From surviving to thriving

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By Calen McKinney



They were hoping to just survive. Now, the plan is to thrive.

In May 2002, a group of residents formed nondenominational Living Grace Church. Since then, there have been three pastors at the church and membership numbers have declined.

Soon, a new pastor will take over full time and the church will combine with 3trees Church in Russell Springs to become part of a multi-site congregation.

As a result, the church building in Campbellsville - the former Coca-Cola plant beside Veterans Memorial Park - will be revamped and get a new name, 3trees at Living Grace Drive.

When combined, church attendance in Campbellsville and Russell County will stand at about 1,200. About 300 people attend in Campbellsville.

Dr. Terry Swan has served as interim pastor at Living Grace Church for about 14 months. On Sept. 1, he will turn over the reigns to new full-time pastor, Eric Gilbert, the founder of 3trees Church.

When the congregations combine, Swan, who lives in Campbellsville and teaches at Lindsey Wilson College, said he believes the multi-site church will become one of the largest churches in south central Kentucky.

"I am pretty confident that there's not a church with 1,150 to 1,200 [attending]," he said. "I don't keep track, but I'm pretty sure."

Gilbert says there will be a re-launch ceremony at the church in September or October to celebrate the new building and partnership between Living Grace and 3trees.

Swan says most people have heard of churches splitting and dissolving.

"When have you ever heard about two large congregations joining?" he said.

Swan first served as interim pastor at Living Grace in 2008, when the church moved to the former Coca-Cola plant.

"That was a real growth time," he said.

But about a year ago, Swan said, the church had lost some members.

"Many churches were in survival mode," Swan said. "Which we were ... but how can we thrive?

"But we didn't want it to stay there," he said. "We wanted a flourishing congregation."

In December 2012, church members began searching for a new pastor. Gilbert said he gave Living Grace a few names of possible pastors. He also told the church that his church would be glad to help in any way possible.

The following September, Gilbert said he got another phone call from Living Grace, asking what kind of partnership the church could form with 3trees.

Swan said a Living Grace member introduced him to Gilbert, and talk began about the churches combining.

"We were so similar in our missions," he said.

Both churches focus on not isolating themselves within the community, but becoming a part of the community. The goal, he said, is to make the entire community a better place.

"We want to be visible," Swan said.

In February, Swan said, Living Grace began a three-month trial period in which Gilbert would preach in Russell Springs early Sunday morning and then travel to Campbellsville for an 11 a.m. service.

"After three months, we said, 'This is great,'" he said. "I think we figured out it worked."

Swan said he describes Gilbert as a very dynamic pastor who has charisma and the gift of leadership skills.

"The way he carries himself," Swan said. "And character."

Conversations about making the partnership official continued and, on July 13, church members voted on combining with 3trees. The vote was 100 percent in favor of the merge.

"I didn't expect that," Swan said.

Now, Swan said, work will begin on upgrading the church's interior and exterior with paint and other construction. There will also be a new sign installed.

Once the merge is official, Swan said, there will be a care pastor at the church in Campbellsville. A few other positions will be added, too.

"I call it a full-service congregation," he said.

And even though Swan's involvement with the church will end in a few weeks, he said he is excited to see the church as it moves forward.

"It's fun to be a part of something," he said.

Swan said he hopes and anticipates that attendance will grow at 3trees at Living Grace Drive.

"Our goal is to reach south central Kentucky," Swan said. "It's not just, 'Let's reach Campbellsville.'

"It's a good feeling," he said. "To see it in a church is especially gratifying."

Gilbert said he began 3trees Church in Russell Springs in 2000. It started with six people meeting at a converted truck stop restaurant. They sat on borrowed funeral home chairs.

When Living Grace members approached 3trees Church, Gilbert said, he and others were planning on launching a new church site in Albany. But he said he saw a church that could use some help.

"The church just has a tremendous amount of momentum right now," he said.

Gilbert said he, too, hasn't heard of many churches combining.

"So, I think it is somewhat of a rarity," he said.

"It's not just a pastor coming. It's literally two churches becoming one."

Gilbert said some of the logistics are still to be worked out, but he has trust in God that all will come together.

"We're just having church, hearing the word," he said. "Of course, everyone is welcome."

So far, Gilbert said, the team at Living Grace has been great to work with.

"It's proven to be just a great group of people to work with in Campbellsville."

Gilbert said church members at 3trees in Russell County have been very willing to help Living Grace.

"We're just trying to win as many souls as we can," he said.