SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. (Feb. 11, 2016) -- For the next two years, Holston Conference will lease “The Gathering,” a former church building on 49 acres near Dollywood Theme Park, in a bold attempt to reach millions of annual visitors to the Great Smoky Mountains.
The Rev. Rusty Taylor, director of congregational development and revitalization, said Holston Conference signed the two-year lease agreement with Citizens National Bank on Feb. 1. The Extended Cabinet voted to approve Holston's leasing of the property on Jan. 14, acting ad interim for the Annual Conference.
“In order to expand our reach within the conference, we’ve got to have the capacity to be in ministry in those places where there are the greatest number of new people,” Taylor said. “This particular area – Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg – has a high potential for evangelistic outreach."
The $150,000-per-year lease will be paid through congregational development funds held by the Holston Conference Foundation, Taylor said. “At the end of two years, if our ministry plans have not developed in a way that we feel is viable for us, we can walk away.”
If the ministry developed at The Gathering is self-sustaining by January 2018, Taylor said, he will pursue Holston Conference’s purchase of the property. If that happens, the $300,000 paid for leasing the site will be applied to the purchase, he said.
The 38,000-square-foot building and acreage at 1250 Middle Creek Road in Sevierville is currently listed at $5.3 million, reduced from $6.7 million within the last year, Taylor said. The facility was built by a local nondenominational congregation in 2008, reportedly for $11.3 million.
An estimated 10 million visitors come to the Great Smoky Mountains every year, Taylor said.
His vision for the site includes (1) a bookstore and coffee café; (2) a Saturday-night “vacation church” worship service; (3) Christian concerts; (4) hosting of Holston events such as Divine Rhythm, Jubilation, and Convocation; (5) a recovery ministry; and (6) livestreaming and podcasts of on-site programming.
The El Ministerio del Espiritu Santo congregation at First United Methodist Church of Sevierville, led by the Rev. Susana Lopez, plans to relocate one of its worship services to the Middle Creek Road facility.
Average worship attendance in the Hispanic congregation's Wednesday-night service is 140 and has potential to grow, Lopez said. On Feb. 10, worship attendance was 166.
Located three miles north of Dollywood Theme Park, The Gathering is visible from the heavily traveled Veterans Boulevard.
The facility is a steel structure with stucco and stone and includes a large atrium and auditorium seating for 800. The lower level is a brightly painted space originally created for children’s ministries. The building is equipped with “state-of-the-art audiovisual capabilities,” Taylor said.
The property also includes a large pavilion, suitable for hosting Camp Wesley Wood’s “Camp in the Community” outreach, Taylor said.
The Gathering’s former congregation, also named The Gathering, held its first services on the site in April 2009. In October 2013, the church surrendered the property in return for the bank forgiving its $9 million debt, according to The Mountain Press.
Taylor said that in addition to the $150,000 annual lease, about $118,000 will be needed annually to pay for utilities, insurance, and upkeep. He said the facility will begin generating income when the bookstore and café are established, as soon as May 2016.
Other sources of income could include concerts and subscriptions on livestreamed or recorded programming, Taylor said.
Becky Hall, chair of the Holston Congregational Development Team, said the Sevierville site has “endless possibilities.”
“I see that location as wonderful for a United Methodist presence in ministry, witness, and hopefully in worship,” she said. “My prayer is it will spark something new and exciting for Holston.”
The majority of the Congregational Development Team was in favor of leasing the property, Hall said. “Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Sometimes you have to reach out and take those risks.”
Congregational development “does not always take the form of a church plant,” she said. “It can include witnessing and sharing faith with others. Livestreaming can become a following of its own.”
The final plan for the facility’s use is “still being fine-tuned,” she said.
The signing of the lease was the culmination of two years of conversations and visits to the site, Taylor said, including a Cabinet meeting in spring 2015 and a September 2015 open house for members of 11 nearby United Methodist congregations.
“The first time I went over there, I said a prayer,” Taylor said. “I said, ‘God, if you want to do something here, this is not something we can do by ourselves.’ It seemed like doors kept slamming shut, but then the doors kept opening up.”
Taylor said that only part-time staff – building management, custodians, groundskeepers, technical workers – will be hired until the facility is “up and running.” He said he hopes the bookstore and café can be staffed by volunteers.
“This is going to be my project for a while. We’re not going to be hiring a director. I’m going to do that,” Taylor said.
Many Holston pastors will have a first look at the site on Feb. 23, when the annual “Clergy Gathering” will meet there. This year’s Clergy Gathering is scheduled in the midst of Convocation, held Feb. 22-25 at Music Road Convention Center in Pigeon Forge.
Taylor said he’s looking forward to sharing the vision and talking to many others about the possibilities at 1250 Middle Creek Road.
“If you think about Francis Asbury, he rode out into the wilderness. He didn’t stay in Baltimore or New York which is where a lot of preachers wanted to stay,” Taylor said. “He rode into the wilderness to share the good news of Jesus Christ.”
Annette Spence is editor of The Call, the Holston Conference newspaper.