe they were right. Maybe this church can’t go anywhere. Why would people come to this church when they could find big facilities and ease of parking elsewhere?”

But then about year five or six, it started to take off and right on the nose year 10, we were averaging 1,000 people. And then God didn’t give me any numerical grants after that. Just that He was going to continue building His church. So, yeah, there was more than ample discouragement. I had enough I could have shared, passed it around, and still had 12 baskets left.

JS: What’s the size today? What do you run in services?

RD: Well if everyone shows up, like on Easter, who regularly consider this their church, it would be around 4,000, but an average weekend is about 2,700 – 2,900; somewhere in there.

JS: Tell us about your family when you moved here. What did they think of moving into the city?

RD: Well when we first came, we didn’t live in the city. Because again, I came without real understanding. So everyone encouraged me to get a nice little place in the North Hills, or somewhere, and that’s what we did. And that was fine, and we commuted like everybody else. But then the day came when I realized, no we’ve got to incarnate the Lord’s presence here, and I need to live in this community. But by that time, our kids were all middle-high-school aged. So they weren’t many years in the city school system.

But their experience was very positive; they enjoyed it. I don’t think they ever felt any kind of fear or danger. They came in with their eyes open, but I think they came in sharing our vision. They had a wonderful experience, and two of the three still live in the city; still live on the North Side. The other probably would, but work and family and some other things put them just outside the city. But, yeah, our kids had a good experience and my wife and I love living in the city, and we’re on a busy, noisy street. Last night I think there were seven speeding siren running police cars in a row that went by our front door on their way up the hill. But the house we’re in now is the one we plan to retire in. We enjoy living in the city.

JS: The church is a part of a denomination called The Christian & Missionary Alliance. Not well known; not real huge in the United States.

RD: No. We’re not Southern Baptists!

JS: Were there lessons, were there things that you drew out of the CMA history that helped you in your work here on the North Side?

RD: Well yeah, I think first of all, A.B. Simpson, the founder of The Alliance, and many of the early Alliance folks, had a real understanding of dependence upon the Holy Spirit. And I think a good balanced understanding of dependence on the Holy Spirit. The first pastor, when asked to superintendent the work, said that he wasn’t capable, but if the Holy Spirit would superintend, he’d run errands for Him.

And my father had raised me to see ministry in life that way. So between parental example, and Alliance theology, and church practice and history, that influenced me to come in and just say, “Okay, Holy Spirit, what do we do?” And I never once reached for “What worked here? What worked over there? What was somebody marketing or sharing?” There’s nothing wrong with that, but I just sensed God wanted me to ask the Holy Spirit, and get small installments, and do what I was told. And again, from The Alliance, I learned of expecting the manifestations of the Spirit, and God’s confirming signs of the Spirit. But something else that I learned in The Alliance was that if you’re reaching out to unreached or underserved groups of people, God will guide you through that process.

It may not be easy, but God will give you success because The Alliance is far bigger overseas for that very reason. We’ve gone into tough places, shared the Gospel, and God’s given fruit. And the other key piece I learned in The Alliance was you’ve got to die to yourself for God to use you. And I really drove that stake in my first church, and then had to whack it and drive it a bit deeper in this one! But I think that was an invaluable thing that helped prepare me to discern the Spirit, respond to the Spirit, and all of those things come out of that Alliance background.

JS: You mentioned your dad. I know he’s had a major impact on your life. Talk to us a little bit about that.

RD: Well, my dad was converted after the second World War; suffering from post-combat stress disorder. They wanted to sign him away permanently; he was non-functional. He read a Bible for the first time in his life, read Matthew’s Gospel, knelt down in a courtyard at a hospital, and God saved him and healed him. They sent him home. He spent the next 30-something years selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door, sharing Jesus every time he went into a home, and leading over 3,000 people to the Lord.

And dad’s life was a modern chapter from the book of Acts; words of knowledge, healings, miracles, evangelism. Never got beyond the eighth grade in education and never went to Bible college. But he read it every day, read God’s Word, believed it, and put it into practice, and God honored him. So he gave me my greatest training for ministry; more than Bible college and seminary. As good as those proved to be, dad’s example of “Read the Word, put it into practice, and expect God to show up;” that was the biggest influence in my life.

JS: When things started to break loose at the church, and people started coming – ACAC has a reputation for what it does in the community – when did you start to see, or what was your strategy in not just having people come, but as they come, having them go back into the community and make an impact?

RD: Yeah that took a bit, because again, it wasn’t my background. I was raised in a pretty typical mono-cultural, mono-ethnic Alliance church of a couple hundred people in a small town. So the whole social dimension of the Gospel was new to me. But as I looked at the immediate community, I think I said intuitively, in the Spirit, “Hey, we’re surrounded by tremendous need. We need to preach the Gospel. But we also need to address this need. Or else we’re just clanging symbols and making a lot of noise.” But I didn’t have the theology or the strategy.

So in those days, I began to read from people like John Perkins, Christian Community Development Association, and other writers and pastors who had a more holistic understanding of the Gospel – Jim Wallis, and others. And just began to pore over the Scriptures and really began to see just how much that Scripture addresses doing works of justice and compassion. Not just as setting the table for evangelism, but as acts of God’s love and compassion, in and of themselves, whether people respond to Jesus in faith or not.

That was a new idea for the congregation. And I had to sell that. And not just as a strategy. I had to show that biblically, this is a part of our biblical heritage and our Alliance heritage that we had lost. And as I studied history, early Alliance people got it. But then they lost it along the way, when the so-called Social Gospel Movement arose with a weak theology; they over reacted to that and left what was a very good theology.

So I had to point out that it was biblical, it was in our DNA, that it wouldn’t pull us off the main thing, that it was part of the main thing. And really create a whole new understanding of what it means to be God’s servant in a city, in a community. So that took a while to catch on; it really did. But once it began to catch on, God blessed it and endorsed it, it enabled a lot more people to serve in a lot of new and exciting ways, and then it just began to get a momentum all of its own.

JS: What are some of the things that ACAC has done, that you’ve seen, their involvement with the people in the church and their community?

RD: Well, so many things. Some of the things, we’ve launched, some we’ve come just alongside of to put some wind in the sails. A couple doctors from our congregation with another physician started the North Side Christian Health Center, to provide primary care to the poor. And it was initially housed here [at ACAC], the offices, not the place where they saw patients. And, we supported financially and got involved in build-outs and things like that.

We started a foundation through one of our youth pastors, Ed Glover, Urban Impact Foundation, to really reach out to underserved young people with arts, education, athletics, that has proven to be tremendously successful in helping highly atrisk young people find Christ and live honorable and successful lives.

Two of our members, based on what we were preaching and teaching, started a Christian lending organization known as Grace Period, that provides the poor with an alternative to predatory payday lending. We helped one of our members start a business in the community that now employees thirty people; planted a women’s choice network in the community to help the women of the community have an alternative to abortion and to get pre-natal care. And those are just a few of the things we’ve done to actually make a difference in the lives of people.

JS: And of course we’ve had community funerals, sometimes unfortunately, when a church was needed for a tragic and sometimes high profile funeral.

RD: Yeah, and sometimes we contribute or have even purchased a gravesite for a teenager that’s been gunned down, and then minister to the family. We provide free counseling, free legal aid, all kinds of things, and our benevolent ministry dispenses close to probably $150,000 a year; most of it to people in the immediate neighborhood, providing cars…

JS: And after school programs…

RD: The after school program that helps young people academically. The summer day camps that now minister with us and Urban Impact, probably close to 300 children, keeping them off the streets during the summer months and building into their lives biblical principles. So, a whole lot of different things going on that if the church were to disappear tomorrow, I think the community would genuinely miss it.

JS: What’s up for you? You say you want to retire in your home, so you’re obviously going to stay in the community. So what’s on tap?

RD: Well, I’d like to see what God has next for this congregation, because I think God has shown us a lot of things, but not just for our own effectiveness, but that we could share and don’t know exactly how that’s going to flesh out, but I’m convinced that we’re to do it. I’m sure that God’s going to show us the details, and would like to lead the church in that charge, expanding our footprint, perhaps into other urban neighborhoods in Pittsburgh, helping Alliance and other churches in urban settings to learn from what we’ve learned and be more effective in urban environments.

So I’d like to see us share what God’s shown us and scatter a lot of seed all over the place, and then one of these days, pick a successor, take a year or two to gradually hand things off so that there’s no hiccup of leadership, and then I’d love to be an emeritus staff member, with less responsibilities and do more writing. But as an emeritus staff member, [I’d like to] just mentor and go back to some of the visitation and pastoral counsel that I used to do years ago that’s still in there. And be a blessing to whoever takes my place, and be behind him, with no threat of putting a knife in his back, but instead blowing some wind into his sails. And then die in service.

JS: Mmmm hmm. With your boots on.

RD: Ah huh. Hopefully not during the 9:50 service!

JS: Final words or thoughts of somebody listening or reading and considering urban work or urban ministry?

RD: Well, like anything else, I think you have to be called to it. I think if somebody pursued urban ministry just because it caught their fancy or it appeared that it might be glamorous, I think it would be akin to going into pastoral ministry or cross-cultural evangelism for those reasons; you’re probably not going to stick. You’ve got to know that you know that you know that this is what God wants you to do, because it is more challenging. Property, location, just a whole host of things. It’s more challenging.

But if God calls, rely on the Holy Spirit, and see the urban setting, not as a detriment, but as a really wonderful and unique opportunity for God to be glorified in the city. I think if you rely on the Spirit, see your context as an opportunity, and finally in your heart, be an advocate for your city, then I believe God is capable of far more than we’re seeing in American cities. If we’re going to in any way turn this culture back in a God-ward direction, it’s not going to start in the suburbs, it’s going to have to start in the city.


U R B A N   H E R O E S