Better Together: two Brunswick churches unite to form Larger Parish

Rev. Jay Hanson, lead pastor at The Chapel; Coastal District Superintendent Dr. Wayne Moseley; and Rev. Whit Kirkland, Taylors UMC pastor

On Jan. 18, 2015, new life will be breathed into a 204-year-old church.

The same day, centuries of history will flow into a 10-year-old church as Brunswick’s Taylors United Methodist Church and The Chapel join together to form the new Taylors Chapel Larger Parish.

A historic union – larger parish congregations aren’t common in The United Methodist Church, let alone in the South Georgia Conference – the two churches are partnering to expand their ministries, spread the gospel, and grow the kingdom of God.

Multiple congregations working together under the authority and guidance of one appointed elder, larger parishes use a parish-wide council and other committee and work groups. The Taylors Chapel Larger Parish will be comprised of three congregations: Taylors UMC, The Chapel, and the eventually-to-be-formed Taylors Chapel UMC.

Rev. Jay Hanson will serve as Taylors Chapel Larger Parish’s lead pastor and will continue to serve and teach at The Chapel.

A group of attendees from The Chapel will accompany Drew Thompson, who currently serves as The Chapel’s executive pastor, and join Taylors UMC’s contemporary service attendees to form Taylors Chapel UMC.

Cameron Jones, ministry assistant at The Chapel, will get to know the Taylors UMC congregation over the next few months and prepare to lead the church’s traditional service upon Rev. Whit Kirkland’s June retirement. A group of attendees from The Chapel will also move to the Taylors UMC’s traditional service.

“This is historic and monumental for the number of people you will reach in this community,” said Coastal District Superintendent Dr. Wayne Moseley at a called charge conference during which The Chapel’s partners unanimously approved the larger parish model. 

What’s old becomes new again

Originally named “The Chapel” when it was formed in 1810, Taylors UMC has experienced a decline in recent years. A neighborhood church and social hub back in its heyday, the aging congregation has struggled to adapt to its changing community.

A childcare facility and a contemporary worship service were added with hopes that young families would be attracted and attend, but the church’s numbers continued to dwindle.

“Even before I got here the church has been looking at … what they could do to bring new life into the church,” said Rev. Whit Kirkland, who has been appointed to Taylors UMC since June 2010. “The congregation has been constantly asking what we can do to bring back some younger people so that when the older generation goes on to glory we’ve got some people to take their place.”

Knowing they needed to make a change, the Taylors UMC congregation prayed for guidance.

They prayed that God would use the church to witness to the community, bring people to Christ, and that it would have a bright and enduring future.

“Our prayer was, ‘God, we want to continue to be your lighthouse here on this corner – show us how to do that,’” Rev. Kirkland said.

Room to grow

With average attendance peaking at just over 1,000 people in four worship services, The Chapel’s growth has plateaued.

The church that started in a bowling alley has run out of space again.

Brunswick’s youngest United Methodist congregation, The Chapel has experienced rapid growth in its 10 years. But having maxed out space in its current location – the church’s fifth home – it needs more seats to be able to fulfil its mission to make disciples.

“We have realized that at this campus … we can’t reach more people and we’re not going to grow past (1,000 worshippers) here,” said Rev. Hanson. “So if we are going to reach more people for Christ we are going to have to find another location.”

For years The Chapel’s leaders had searched in vain for a second venue. They looked at theaters, old buildings, and vacant car dealerships, but nothing panned out.

“Several years ago I felt pretty convinced that God was leading us to have multiple sites, but we just kept running into roadblocks,” Rev. Hanson said. “So much so that I felt like God was saying no. I feel like we tried for several years to make this happen and we couldn’t do it in our strength. But when we yielded to God he just blessed us and said, here you go.”

A seed that was planted two years ago when Rev. Kirkland and Rev. Hanson traveled together to Ginghamsburg, Ohio, grew and blossomed during a bike ride a few months ago. An idea took root as the two friends talked about their ministries and shared their struggles.

“This comes from two visions that merged,” Dr. Moseley said. “Really, the Holy Spirit has been at work in this entire process. When doors seemed to be closing, a way was made for us to work around those issues and move forward. The goal here, of course, is to expand the territory of ministry of all three of these congregations. The goal is to minister to more and more persons in the Brunswick area and grow the Kingdom of God.”

While being a multi-site church isn’t a new concept – churches all over the country have added second, and sometimes more, venues – most build a new building or move into an empty space. What’s unique about Taylors UMC and The Chapel is that they are working together, using each other’s strengths and talents, honoring history and tradition, and paving the way for new ministry.

“It does present some challenges and it’s not necessarily the easiest way to do it, but I think it’s important for us to honor those who have paved the road that we are now traveling on,” Rev. Hanson said. “I think it’s worth the effort and it’s a way of respecting the work of those who have gone before.”

The larger parish model has the potential to be transformational, he said. There are countless churches that need seats and even more churches that need people.

At the heart of it is a fundamentally Wesleyan concept – connectionalism.

“I think at the very heart of it, leadership at The Chapel and Taylors UMC realized that we want to have a greater impact for the Kingdom of God in this community,” said Dr. Moseley. “This is what I call a God thing. Both pieces of the puzzle came together … and by uniting, they expand the area that can be reached.”