The Gathering church surrenders $9 million worship center

Oct. 31, 2013 @ 11:51 PM

The Gathering, one of Sevier County’s largest churches, has relocated to the Grand Majestic Theater on the Parkway in Pigeon Forge and sold its 30-acre campus and state-of-the-art worship center to a local bank in lieu of foreclosure.

A digital signboard at the entrance to the church parking lot on Middle Creek Road says it has relocated to a new spot across from the Titanic on the Parkway. Utility workers and others outside the church Wednesday referred questions to Citizens National Bank.

Transaction reports from the Sevier County Register of Deeds indicate the 32-acre property was transferred from the Gathering to Citizens National Bank Monday.

“The church did come to us and agree to voluntarily surrender the building in a deed in lieu of foreclosure,” CNB President David Verble said. The transfer lists the value at $9 million, but Verble said that’s the estimated market value of the property. The church surrendered the property in return for the bank forgiving its debt on the property.

A spokesperson for the Grand Majestic Theater, located at 2135 Parkway, confirmed the church had moved to that location and would have its first service there Sunday. Pastor Gene Wolfenbarger’s blog, linked on the church’s web site, also confirms the church is relocating. “We are extremely excited about this new direction,” Wolfenbarger wrote on the site.

Executive Pastor Tom Weekly spoke to the Mountain Press about the decision, saying church officials decided to leave the campus where they moved in 2009 when they realized they couldn’t continue making payments on the facility. The cost was estimated in 2009 at between $10 million and $12 million.

“During the economic downturn, just like many institutions, our income declined and the payments on the building didn’t,” he said. "Rather than default or have the bank default we honorably decided to return the building to the bank as an asset."

CNB had worked with the church on refinancing and other options, he said, but ultimately it was decided that the best decision was to surrender the campus.

Attendance at the church has actually been up, he said, and the congregation is looking forward to moving to the new location, where their church will be visible to the tourists who come to visit local attractions. “That’s like an open mission field, 60,000 cars pass there a day,” he said.

In some ways, the move is a return to the church’s roots. After Wolfenbarger started the church in Sevierville in 2000, he led services in several theaters before moving into a refurbished fitness center on Chapman Highway.

The congregation grew rapidly over the years to the point that on Easter Sunday 2009, the church held its first service in a newly constructed, state-of-the-art worship center on Middle Creek Road.

Upon opening, the church included a book store, coffee shop and a sanctuary capable of holding about 1,000 people with theater-worthy lighting and big screen televisions for the congregation to watch the service. It included touches like hand-hewn wood on the walls and items with the lower-case “g” church logo on many surfaces.

The facility cost between $10 million and $12 million to build.

The Gathering faced some criticism at the time for building such a large, opulent facility, but church officials said it was done to honor Christ and to give the church the ability to reach a larger audience using the technology included at the building.

“The building and the debt was a good decision at the time, but because of the economic downturn so many people that supported the gathering were hurt and could not give as they had in the past,” Weekly said.

In any event, the church was never just a structure, and the congregation is still intact, he said.

“The church isn’t a building. It’s the people that make up the congregation that make up the church and we have an awesome congregation.”

jfarrell@themountainpress.com