Standing in the surrounding muck of mid-winter reconstruction, Robert Hunter brushed aside countless verbal jabs he attracted by wearing a particular red and white jacket.
Imagining how Gilead Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church in Huntersville will appear to passers-by in the near future, Hunter's mood could not be spoiled.
Hunter coolly deflected the one-liners about his N.C. State University jacket and the school's athletic standing from construction workers and friends.
"I wear the jacket because I'm a pastor," said Hunter, launching into his trademark high-pitch laugh. "It keeps me humble."
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In his 12 years leading one of the oldest churches in the area, Hunter is crusading to cement Gilead's standing within the community. He hopes investing over $250,000 for exterior renovations over the past six months will create a new energy to combat a dwindling congregation.
"We wanted to give an appearance of life to the building itself and show we are a viable ministry," Hunter said. "We did it right."
According to a 2008 LifeWay Research study of more than 110 small churches and minor institutions - those with Sunday attendance of 100 or fewer - face an array of challenges, among them a resistance to change from the congregation, a lack of commitment from members, a shortage of money and pastor longevity.
Hunter said Gilead Church is bucking those trends.
"Older churches that plateau don't seem to recover," Hunter said last week at his Huntersville home. "It's time to fight that. When you are working for the Kingdom of God , it's the most important work there is. Gilead Church will grow."
As a rookie pastor in 1998, Hunter said he stood before a congregation of around 75, most in their 60s and 70s. Currently, membership is around 40, Hunter said. During his tenure, he has performed more than 30 member funerals.
"That's a lot," he said, shaking his head.
A native of Charlotte, Hunter earned his Master of Divinity from Reform Theological Seminary in 1998. A husband and father of four who also studied at Queens University and earned an N.C. State undergraduate degree, Hunter shunned a 21-year career as a structural engineer to fulfill his calling, his passion for ministry.
First organized in 1787 by local farmers at its current location off Beatties Ford Road, Gilead Church is Hunter's last stop.
"This is my career," he said. "When I got here one of the problems I faced was communicating with the older congregation, who were watching their community changing, seeing their way of life changing."
Hunter insists the key to small-church success is pastor longevity.
"That's what churches need," said Hunter, who doubles as rhythm guitarist for the lively Praise Team band. "Someone to come in and own that place for the people. A lot of people are calling for pastors to stay the course."
Admitting to not being able to reach everyone, Hunter has helped people with a vast spectrum of issues.
"I have made every mistake in the book," he said. "We always hope to be more gracious and more merciful."
Now married 37 years and their relationship growing stronger, Carl and Elaine Huffman started attending Gilead Church two years ago. At the time, the couple needed help. They found Hunter.
"Robert changed my life," Elaine said. "My husband and I were separated when we started coming here, and Robert counseled us."
Among the final alternations, Hunter said a new, bolder sign will advertise a new era for one of Huntersville's historic churches.
"The old one wasn't really visible," Hunter said. "People fly by the church at faster speeds than they used to, and the new sign with bigger letters will at least let everyone know who we are, see we are here."