On Jan. 6, Greg Temke, lead pastor of River of Life Church in Munford, Tennessee, received a knock at his door at 11:35 p.m. To his surprise, it was Munford Mayor Dwayne Cole, who also attends River of Life. Cole had one message: “The church is on fire!”
“When we arrived at the church at about 11:45 (p.m.), it was already engulfed in a large fire — the entire north side was in flames,” Temke says. “Two ladder trucks were already pouring water on the fire, but the fire kept getting stronger.”
Temke later learned that the fire started in the attic of the old portion of the church. An attic fire is very difficult to extinguish as there is often little to impede it and water can’t get to it until the fire burns through the roof and/or ceiling.
“The firefighters came up to me several times, telling me they were doing their best to save the sanctuary — and they were, they were working really hard,” Temke says of the 10 companies and 20 vehicles that responded, “but you could see that the fire was too big. It took them 14 hours to put it out. I was told that the temperature inside of the sanctuary got to around 1,700 degrees — what the flames didn’t destroy, the heat did. The insurance company declared the buildings (the old and newer sections of the church) a total loss; nothing was salvageable.”
But even though the fire took place on a Thursday night and into Friday, Temke says that on Sunday, they still held church and haven’t missed a Sunday yet.
“We have a gymnasium that is about 125 feet from the main building, and it was undamaged — it has been a Godsend,” he says. “Churches, organizations, and people in the community have also been very kind and very loving toward us.”
Due to the totality of destruction and no signs of foul play, Temke says that their insurance company settled within 22 hours. However, although the church and contents were fully insured, their insurance only covered $10,000 for demolition fees. Asbestos was discovered in the remains of the building, and the estimate for demolition was nearly $500,000 with the added costs of the asbestos. However, Temke spoke to several officials at multiple levels of government to plead his case — surprisingly, officials agreed with him and the cost was reduced by 90%.
Although Temke is thankful for that financial blessing, what has been more remarkable to him is that through this all, the church has not only returned to pre-COVID attendance (280-290), but has continued to grow to over 300 attendees on Sundays.
“The people have been tremendously upbeat, positive, and very strong with their faith,” Temke says. “I’ve always felt like we had a healthy, strong, missions-minded church — the fire is a good test of people’s hearts . . . through it all, they’ve been faithful and supportive, they’ve showed up and showed out.”
For the past four years, River of Life Church has been holding two services as parking is very limited. However, since the fire, they’ve been holding just one service and people have been forced to park anywhere they can find a place — the church lawn, nearby streets, the cemetery. But in a making “lemonade-out-of-lemons” response, Temke says that once the old building is removed they’ll have room for an additional 70 to 90 parking spots.
“However, we’re not going to rebuild; we’re going to relocate,” Temke says. “We were looking for property prior to the fire — property where we’ll have plenty of room for our facilities and parking . . . the church has great days ahead!”