'Continue the dream': Remnant Fellowship Church founder's children will keep church going after her death

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In a statement released Sunday night from Remnant Fellowship Church, the church vowed it will continue its mission despite the deaths of its founder and some of its leaders.

Gwen Shamblin Lara, the founder of the controversial church, is presumed dead after a plane carrying her and her husband, Joe, crashed into Percy Priest Lake in Smyrna on Saturday. On board the Cessna 500 series plane were other church leaders, including Lara's son-in-law Brandon Hannah, a Williamson County real estate agent who was married to her daughter Elizabeth.

While mourning the great loss, the church called the faith leaders "some of the finest and most loving people that you would ever come across."

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The statement also said Lara's children, Michael Shamblin and Elizabeth Shamblin Hannah, "intend to continue the dream that Gwen Shamblin Lara had of helping people find a relationship with God."

Lara founded the church after the success of her weight-loss Bible study program called "Weigh Down Workshop." She linked weight loss to her faith and gained an international following.

She was born and raised in Memphis, and received her master's degree in food and nutrition from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. Early in her career, she worked as an instructor at the University of Memphis and for the city's health department.

Couples Jennifer and David Martin and Jessica and Jonathan Walters are also presumed dead. The couples were part of the church leadership and both credited Lara for rejuvenating and strengthening their faith. The Martin couple was founding members of the church and joined in 1999.

All victims leave behind families and children. The church said it will take special care of the children in the coming years.

Impact on millions

"Gwen Shamblin Lara was one of the world’s most kind, gentle, and selfless mother and wife, and a loyal, caring, supportive best friend to all," the church said in its statement. "She lived every day laying down her own life to ensure that others could find a relationship with God.

"Because of that, her memory will definitely remain for a long time as she has a place in millions of people’s hearts around the world through her work with Weigh Down Ministries and Remnant Fellowship Church. Her wonderful and supportive husband, Joe Lara, will also be greatly missed."

Elizabeth Shamblin Hannah submitted a statement delivered by Rutherford County spokeswoman Ashley McDonald at a news conference Sunday.

"The seven Remnant Fellowship leaders lost yesterday including my husband and my mother were some of the finest, most righteous and loving people I have ever known," her statement said. "Her message of loving God with all of your heart will live on forever and ever and continue to change lives for all eternity."

She described her husband as "one of the most selfless and loving spouses and fathers on the planet" who put God first.

The two wed in 2003 and have four children. They oversaw the church's youth ministry program.

"These amazing seven leaders will go down in history as some of the finest Christians anyone will ever meet," she said.

Michael Shamblin said in a statement his mother positively impacted millions of people around the world.

"My family is asking for prayers at this time, and we hope everyone who was affected, especially the children of the passengers, know they are very loved, and we will take care of their needs in the upcoming years," he said. "Joe Lara was such a wonderful husband to my mother and he will be missed."

Jennifer and David Martin's family members, including daughter Ashton Martin Jost and Jennifer Martin's mother, Diane McCord, expressed their gratitude to investigators and authorities in a statement delivered by McDonald.

The Martins had five children and joined the church in 1999 after first meeting Gwen Shamblin Lara in the Weigh Down Workshop. On the church's website, the couple said they were raised to be lackadaisical Christians, but through Lara's mentoring they discovered the importance of more deeply honoring their faith.

Jessica and Jonathan Walters were married in the church in 2002 and had three children. Like the Martins, the Walters on the church's website credited Lara for their faith and strong marriage.

Investigation into crash continues

Investigators had changed from a rescue mission on Saturday to a recovery mission Sunday.

According to the Federal Aviation Administration website, no one on the flight was qualified to fly the plane. Joe Lara, 58, had a pilot's license but had not updated his medical certification since 2017. The medical certification is required every two years.

Brandon Hannah didn't have a certification for the plane, according to the FAA database.

The Laras took off Saturday morning from the Smyrna Rutherford County Airport.

A recording of the communication between the control tower and the pilot, captured on LiveATC.net, revealed an alarm going off in the cockpit of the plane seconds before it crashed, suggesting a mechanical failure in the aircraft, which was built in 1982.

Debris from the shattered plane scattered across about a half mile of the lake, according to Rutherford County Fire Captain and Incident Commander John Ingle. Dive teams from local emergency agencies found human remains among the wreckage Sunday as the recovery effort continued.

Remnant Fellowship

The Remnant Fellowship Church, founded in 1999, reportedly has more than 1,500 members in 150 congregations around the world.

According to its website, the church is "an international community of people who are finding renewed hope, profound love and deep purpose by putting the undiluted teachings of Jesus Christ into practice."

"This Church has its roots founded in the Bible-based teachings of Gwen Shamblin through Weigh Down Ministries, who has a 30-plus years long-and-counting track record of helping people change their lives in every positive and productive way," the website says.

The Remnant Fellowship website lists food ahead of drugs, depression, self focus, money, anger, selfishness, envy and jealousy as the idols that need to be "laid down."

Reach Brinley Hineman at bhineman@tennessean.com and on Twitter @brinleyhineman. To stay updated on Williamson County news, sign up for our newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Remnant Fellowship Church to continue after Gwen Shamblin plane crash