Church in the Now could soon be holding its services in Covington, as the church's leadership is seeking a permanent location and is in the process of leasing a vacant 33,688 square-foot former industrial building off Harland Drive.
The Covington Planning Commission unanimously approved the church's application for a special use permit Aug. 14, with the Covington City Council, which has the final say, scheduled to vote on the issue Sept. 17.
The vacant building, located at 13183 Harland Drive, was previously used as an industrial warehouse and office space, but would be used to house worship services for the members of the former mega church.
Scott Gaither, senior planner in the city's zoning and planning department, said the property is located in a heavy industrial zoning district, and the church must have a special use permit to use the building for its worship services.
In a letter to the city's planning department, Debye Swilley, Church in the Now's pastor, CFO and administrator, said the church wants to enter into a three-year lease agreement with the property's owner Lanners Development. Swilley said in the letter that the church will use the facility for worship services on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, as a place to conduct business within their corporate offices and as a meeting site for other various ministry and fellowship groups.
Swilley said the church has been looking to locate to a permanent location to hold their services for the past year, but she said they postponed their plans.
"We actually looked at [the] building a year ago and were kind of moving forward with the owner and that kind of thing. Then we found out that we could continue to lease the original building [at] the Iris Drive property. So we kind of put everything on hold," Swilley said.
"After extensive looking at warehouses and other churches that were for sale and that sort of thing trying to find an adequate place for a congregation, it was like we came back to this amazing office building that we thought we could really grow into because it's not attached to anything religiously and we could modify it," she said. "It just had an appeal to us [and] we thought we could work with this."
The former mega church's 43-acre property at Iris Drive in Conyers went into foreclosure in March 2011. The church's membership exploded in the late 1990s and, according to a story in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the church took out a loan of $18 million in 2003 as it sought to expand further. However, the recession hit, followed by lead pastor Bishop Jim Swilley announcing he was gay in late 2010, and membership slowly declined to around 1,000 members before the church went into foreclosure.
Swilley is still the senior pastor of the church, and also has a location in midtown, which started in April 2011.
Earlier this year, Springfield Baptist Church entered into an agreement with the mortgage holder Evangelical Christian Credit Union to purchase the Iris Drive property.
In a phone interview Wednesday, Debye Swilley, Bishop Swilley's ex-wife, said Church in the Now East, which is considered the Conyers/Covington branch, has a membership of more than 350 people.
"We were considered mega church status. We had several thousand members. We went through a series of events and here we are at 350 to 400 [members]," Swilley said.
Swilley said the church's membership has been increasing recently. She said she believes the church's membership will really increase when they move into a permanent location.
As for now, Swilley said they have been conducting worship services at the Stonecrest Mall movie theater on Sundays and at a school auditorium in Rockdale County on Wednesdays.
"We're super excited about coming. Of course, we've lived in Newton County for about 12 years and we love the county," she said. "We had a lot of favor with planning and zoning. They were super excited.
"We had a great turn out from our congregation at the meeting, so our church is excited too. We're moving forward as if we're going to take over the building."
Swilley said members hope to be a blessing to the Newton community in any way that they can.
"We're excited about partnering with some of the local charities and making a difference here in Newton County as we did in Rockdale County."