North Little Rock church celebrates financial turnaround

Lakewood United Methodist Church receives miracle gifts

Lakewood United Methodist Church in North Little Rock, pictured Thursday morning, paid off nearly $700,000 in building debts on Aug. 23 after a successful “Miracle Sunday” appeal and a major bequest. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Frank E. Lockwood)

Shackled by nearly $700,000 in debt and facing a spike in interest rates, worshippers at Lakewood United Methodist Church in North Little Rock asked God this year to help them move a financial mountain that, to some, seemed insurmountable.

In July, the Lord -- and a host of faithful givers -- provided more than the fundraising team had ever asked for or even imagined, according to Roy Beth Kelley, the congregation's pastor.

Thanks to their generosity, Lakewood was able to pay off the loan in full on Aug. 24. Now, instead of debts, the church has $175,000 in the bank.

On Oct. 15, the congregation will give God the glory and rejoice that the financial burden has been lifted. Bishop Laura Merrill of the United Methodist Church's Arkansas conference plans to join in the celebration, Kelley said.

"We're going to have a special dedication and mortgage burning service, and she's going to be attending, and so we're really excited about that," she said.

The elimination of the $12,000 monthly mortgage payments frees up money to spend on ministry, Kelley said.

The donors had "a vision to do great things for God and be good stewards," she said.

They succeeded beyond their wildest expectations, Lakewood members say.

The fundraising push began in the spring and by mid-July had netted $217,000 in contributions and pledges.

Another $100,000 was contributed on July 16, following a 24-hour prayer vigil and a Communion service.

Congregants, ahead of time, had dubbed it "Miracle Sunday," but the wonders -- it turned out -- were just beginning.

Over the next week or so, another $50,000 in gifts arrived. Then, in early August, the church received a check from the estate of Richard Homard, a former Arkansas Power and Light Co. executive, engineer, war veteran and widower who had married a Lakewood member later in life.

Homard, who died on April 4, 2022, at age 94, had left the congregation $501,570.48.

Church leaders, previously unaware of the bequest, waited until the Aug. 27 Sunday worship services to share the news that the money had been given and the debt paid in full.

"It was very exciting. It was very energy-filled, very Spirit-filled," said Liza Godwin, a member of the church's finance committee. "It had been such a well-kept secret that not even all of our staff had been informed."

The few with advance knowledge agreed not to divulge the secret ahead of time.

"We raised our hand and pinky-swore. We weren't even supposed to tell our spouses," Godwin said.

Ginger Kehler, the church's communications director, says the news was greeted with joyful restraint; applause, but not ecstasy.

"Some of our parishioners [were] clapping, but we Methodists are kind of subdued. There wasn't any hootin' or hollerin'," she said.

Lakewood is also one of the beneficiaries of a charitable trust established by Jill Pride Wiesner, a longtime Lakewood member who died on May 18, 2022.

Rather than a lump sum, Lakewood and two other beneficiaries will receive periodic payouts.

The trust, at this point, is valued at $4 million, but that amount is expected to climb to $10 million to $15 million once her assets are liquidated, according to Kelley.

One-third of the income the trust generates will be earmarked for Lakewood, she added.

"We'll be getting distributions from the income of that [charitable trust] into perpetuity, which is mind boggling. It's hard to even grasp what that means," Kelley said.

Congregants are continuing to pray, asking for wisdom as they decide how to use the resources now at their disposal.

They'll also be looking for ways to honor the memory of the two deceased donors and to better serve the community.

"Our mission is 'expanding the light of Christ,' so we want to be really intentional about about doing that with these funds that are freed up," Kelley said.

Lakewood is a neighborhood church, three-tenths of a mile or so from McCain Boulevard; it's easy to miss it if you're not looking for it.

"We're not a big 'First Methodist'-type church that's on the highway or on the main drag. You kind of have to know that we're back here," Godwin said.

Although some congregations have opted to sever ties with the denomination, Lakewood has never wavered.

"We're committed to United Methodism," Kelley said.

Founded in 1955, Lakewood flourished for decades. But, like many other congregations, its numbers have fallen somewhat as the nation's population ages and churchgoing rates decline.

Between 2000 and 2020, median attendance at the nation's churches fell more than 50% -- from 137 to 65, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research's 2020 Faith Communities Today survey.

At Lakewood, the decline was less dramatic, with average Sunday attendance dropping from 530 in 2004 to 399 in 2019.

When covid hit, however, the bottom fell out. Average attendance in 2021 was 198. Since then, the trajectory has been encouraging, with in-person attendance of 223 in 2022 and 261 through the first eight months of 2023. When online attendance is included, that figure rises to almost 300.

Of the state's roughly 500 United Methodist congregations, it's probably one of the 10 or 15 largest.

"We're not quite back to where we were, but there's an excitement in our church that I have not ever seen in my lifetime going on right now," Godwin said. "We're all hopeful that many people will be led to come try us out and to join and be a part of our membership and our family."

Over the years, Lakewood has been involved in a number of efforts to aid the less fortunate. It helps feed the hungry, cooking meals for the homeless, donating groceries to the Gardner Food Pantry, distributing backpacks of food to school-aged children and raising funds for the Arkansas Rice Depot.

As a participant in Family Promise, it has provided temporary housing for homeless families. It also helped launch the Ozark Mission Project, a summer camp for teens who want to serve Arkansans with physical or financial challenges.

Some members were skeptical that a David-sized congregation could conquer a Goliath-sized debt.

"I prayed [and] gave, but it just seemed insurmountable," Kehler said.

Ultimately, she said, people's prayers were answered.

"We were faithful, and there must have been enough who believed," she said. "You know, faith the size of a mustard seed, they say, is all it takes."

  photo  Lakewood United Methodist Church leaders plan to have a mortgage burning service on Oct. 15. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Frank E. Lockwood)

  photo  Jill Pride Wiesner

  photo  Richard Homard, a former Arkansas Power and Light Co. executive and a loyal member of Lakewood United Methodist Church in North Little Rock, died on April 4, 2022 at age 94. He remembered the congregation in his will, providing theem with a donation of $501,570.48. (Courtesy photo)

  photo  Lakewood United Methodist Church in North Little Rock was a David-sized congregation with a Goliath-sized debt. Roy Beth Kelley, the congregation’s pastor, said members had “a vision to do great things for God and be good stewards.” (Courtesy photo)