A year after Gwen Shamblin Lara's death, her presence looms large at Remnant Fellowship

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Remnant Fellowship Church founder Gwen Shamblin, left, sings with others from the church during services in June 2011 in Brentwood.
Remnant Fellowship Church founder Gwen Shamblin, left, sings with others from the church during services in June 2011 in Brentwood.

A year has passed since Remnant Fellowship Church in Brentwood, Tennessee, lost several leaders in a plane crash. And questions still remain regarding the church's future after the death of its charismatic, controversial founder, Gwen Shamblin Lara.

Lara, known for her Weigh Down Workshop Christian diet program, died alongside her husband, Joe, who piloted the small Cessna jet, as well as her son-in-law and two other couples after the Florida-bound aircraft crashed into a lake near Nashville.

The sudden passing of several church leaders itself caused disbelief and trauma among the congregation, but that was further complicated by the fact that Lara ran a personality-based ministry, said James Hudnut-Beumler, a professor of American religious history at Vanderbilt Divinity School.

Lara founded Remnant Fellowship in 1999 after the success of her Weigh Down Workshop, which she created in 1986. The church's roots are "founded in the Bible-based teachings of Gwen Shamblin through Weigh Down Ministries," according to its website.

A group joins hands in prayer during a June 1996 meeting of the Weigh Down Workshop in Nashville, Tenn. After going through three sessions of Weigh Down Workshop, Donna Peak, center, said she had reduced her weight from 276 pounds to 153.
A group joins hands in prayer during a June 1996 meeting of the Weigh Down Workshop in Nashville, Tenn. After going through three sessions of Weigh Down Workshop, Donna Peak, center, said she had reduced her weight from 276 pounds to 153.

"The fact that we still have Christianity and so forth is evidence that religious movements started from charismatic leadership can move on," Hudnut-Beumler said. But in "several instances of American personality-centered congregations and movements, the successes have had trouble going to a second generation."

The late televangelist Robert H. Schuller, for instance, saw his church collapse after his children fought over leadership, viewership dwindled and no one was able to fill his shoes, Hudnut-Beumler said. Schuller's ministry filled for bankruptcy, and his landmark Crystal Cathedral was sold to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange in 2011.

Remnant Fellowship said in an email that Lara's daughter, Elizabeth Shamblin Hannah, "along with a large team of men and women" will lead the church going forward. Remnant Fellowship has a leadership team of over 90 shepherds, deacons, ministry leaders and ministry assistants, according to its website.

But on the evening of May 25, when Remnant Fellowship canceled its regularly scheduled service due to inclement weather, it was Lara whose face filled the screen. The church livestreams its assemblies but instead webcasted a video filmed in 2018 with Lara speaking about God and weight loss.

And Saturday, at what would have been the church's last regularly scheduled service before the anniversary of the crash, Remnant again paid tribute to its fallen members by playing a recording of last year's memorial service.

Remnant Fellowship Church in Brentwood, Tenn. The church's founder, Gwen Shamblin Lara, along with several leaders were killed in a plane crash on Memorial Day weekend 2021.
Remnant Fellowship Church in Brentwood, Tenn. The church's founder, Gwen Shamblin Lara, along with several leaders were killed in a plane crash on Memorial Day weekend 2021.

Using old videos of Lara indicates that church leadership still sees her at the drawing card, Hudnut-Beumler said.

"Her daughter obviously knows knows the message," Hudnut-Beumler said, referring to Lara's beliefs that include rejection of the Trinity. "Elizabeth has heard those messages and whether she can deliver them in a persuasive fashion is the next chapter."

Hannah took time away from ministry after her mother and husband died but will return later this year, the church said in an email.

"The future of the Remnant Fellowship looks bright," the church said, "as the leadership and members have much hope of growing in love, kindness, and unity inside the church and outside in the community with others, as well."

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The plane crash

On May 29, 2021, a single-pilot jet carrying seven Remnant Fellowship leaders crashed into Percy Priest Lake, about three miles from where the flight took off in Smyrna, Tennessee.

The group was headed to Palm Beach International Airport in Florida for a rally organized by Women Fighting for America.

The aircraft, built in 1982, took off at 10:53 a.m. (CT), and the pilot was in contact with Nashville departure control, according to a report by the National Transportation Safety Board. At 10:55 a.m., an air traffic controller instructed the pilot to climb and maintain at 15,000 feet but got no response.

Shortly after, a witness fishing nearby told investigators he saw the jet crash "straight down" into the water.

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In addition to Lara and her husband, authorities identified the passengers in the plane as Jennifer J. Martin, David L. Martin, Jessica Walters, Jonathan Walters and Brandon Hannah, Elizabeth Hannah's husband.

Dive teams from local emergency agencies found human remains and pieces of the plane, including both of the jet's engines and a significant portion of the fuselage.

The church described the late leaders as "unbelievably loving and caring friends" to everyone in the church's community. "They will be greatly missed and remembered," the email said.

'The Way Down'

Despite the deaths, the church said it "has grown in number as well as in strength, love, and unity," and continues to accept new members.

"Everyone has banded together to take care of one another during this most difficult time," the church said in the email.

Lara and her church were the subjects of the HBO Max's documentary "The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin." The five-episode series paints Remnant Fellowship as a cult controlling most aspects of its members lives.

The church denied "the absurd, defamatory" accusations in the documentary, including allegations of child abuse and promoting extreme dieting.

"Our Christian beliefs are Bible-based," the church said in a statement. "Our church is a place based on love, care, mercy, and kindness shown to people from all walks of life. We have helped thousands to find a relationship with God."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: After Gwen Shamblin Lara died in plane crash, what is Remnant church?