Although Wichita Chapel Hill United Methodist Church would have welcomed a chance to celebrate its 25th anniversary this October, the coronavirus pandemic has delayed those plans.
Even a scheduled return to on-site worship on Nov. 1 was delayed in an announcement made six days previously with COVID-19 rates rising in Sedgwick County and the illnesses of several staff members.
The quarter-century was noted during the Oct. 25 worship service and in much of the sermon by the Rev. Jeff Gannon, the church’s founding pastor. A virtual choir was assembled to sing the church’s trademark benediction, “Go With God.”
For four Sundays, Gannon is marking the anniversary by expanding on Chapel Hill’s vision statement: “Welcoming all people to experience and share the extraordinary grace and love of Jesus.”
“We’re using that as a launching pad to have conversations with people in our community and people around the world who have become quote-unquote experts on the topic of grace and how that gets lived out in their everyday lives,” Gannon said.
It also is introducing #chapelhill25in25, a series of daily challenges, which began Oct. 26, to help the church’s members live out its vision.
It follows a similar path to Church of the Resurrection’s 30th anniversary, Gannon said, and leaders from the Leawood church were asked to consult on celebration plans with Chapel Hill.
Like Church of the Resurrection, Chapel Hill is synonymous with its founding pastor, who has remained its leader throughout its history.
Like Resurrection, Chapel Hill built its own church in a neighborhood where economic prosperity followed in terms of hotels, restaurants and attractions.
And like Resurrection, Chapel Hill has gone from a church plant to the largest attendance of any United Methodist Church in its metropolitan area in less than a quarter-century.
It wasn’t the intention of Jeff Gannon nor Wichita Bethel UMC, which he was serving at the time, to build a big church.
Gannon had asked members of the church he had pastored since 1991 to enter a year of prayerful discernment on the future of the congregation. After one spiritual retreat, leaders emerged with five ideas, “none of which included starting a new church,” Gannon recalled.
It took another spiritual retreat with 20 Bethel members, this time in Denver, for conversations to improve.
But a chance meeting at that Denver hotel with the Rev. Dr. Jerry Vogt, Wichita East district superintendent at the time, changed their course.
“We literally ran into him in the hallway,” Gannon said.
Vogt invited them to breakfast the next day and asked them to prayerfully consider becoming part of a new church on the east side of Wichita.
Agreeable to the idea, the group went back to the entire membership, who conducted an anonymous straw poll among its members. About 100 people attended that day, Gannon said, and 100% of them approved the idea of a new church.
After a year of planning, the new church had its first services at Wichita Collegiate middle school on Oct. 1, 1995.
During that year of planning, Gannon had them ask themselves the question, “Why 973?”
There were 972 churches already in the Wichita metro area at the time. What difference would another one make?
“Is it just to have another church? What is this church going to be about?” Gannon recalled. “We spent lots of time exploring the ‘why.’ The ‘why’ came back to one thing – we didn’t want to be homogenous, we wanted to be diverse, as diverse as we could in as many ways as possible.”
That included welcoming all people, Gannon said.
He uses the story of one woman to illustrate that theory come to life.
Church leaders were poised for “yet another retreat” for 72 hours to discern their mission and clarify their vision, Gannon said.
The day before the retreat he got a phone call from a voice he could recognize as a young female.
“May I come to your church?” she sheepishly asked.
In nearly 10 years of ministry, Gannon never had someone ask permission to attend services.
The young woman explained: She was a junior at Wichita East High School, raising a baby on her own.
She was attending church on the south side of Wichita, and when volunteers were sought to work with middle school youth, she was rejected.
“Why are you volunteering?” she was told, according to Gannon. “I don’t want your type working with our youth because you might rub off on them.”
Asked to have her baby baptized, she was also denied – told their church would never perform the sacrament on an illegitimate child.
The conversation ended with Gannon inviting her to church. The next day, he began the retreat with an announcement.
“Our messenger has come,” he said. “Our mission somehow needs to reflect that teenage girls seeking to have their babies baptized can find a safe place.”
More than 25 years later that young mother, Gannon proudly said, is now a missionary for The United Methodist Church, serving in South America.
Gannon continues to tell the story when he conducts new member classes.
“It still gives me goosebumps to this day,” he said. “Our mission of welcoming all people – we mean that. If we don’t mean it, then tear it (mission statement) off the wall.”
Seven years after beginning its services at Wichita Collegiate and two years after the closing of its mother church, Bethel UMC, Chapel Hill UMC opened its doors just off 13th Street in Wichita.
The area is now bustling with a cineplex, dozens of restaurants, hotels and high-end car dealers, but at the time it opened in 2002, Gannon said, its only neighbor was a funeral home across from Kansas Highway 96. K-96 didn’t even have a 13th Street exit, he added.
“It was totally virgin land,” Gannon said. “There had been no plowing, no infrastructure. We had to start from scratch on that.”
In a video during the anniversary sermon, church member Jan Longhofer said she suggested the name “Chapel Hill,” since the church was on a hill and she was from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
About 600 members were attending at Wichita Collegiate when it was decided the church needed its own building.
Even with that success, Gannon said he and church leaders were told it was too early to think of a physical building.
“We had people who said, ‘You’re too small to be doing this,’” Gannon said. “The best gift that God has given us – without sound flippant – is perseverance. Whenever we’ve come to a roadblock, we didn’t give up.”
Other roadblocks included the discovery of groundwater contamination at the site of the new church, which resulted a lawsuit and multi-year legal process.
“Working with all of those factors was very challenging. Lots of politics to it,” Gannon said. “All of those things are not what you think about when you say, ‘We want to build a new church.’”
Gannon said he and other church leaders see Chapel Hill as a cornerstone for development in the area.
“It’s a mutual blessing,” he said. “Once we got going, that gave courage for some others.”
The Rev. Dr. Mitch Reece, superintendent of the Wichita East and West districts, said it was advantageous for Chapel Hill to put down its roots where it did.
“When they originally planted, they were very strategic in the location which they placed themselves,” Reece said. “They were in that northeast quadrant (of Wichita), which hadn’t developed yet. That whole area now is really taking off.”
Part of the plan with the 2003 building was to make an addition for worship and turn the previous sanctuary into a large fellowship hall. The 766-seat sanctuary was consecrated on Easter Sunday, 2014.
But an aesthetically pleasing building and comfortable theater-style seats don’t mean anything if there isn’t a strong message, Gannon said.
“If Christ and the Bible aren’t relevant, what’s the point?” he said. “As churches grow, they can become a mile wide and an inch deep.”
However you define diversity, Gannon said, Chapel Hill has it covered.
Pre-pandemic, the church would draw as many as 1,200 to its services with a broad range of ages, races, political views and economic backgrounds.
“We have the ultra-right, we have the ultra-left, and many, many people in between,” Gannon said. “We have people that are so poor that I buy them groceries on a weekly basis, and we have people who make multimillions of dollars every year. They sit by each other, they worship together, they study together, they serve together. And that’s what I’m most proud of with this congregation.”
Chapel Hill’s message of welcome to all people, he said, is timed around the decisions on human sexuality that were to be made at the 2020 General Conference, now delayed to 2021.
“If we’re going to be who our mission calls us to be, there’s not even a conversation to be had here. Is the conversation important? Yes,” said Gannon, who describes himself as centrist. “We want to be inclusive, and when we say all people, that means all people.”
The church has several LGBTQ members, he said, and same-sex couples have come there to have their children baptized – some privately, others during a worship service, he said.
“Our place where we begin is different, because where we begin is not with human sexuality – we are created in the image and likeness of God, which makes you a person of sacred worth,” he said. “Therefore, you are one in whom Christ dwells and one with whom Christ takes great delight.”
A Montana native, Gannon began preaching at Thayer and Galesburg in southeast Kansas while a student at St. Paul School of Theology. He graduated St. Paul in 1988 and was appointed as an associate at McPherson UMC before being appointed to Bethel in 1991.
Steve Coen, who retired last year as CEO of the Kansas Health Foundation, recalls a conversation with Rev. Dr. Jerry Vogt, then a member of the foundation’s board of directors, about Gannon.
“He told me about this young, sharp pastor at Bethel United Methodist Church and they had recruited him,” Coen said.
Coen and his wife Monica were among the first people to worship at the new church plant and were convinced after hearing Gannon’s sermon.
“That cinched the deal, hearing him preach,” he said. “It’s been a huge part of our lives and a real blessing to our family.”
Coen, who now volunteers as many as 20 hours a week for Chapel Hill, said Gannon has led the vision of the church.
“That’s what we really stand for in this community,” he said. “I never really understood grace before I came to Chapel Hill. There’s that message about how you don’t really have to earn your way into the kingdom, and a lot of people don’t really get that. They think there’s a God that judges you all the time, a hateful God. We fully embrace that we have a loving God, and that message of grace is so freeing. That’s what we preach all the time at Chapel Hill.”
Coen said Gannon still has the mindset of a small-town pastor, wanting to know everyone’s name and genuinely interested in conversations with them.
“He’s such a wonderful, giving person and loves people so much – and everybody loves Jeff,” Coen said. “He’s just a kind, giving man.”
Reece, the district superintendent, said Gannon has been the right person in the right place throughout his ministry.
“Jeff has tried to be adaptive as the church has grown in various stages,” Reece said. “He’s tried to figure out how to move the church into a new direction as they encounter different seasons.”
Gannon has also become a respected leader in the area, Reece added.
“Jeff has been very good at getting connected in the community,” he said. “He’s pretty known by area businessmen and he has a good pulse on what’s happening in the city of Wichita.”
Reece said Gannon has added elements to the worship service – including weekly communion, a rarity in United Methodist churches – that appeal to former Catholics or those in a denominationally blended family.
“Jeff brings a different type of church to that side of town,” Reece said. “He offers a more traditional Wesleyan church.”
Gannon is one of five pastors at Chapel Hill, which includes Vogt – his former district superintendent – as senior pastor emeritus. Along Gannon’s side throughout the 25-plus years has been Rev. Dr. James Bryan Smith, a teaching pastor at the church as well as a best-selling author, founder and executive director of the Apprentice Institute for Christian Spiritual Formation, and assistant religion professor and chair for Christian Spiritual Formation at Friends University in Wichita. Smith delivers one sermon a month.
Now 57, Gannon, married and the father of three adult children, hopes to conclude his pastoral career at Chapel Hill.
“I’m here as long as God and the bishop want me here, and as long as the people will tolerate me,” he said with a laugh.
But he said he also hopes to have the personal discernment to call a close to his career before he is told to leave.
“The day in which I become unable to provide good spiritual leadership to this congregation is the day I should no longer be the pastor,” he said. “We have lots of conversation about all that.”
Also in conversations is a leadership succession plan, Gannon said, in case he is struck by the proverbial bus tomorrow.
“We have those conversations because they’re important,” he said.
Chapel Hill is celebrating its anniversary with a revamped website – chwichita.org – and a new logo that reflects the three crosses that are visible in front of the church on the bustling K-97.
It has renewed its commitment to the Planeview Transformational Coalition, begun in 2010 to serve one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Wichita, as well as Colvin Elementary and Jardine Middle schools.
While COVID-19 did dampen any in-person celebrations that Chapel Hill might have had this year, Gannon said he is gratified with the response the church’s online worship has received, with as many as 2,000 people viewing weekly.
And they aren’t just displaced Wichitans. Gannon tells of a man in Spokane, Washington, and a couple in Florida – none of whom have any apparent ties to Wichita nor Kansas – who have joined the church. The couple has even made funeral arrangements through Chapel Hill.
“They found us online and said we’re going to be a part of your congregation,” Gannon said. “That speaks to the possibilities and the opportunities.”
Contact David Burke, communications content specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.