Asbury Memorial United Methodist Church was organized in 1909. The cornerstone of the sanctuary was placed in 1921, and the large Education Building was added in 1954. Asbury’s ministry flourished in the 1950s and 60s, but saw radical changes in the 1970s and 80s. By 1990, church attendance had shrunk to around twenty-five people, and the average age of the members was eighty. The members had to face the possibility of closing the church doors.
In 1993, however, Asbury turned a corner. The church began to emphasize inclusiveness, the fine arts, and the positive news of Jesus Christ. As word spread, attendance and programs grew — and they continue to grow today. We are very grateful to those members who kept the faith and kept the doors of Asbury open!
Pastor Billy Hester and Wife Cheri
Reverend Billy Hester is a native of Savannah. Billy attended Valdosta State University, where he received a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Theatre in 1981. He then moved to New York City to pursue a career in acting. There, Billy had the lead roles in such shows as "The Pirates of Penzance" and "Pippin." He was the lead tenor for the Light Opera of Manhattan. And, as a sports enthusiast, Billy was thrilled to have the opportunity to sing the National Anthem at Madison Square Garden.
After a period of much prayer and reflection, Billy decided to attend seminary. He graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary with a Masters of Divinity in 1989. From there, he served at Marble Collegiate Church, the church of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale. He also took Clinical Pastoral Education at New York Hospital and Memorial Sloane Kettering Cancer Center.
While in New York, Billy met and married actress Cheri Butcher, who had performed in the Broadway shows "Singing in the Rain" and "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." Cheri currently teaches dance at the Gretchen Greene School of Dance on Wilmington Island in Savannah. She also teaches drama at Oglethorpe Academy Middle School.
Besides being very active with the church, Cheri and Billy are also involved in work within the community. They have had the opportunity to give workshops on "Church Growth" and "Worship and the Arts" at conferences throughout the United States. Additionally, they are very active in raising their four children: Chelsea, Christi, and twins Wendell and Wesley.
Billy is well-known for leading creative and meaningful worship services. He and Cheri often share their own artistic talents with the congregation. They are thrilled that Asbury Memorial, a church that once almost closed, is growing and thriving today.
Why Does Asbury's Worship Service Start at 11:15?
Billy had a vision for a ministry in a downtown, urban church — a place where diversity was celebrated. He believed that Asbury Memorial was the perfect church for such an undertaking. It was a large structure, but it was about to close; about 25 people attended worship services, and the average age of members was 80.
The congregation could not afford to pay the salary of a full-time minister, so the United Methodist denomination appointed him to serve two churches — Asbury Memorial UMC and Wesley Oak UMC. Wesley Oak also was struggling, with only about 25 people attending worship services. Both churches could pay only part-time salaries.
In order for Billy to officiate both services, Wesley Oak had their worship service at 9:30a, and Asbury Memorial had theirs at 11:00a. It soon became clear that Billy needed a little more travel and preparation time, so Asbury moved their services 15 minutes later to 11:15a. Ironically, Marble Collegiate Church in NYC (the church that had made such an impact on the formation of Billy's faith) also begins their services at 11:15a.
Both Asbury Memorial and Wesley Oak continued to grow. Today, Wesley Oak UMC has their own full-time pastor, and Billy is now at Asbury full time. The 11:15a worship service time for Asbury has stuck to this day.
An Early-Day Epiphany...
During Billy's early years at Asbury, an important epiphany occurred on an extremely hot Sunday in the summer of 1993.
The air conditioner broke down, and it was too hot to have the worship service in the sanctuary. The 35 people sitting in the large sanctuary got up and moved the worship service to what was then the choir room. It seated only 25 to 30 people. Billy looked up to preach and realized that he had a packed house! It was standing room only! The congregation needed a bigger room!
From that day on, the people of Asbury began to see their church as a growing church, instead of a dying church.
We hope you will be a part of Asbury's history, as we seek to experience God and grow in our faith through scripture, tradition, experience, and reason.