More than seven years ago, Lanier Hills Church lead pastor Randall Popham noticed some of his flock were traversing Hall County to attend the church off Duckett Mill Road in Gainesville.
He wanted to put a stop to that, sort of.
“We had people that lived up in North Hall area (who) were driving around the lake to get to our church,” he said.
Therefore, he and other church leaders envisioned starting a northern campus of Lanier Hills to accommodate those parishioners.
Jumping at the chance to serve his church and the community was Trent Dollyhigh, the associate pastor at Lanier Hills.
“Trent was all excited about it,” Popham said.
So both men gathered a core group from Lanier Hills who were from the north side of Gainesville to plant a church.
Seven years, four moves, several renovations and thousands of dollars later, the church has transformed from the Lanier Hills northern campus to the independent Journey Church. And on May 11, it purchased the land and facility from Lanier Hills.
“It’s a huge win for Journey Church that we get to carry that,” Dollyhigh said. “And it’s a huge win for Lanier Hills that they get to let that go.”
The huge win involves Journey Church owning 9« acres of land and a 30,000-square-foot facility off Mount Vernon Road. The facility includes a children’s wing, preschool wing, 10,000-square-foot worship center that accommodates about 300 people, said Billy Buchanan, full-time worship and technology leader and quasi-associate pastor.
Acquiring the land and building was no easy task. The church had a seven-year journey filled with ups and downs along the way.
It all started with a single goal of serving members, or what Popham calls his partners, on the north side of Gainesville. So, Dollyhigh and his church partners fanned out to find a place to worship. But finding a facility available Sunday morning proved difficult.
Then Fellowship of Living Praise off Cleveland Highway stepped up to the plate.
“They were going to let us use their facility, a full church campus, on Sunday nights,” Dollyhigh said. “But in church planning world, that’s the worst time to start a church plant.”
However, the church jumped into Fellowship’s open door literally, meeting there for six months.
“But it was never going to be successful there,” Dollyhigh said.
So he and the leaders got down on their knees and prayed.
“We asked God ‘If you want us to keep going ... tell us to stop or open a door,’” Dollyhigh said.
God answered with Adventure in Missions opening its doors literally. The new Gainesville-based nonprofit allowed the church to meet at 11 a.m. Sundays in their building.
With a better meeting time, the next task was getting new parishioners to the new location. But that proved problematic since the building could not be seen from the road despite signs indicating Lanier Hills Church’s northern campus.
“The big struggle there was they were so far off the road that ... first-timers would come driving down the driveway and about 200 yards in they would stop and turn around and leave because they thought it was like a cult or compound,” Dollyhigh said.
The pastor solved the problem with greeters on the road and at the church doors.
“We’d say welcome to the compound; it’s not a cult, but we are glad you are here,” he said.
Congregant numbers doubled, outgrowing the facility and causing the church to find another place to worship.
Services moved to Mount Vernon Elementary School’s cafeteria for the summer months. It meant setting up the room and taking it down after each service, taxing parishioners and staff.
Then God intervened once again, opening doors, windows and everything else. The church’s current facility off Mount Vernon Road became available in 2011.
“We got this facility for $1,000 a month in rent,” Dollyhigh said. “The catch was, if it was broke, we fixed it.”
Those repairs were costly for the fledgling church — about $50,000.
“In two weeks we raised $50,000, and we renovated a whole side (of the facility),” Dollyhigh said.
The money allowed the church to fix the uninsulated roof that was causing leaks from condensation. Other repairs included fixing drainage issues and the heating and air-conditioning system.
This allowed the church to have a worship center, while it quarantined the rest of the building.
With a permanent place and 100 partners, the church’s numbers increased by 50.
More repairs and renovations followed over time — Dollyhigh’s phases of two, three and four.
“I call it the big onion,” Dollyhigh said. “And we’ve been pulling back the layers and discovering things for the last five years. And I don’t think there are any more surprises ... I think we have fixed all of the surprises.”
Now seven years later, Journey Church reached phase five — purchasing the land and facility from Lanier Hills, who bought the campus in 2013 after leasing it for two years.
Dollyhigh believes the church accomplished its goal because of its inverted servant-leadership model.
“I’m at the bottom,” Dollyhigh said. “If I want to lead here, then I have to make myself the greatest servant of all.”
He’s proved that. The Gainesville man has plunged toilets, mowed grass, pulled weeds and cleaned carpets.
His style of servanthood has led other for follow his example, including Buchanan.
“Everyone is a volunteer,” he said.
The pastor who works with the youth and does several jobs also enjoys the freedom of policy the church employs.
“If we don’t like something, we can change it,” Buchanan said.
However, the church always sticks to its mission of creating a safe space for its parishioners.
“For me and for us, we believe that if you create a culture where people feel safe, then it’s much more likely that they’re going to meet a God that also wants to give them a safe place and change their life,” he said. “I don’t think there’s anybody safer than Jesus Church.”