“My best friend is the one who brings out the best in me.” —Henry Ford.
Spend an hour with Mark Carnes and Bill Coleman, and you’ll see Ford’s words in action. The pastors of He’s Alive Church in Kannapolis say the inspiring friendship they’ve shared for a quarter century would never have come about without Wingate’s W’International program.
Members of Wingate University’s Class of 1993, Carnes and Coleman became co-workers this summer and began to live out a dream born during their junior year.
“We had both lived on campus for two years and had never talked,” says Coleman, a Winston-Salem native who was pursuing a business management degree at the time. “It’s not a huge campus, but we had different groups of friends.”
Across campus, Carnes, a communications major from Waxhaw, spent most of his time with his teammates on the tennis court.
But when their junior year rolled around, both wound up in Martha Asti’s W’International seminar headed for a 10-day adventure in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. W’International is Wingate’s signature program that allows juniors to study abroad for $1,000 or less. Asti, now Wingate’s senior vice provost for professional studies, was a music professor at the time and asked her class to choose roommates for the trip.
Coleman says he looked over at Carnes, who wore a pony tail and a red headband, and instantly profiled him.
“I thought, This guy needs Jesus,” Coleman quips. “I’m sure he took one look at me and thought, That guy loves food more than he loves God.”
Carnes admits he had already sized Coleman up as a “dweeb” but figured he’d be having so much fun in Europe that it didn’t really matter whom he roomed with.
But by the time they boarded the plane to leave the states – the first international travel for either of the North Carolina natives – the friendship had clicked. They were virtually inseparable for the next year and a half until graduation.
“W’International forced me out of what I was comfortable in into another sphere of people,” Carnes says. “During that whole experience, I met people and became friends with people I never would have otherwise.”
Coleman says the time overseas whet his appetite for foreign missions.
“In me, it planted the first seeds of what was to become a love of stepping into other cultures, which has led to 20-plus mission trips and traveling all over the world training pastors,” he says. “That was my first international experience and when I realized that stepping into other cultures fed a part of me that I didn’t even know about before.”
Although he majored in business, Coleman had taken a number of religion courses and knew he was headed to seminary. He would go on to earn his master of divinity from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina, and his doctor of ministry from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Before Coleman left for seminary and Carnes ventured to Nashville to pursue a music career, they stayed busy on campus, bringing out the best in one another as the friendship deepened.
“We talked, we’d spend hours talking about everything – theology, women … everything,” Coleman says with a laugh. “And we did everything we thought of to do. One time we staged a wrestling match in Helms Forum – I mean a full-fledged, eight-man, tag-team match.”
They also produced their own “Batman” movie with Carnes as the hero and Coleman as the villain, via a series of unsanctioned video shoots inside Cuddy Arena between 11 p.m. and 3 a.m.
“We both love to have fun. We joke and we can get into things,” Coleman says as the two reminisce. “His creativity can run as far as you can imagine.”
Alike in some ways but with different skill sets, the ministers say they sensed that their personalities complemented one another and talked about the possibility of one day doing some type of ministry together.
“We honestly didn’t think it would be in a church setting — I never even wanted to work in a church at the time — and I certainly thought it would be sooner than this,” Carnes says.
Nonetheless, after graduation Carnes took an internship in Tennessee hoping it would be a gateway to a music career as Coleman headed on to his postgraduate theology classes. Still, they kept in frequent contact.
“A lot of people, you’re close to at one time, you lose touch, then see them again, have a good reunion, and then move on. That was never the case here,” Coleman says. “We have never lived in the same place, besides Wingate, until now, and yet we’ve always stayed close.”
Coleman married Wingate classmate Tiffany Reid and served in several pastorates, the longest of which was 14 years at a church in Winston-Salem. Then he joined a church-planting mission in Roanoke, Virginia, in 2012, becoming pastor of Bedrock Roanoke, but not before checking in with Carnes to see if the time might be right for a joint venture.
Carnes, whose wife, Lori Eades Carnes, is also a 1993 Bulldog alum, had taken a “temporary” job as a worship leader and youth pastor that lasted two decades. He wasn’t ready for something new in 2012, but found himself stepping out to lead a new church in Kannapolis a year or so later.
It looked like the two had once again missed an opportunity to do ministry together, though they had coordinated some individual events over the years.
“He would come preach for me or I would be in a Christmas performance at his church or preach where he was,” Coleman says.
Carnes adds, “We had many near misses that almost made it happen, and many closed doors and unfinished dreams over the years.”
That was to change this summer when Coleman arrived at He’s Alive to serve as associate pastor.
Carnes and a group of committed Christians started the He’s Alive ministry with Saturday-evening services held in another church and then moved to their present location on Cannon Boulevard about two years later. By the summer of 2016 he was calling on Coleman to come help with the growing congregation, now about 500 strong.
“I loved where I was in Roanoke,” Coleman says, “but I started praying, asking for red flags, and I didn’t get any.”
Sensing God’s leadership in the move, Coleman helped Bedrock shore up key leadership positions before heading toward Kannapolis to take a supporting role at He’s Alive. It’s the first time since 1995 that he’s been anything but lead pastor.
“Mark’s had a lot of administrative work to do because the church grew quickly, and one of the things that makes Mark Mark is his creativity,” Coleman says. “When you are weighed down with administration, it saps creativity.”
“The complement makes us all better,” Coleman adds. “I bring some things to the table that haven’t been here before. It’s a really good fit.” The two share preaching responsibilities, and Coleman is working with missions and discipleship in addition to his administrative duties.
Carnes is thrilled to have the chemistry of the friendship that started so long ago sparking even greater creativity at He’s Alive. “Our work atmosphere here is that I just can’t wait to get here to see what happens today,” he says.
Carnes is amazed by how the dream born during college is finally playing out, and he can’t say enough about how Wingate helped set the stage.
“The value of the Wingate experience for me: not only was it really the first time I studied and tried hard academically, but even greater than that was that it taught me the value of relationships,” he says. “Because it was a small school, it provided a platform for relationship and all the opportunities that were then created purely through those relationships with other students, professors. … We met our future wives there.
“If I were speaking to a group of students today, what I would tell them is not to undervalue the moments you think are insignificant, because they are invaluable. Those moments that Wingate created for me were platforms to form relationships that have endured during my whole life.”
Sept. 6, 2017