The genuine spirit that built a ‘Solid Rock’

Schlimgen chooses to not use a pulpit during his sermons, to lessen the degree of separation between him and the congregation. He uses a music stand to hold his notes. PHOTO BY Rick Gonzales

Pastor Mike Schlimgen

Editor’s note: This is the fifth part in a series profiling San Marcos’ diverse religious leaders and what they bring to the community.

Mike Schlimgen is a man of many parts. Years ago, I met him at what was then, Jim’s Gym. It was a casual acquaintance, a hello here and a passing remark about the weather or whatever. I once remarked that he looked like Tom Selleck. His reply: “Lots of people think I look like Mark Spitz.” In a recent encounter I discovered that his many identities would fit either, but, of course he is neither. He is unique and has several identities in his past.

On June 24, 1977, Schlimgen’s life was changed and events of that day led to what would be his life’s work. He begins, “I was flying in a HH 53, helicopter – commonly known as the Jolly Green Giant – from Woodbridge, England to Bavaria to do a high altitude mountain rescue. We planned to land at Stuttgart, Germany, to refuel. I took up the number one position – where the hoist and the machine gun are located – when you are making a pick-up in a combat situation.

“My immediate task was to spot for the pilot because they can’t see directly below when landing. 500, 400, maybe at 300 feet we lost all the lift. There was just no lift for the helicopter. We dropped like a rock and the helicopter hit the ground nose first. Tore the landing gear off, flipped backward and tore the tail section off.

“The blades are still rotating and with the tail section gone, we have no autorotation. All the weight is at the top of the helicopter. It flipped upside down, caught on fire.”

Schlimgen describes this event as an encounter – an encounter with God. In all his experience with Air Force para rescue, he had never had a survivor. For instance, he explained, “We go into crash site of a jet airplane and all that is there are bits and pieces and charred debris.”

He describes the descent as seeming to take a long time. And God reassured him that he would be safe. “Now, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t going to be dead. You can be safe when you are dead. And that encounter has carried me through ever since.”

Having experienced a helicopter crash some years before, I remarked that I was never afraid to die and wondered if he were ever afraid of death. “No,” Schlimgen responded, “and I’m not afraid today.”

Mike Schlimgen formed Solid Rock Church in 1993. DAILY RECORD PHOTO BY DENISE CATHEY

I questioned his awareness of the danger he frequently faced and wondered if he ever realized how close to death he was. At this point, we were distracted by a mutual discussion of the beauty, peace and exhilaration of the descent in a parachute.

“There were times,” Schlimgen said, “when I was aware of the danger – on the side of a mountain the circumstances are different and I wouldn’t say I was frightened. It is just a heightened awareness.”

During the descent, Schlimgen found himself resisting reality and imploring the powers that be not to let it happen. “But then a calm settled over the scene. It was like the passing of a storm, when quiet seems to totally fill the atmosphere.”

He went on to describe the scene. “Things are flying all around me, but I’m safe. Totally focused and everything is in slow motion. You become aware of the minute details and your heightened sensitivities allow you to hear, feel, smell at an almost superhuman level.”

The helicopter hits. Schlimgen has a shattered left leg, and a broken back, but still had the presence of mind to unhook from his safety harness and look for a way to take others with him out of the helicopter. Too much debris and equipment prevented his finding other crew members, so he crawled out. He remembers praying for the crew.

At this point, I wondered about his deep faith and the presence of mind to pray for others. So, when I asked if he were raised in a religious family, he said, “Well, there was a time when I thought one ear was longer than the other because that’s how my parents drug me to church. That gave me an awareness and a respect for God, but no personal connection. I saw the crucifix, the cross, and I knew Jesus died for me.”

At this point, I suggested we move several years ahead. “In 1993, you formed a church here in San Marcos, the Solid Rock, which is nondenominational and is Christian fundamental. What church were you raised in?”

“I was a Catholic,” was Schlimgen’s surprising answer. “Raised in a Catholic home, served as an altar boy, knew all the Latin prayers. It was wonderful. I had great respect, but I never experienced a personal life-changing encounter with God.

“Now what I mean by life-changing is day to day, moment to moment, being aware that God is wonderfully in control of my life. He has a plan and a purpose.”

“Going back to the helicopter crash in 1977,” I queried, “where do you go from there?”

“First, let me go back to your term ‘fundamental’ as you referred to the Solid Rock church. I always shy away from labels, because it gives people a certain impression.

“Here’s what we are: The Solid Rock is a family church; we are basic; we are simple. It is a Bible church which includes people from all walks of life, all skin colors, all ages. We make things simple. We sit at tables, informally, instead of in rows.

“When I preached, I did not have a pulpit. I used a music stand. I did not get behind anything. The only separation I had from my congregation was that I had the honor to serve them.”

Getting back to the crash: I pointed out that there was a 16-year gap between the helicopter crash and the formation of the Solid Rock Church.

“Two years of that was rehab,” Schlimgen said. “I went from Stuttgart, Germany, back to Lakenheath Hospital in England and was their longest term patient. I was initially in traction – I’m a special operations Air Force para rescue trained individual – and here I am all bandaged up. Here comes the candy striper with a water color, paint by number set for recreation therapy. I did it, but I knew there was something better.

“I went back to my unit, but was unable to perform the required duties, obviously no parachuting, no mountain climbing, etc. So I applied for cross training. I had a few medical skills and tried that, but was rejected because I was unable to lift a patient and could not stand for more than 30 minutes.”

Schlimgen explained that he went before medical board after medical board. One board’s finding would be reversed by the next board. He found himself in uncertain limbo. So, in frustration, he wrote his congressman. In about two weeks a telegram arrived, instructing that he be released immediately, with a medical discharge. No retirement, no real benefits. So, he returned to the states with no job, no support for his family, and no plan. “I did not know what to do.

“We are virtually homeless and by this time I have a wife and three children. So one of my friends I met in the military had a house near Tyler, Texas. It was a one room summer cabin. But it was a roof over our head. Down at the dead end of a country road there was the railroad tracks and a small Baptist Church.

“I went down there and told them that I wanted to work for the miracle workers because it’s a miracle I’m alive. They hired me as the youth minister, and whatever else arose. I was an associate pastor. I did what was needed. My ministerial education was obtained while in the military. During my recovery I belonged to the Military Navigators, a religious group that helped me grow in my faith. I had a mentor who helped me grow my faith; how to help others; how to grow closer to God.

“I learned how to relate one to one. And, during this time, I promised God I would pray every day, read the Bible every day, try to help someone every day, and give time to God every day. My goal was to help one person at a time and to do it every day.

“First thing I know, I’m being trained by the senior pastor on how to give a sermon and other aspects of ministry. One Sunday, a young couple appeared in church and the senior pastor told me they were getting married next Sunday. You are doing the wedding.”

As the youth minister, there was a suicide and Schlimgen readily admits he did not know what to do, except be there for the mother. There was no father. As he progressed in the profession that chose him, Schlimgen concentrated on helping one person at a time, whether it was marriage reconciliation, overcoming alcohol abuse, ameliorating grief, or developing strong bonds of understanding and trust.

“What I always wanted to bring to the ministry,” Schlimgen said, “is the same trust one develops in the military. We are in this together. I believe in you until you give me a reason not to. I’m going to help you and you are going to help me. We are bonding as a family.”

So, at my request, Schlimgen gave me a chronology of his path from a small Baptist church near Tyler to the creation of Solid Rock.

This is the bumper sticker version: Got a civilian job in sales, along with his pastoring. Was promoted in the sales job and moved to Austin. Took on the pastorate of a small church near Temple – Bateman, Texas – enrolled at Texas State University, describes another encounter as he drove in to school one morning, wherein he “got orders” – to use a military vernacular – to minister in San Marcos. During a blimp ride over San Marcos he received a vision for Solid Rock.

After serving Solid Rock for several years, Schlimgen has formed another ministry, specializing in working with veterans who are in some state of rehabilitation. It is Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing. The veterans learn to tie flies, experience the thrill of landing a fish, maybe for the first time in their life, and experience other therapeutic activity.

“So, when I began going to VA hospitals, working with veterans, I wanted to get them outdoors, get dirt under their fingernails and let them sweat a little,” Schlimgen said. “I love fishing. So, every Friday, we go fishing. Occasionally, we go on trips in between.”

As this profile was put together, I was privileged to hear many anecdotes and stories from the life of a man of many parts. Space restrictions preclude my including all those stories, but they seem to be unending and completely engrossing. Most importantly, they are the testimony of a man of great faith and a man dedicated to the service of others. Schlimgen’s stories recount small miracles, the trials and travails of living and sharing that faith and the euphoria of leading another to the comforting awareness of God.

To encounter Mike Schlimgen is to be in the presence of genuine spirituality.

“When I preached, I did not have a pulpit. I used a music stand. I did not get behind anything. The only separation I had from my congregation was that I had the honor to serve them.”

San Marcos Daily Record

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P.O. Box 1109, San Marcos, TX 78666