Sanctuary dedication latest milestone in Chapel Hill's growth

04/14/2014 6:08 PM

04/15/2014 6:37 AM

The clock never really stops for Jeff Gannon, senior pastor of Chapel Hill United Methodist Church.

On Easter Sunday, Bishop Scott Jones will preside at a ceremony dedicating a $6.9 million expansion of the church at 13th and K-96, across from the east Warren Theatre.

The church has a new sanctuary that can accommodate 910 people. That triples the size of the the old worship space.

The new sanctuary allows for the renovation and reshuffling of the old space into more rooms for preschool, nursery and Sunday school, as well as a kitchen and administrative offices.

The new sanctuary is a warmer, more inviting space than the multi-purpose room that it replaces, said project architect Justin Graham of Schaefer Johnson Cox Frey.

“I’m pleased for them,” Graham said. “It’s been a great project that we’ve been working on for three years from initial design to completion.”

The general contractor is National Contractors of Wichita.

It’s the latest milestone in a long road for Gannon, the only senior pastor the church has ever had.

He was appointed pastor of its parent church, Bethel United Methodist, 255 S. Estelle, in 1991 and Chapel Hill in 1994.

Gannon, in an interview last week, sounded entrepreneurial in laying out his strategic thinking about why and when churches need to move and expand.

Bethel’s congregation had gotten older, and the numbers stopped growing, he said, although it had a dynamic youth ministry, mainly from the neighborhood. It remains in the United Methodist denomination, but is now the Korean United Methodist Church.

At the same time, Wichita was growing at the edges and Gannon saw a need for a new church on the eastern edge of the city.

“Our history is to go where the people are,” he said. “Our people are our church.”

He led 20 members of Bethel’s congregation, with church approval, to found Chapel Hill Fellowship in 1995.

For the first seven years, they met at Wichita Collegiate School as they built attendance and raised money.

And Gannon kept doing his research. It showed, for example, that Midwesterners want a lot of land with their church – at least 25 acres, he said – for expansion. Older churches can stagnate when they become landlocked, he said.

The land at K-96 and 13th was the best land available in the area they were looking at. They also knew it would become prime commercial land.

The land was $7,500 an acre, but they had to buy all 46 acres, and they couldn’t afford it. The church and one of the church members decided to make the purchase together. The church kept 25 acres, and the church member, making his purchase individually, later sold the other 20 acres.

It has since been developed as town homes.

Today, Gannon said, church land along 13th is valued at nearly $500,000 an acre.

Gannon said they don’t plan to sell the land for commercial uses, but the increase in land value has done wonders for their ability to borrow money for church expansion.

The church congregation has continued to grow and is now 920.

The larger sanctuary allows the church to schedule two services rather than three in the old space. And the land allows the church to grow to meet the needs of parishioners.

A third phase will include classrooms, a gym, a chapel and offices. And a fourth phase will include a retreat center to make Chapel Hill a destination for churchgoers from across the area – what Gannon calls a Protestant version of the Catholic Diocese’s Spiritual Life Center in Bel Aire.

But Gannon wants to make clear that this is about service to people’s souls rather than about ego.

“The shoe should not determine how big the foot should be,” he said. “Take the lid off and see how far it can grow to what its redemptive potential is. That’s what’s driving this. The building is a means to an end. We don’t have an edifice complex. It’s part of the mission.”

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