The first time Benjie Slaton, pastor of Grace+Peace, visited Ooltewah in 2018, he wanted to figure out just what the community of Ooltewah was. “I was coming from San Antonio, and all of my ministry experience had been in Texas,” he says. Because of the way Ooltewah formed, it didn’t have an existing culture like San Antonio, nor does it have a singular culture that draws people in. Most people in Ooltewah live in big homes, and they drive in their garage and close the door. In one sense, this place lacks community and an identity, but Benjie sees it as the perfect opportunity to reach people with Christ.
A Tuesday-night dinner at the Il Primo Ooltewah location convinced Benjie to move here. “Luxury cars were everywhere. There were empty-nester types, and also parents of teenagers in private school uniforms. These people were from all over. One of my neighbors is German and is here because of Volkswagen; a Polish couple and a Slovakian woman came to the church for a while; a Hindu temple was just built; and the biggest Mosque in Chattanooga is out here. There’s an opportunity to do the gospel work we’re interested in, and there’s room for a multi-cultural expression of the kingdom.”
In the summer of 2018, the Slatons moved to Ooltewah to plant Grace+Peace with few existing contacts. They began like many church plants do: with a Bible study in their home. Families and individuals from several other Presbyterian churches in Chattanooga formed the core group along with a Baptist family and the Slaton’s next door neighbor. While these people didn’t know each other, they were passionate about what God could do in Ooltewah. They walked through the Gospel of Mark together, and Benjie asked them to commit to the church for the year of 2019.
In September 2019, they launched their worship service, meeting at a local Seventh-day Adventist church, and the team expanded. Kyron Walker joined to lead the music ministry while he was in seminary, and Mandi Johnson started working on administrative tasks. Then, March 2020 and COVID-19 hit, along with the Easter tornados. Benjie reflects, “In God’s providence, the tornado slowed us down, but it turned us to relationships. Caring for each other and our community in practical ways deepened us.”
Throughout that summer, the body of Grace+Peace grew, and they began to grow in staff as well. Ansley Godwin joined as a Chattanooga Fellow in August of 2020. A year later, Chris Ammen joined as an assistant pastor for kids and families. Benjie reflects, “I had been wanting a pastoral partner and had gotten connected with Chris Ammen. God provided him at the right time for me and for the church.”
Grace+Peace’s first membership class was in the fall of 2020. “Now, we’re coming up on our fifth membership class,” says Ansley. “While I’m not in the membership interviews, I still get to hear people’s stories about how they ended up at Grace+Peace and what they love about this church.”
The staff team has watched God bring people together through the church. “Nearly everyone who started Grace+Peace didn’t know each other before they walked through the door,” says Benjie. “They gave up what they were doing to join this rinky dink church plant. But, as we grow, it is because friends are inviting their friends. Part of the growth last year was seeing three men get converted. That was amazing and gave a real freshness to what we’re doing.”
In preparation to install deacons and elders, Benjie spent most of the last year working with a group of 10-12 men. “We’re trying to create a culture where we’re training leaders and creating avenues for every Christian to use their gifts,” he says. “We ask everyone who’s serving in any way to take a class focusing on gospel doctrine and gospel culture. Our women’s ministry should be just as well trained as the men.”
Grace+Peace held leadership nominations in February 2022, with particular training for the nominated men in March-May. The congregation elected those men in June and installed them during the particularization service on Sunday, August 21, 2022.