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Husband and wife minister to congregation at historic church in Dahlonega
The Whelchels are planning youth conference Oct. 8 at Hickory Grove CME Church
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The Rev. Walter James Whelchel III and the Rev. Rhonda Whelchel of Hickory Grove CME Church in Dahlonega. - photo by Erin O. Smith

Hickory Grove CME Church

Service times: 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. Sundays

Address: 69 Hickory Grove Road, Dahlonega

Phone number: 706-864-2179



The Rev. Walter James Whelchel and his wife, Rhonda, were the first couple married at the current altar of Hickory Grove Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Dahlonega.

But they weren’t the first couple married in the church’s 144-year history.

The Whelchels were married in August 1993 in the building constructed in the late 1980s. The Gainesville-based couple has been an integral part of their “home church” ever since, and today, Walter James Whelchel is pastor of Hickory Grove CME and Rhonda Whelchel is a member of his ministerial staff.

They are currently planning a youth conference called “Empowerment is Power” on Saturday, Oct. 8, at the church’s W.L. Whelchel Family Life Center — named for Walter James’ grandfather. Registration begins at noon at 69 Hickory Grove Church Road in Dahlonega.

“It’s geared toward youth and young adults, male and female,” Rhonda Whelchel said. “We’re just trying to get as many to come as we can. The goal is to get them to know Jesus Christ, of course, and to teach them to deal with the struggles they go through daily.”

The conference will include panel discussions covering topics such as safety, texting, bullying and peer pressure.

“We wanted to just give them a feel of Jesus Christ, because he is the reason we’re here to begin with,” she said.

The Whelchels sat down with The Times to discuss not only the conference, but the highs and lows of being dual ministers to their congregation.


Question: What is your favorite thing about being pastor of your church?

James: It’s the fellowship. We’ve always said Hickory Grove is a special place, and we know that all congregations and churches think so, too. But this really is — we call it holy ground. It’s been here 144 years, and we have some elders in our church and some folks who’ve done some great things in this church. It’s just a great place.

Rhonda: And the openness we have here. It’s not a “sit up, sit tight” kind of atmosphere. If you feel the Holy Spirit, there’s freedom here to do so.

Q: What is a strength of this community?

James: Its people and its history. In this area, people have a history of helping each other out, regardless of race. This congregation is one of the very few African-American-based churches in this community. But in the last 20 or so years, it’s become not just African-American. It has a mix and that’s one of the things we like about it.

Rhonda: It’s all races. Everybody comes through this place, and it’s welcoming.

Q: What’s an area that needs improvement or growth?

Rhonda: For me personally, I would like to see more people here living above the poverty level. I find for this area — and really more than just this area — it’s a big issue. Our life center behind our church here is working along with some great outreach ministries to try to curb that. But if there’s one thing I could change, I would like for everybody to not worry about what they’re going to eat or what they’ll wear the next day.

James: The family life center was built for that purpose, to see to the needs of this community. We’ll tell several churches around here, “Use it.” It’s not just for Hickory Grove. We’re not worried about numbers coming to join our church. We hope folks will join the church, not so much a specific church.

Q: What is your hope for Hickory Grove?

James: My hope is it will continue, as it has been, to be a light on the hill for the community. That folks can come in and worship God no matter what race or nationality they come from. I want to maintain that stigma, that this is holy ground. Friendly, homely kind of spirituality, it’s my hope that we maintain that.