Although the Sept. 26 celebration of the Rev. Gary Dennis' 20 years as pastor of La Cañada Presbyterian Church was held in the Demarest Family Life Center on the church's campus in La Cañada, one couldn't help but wonder if wasn't really in Texas.
Those attending the celebration wore their best —their best cowboy boots, cowboy hats and jeans, that is. And what Texas-style celebration would be complete without country music and a family barbecue and country-style buffet, serving such delicacies as corn-on-the-cob, tri-tip and barbecued ribs?
The church's staff decided on a Texas theme for the celebration to pay homage to Dennis' former home in Austin, where he spent 14 years, beginning in 1976, as pastor of Westlake Hills Presbyterian Church, Dennis' last assignment before coming to La Cañada in 1990.
"It's a nice theme," said Dennis, with a smile.
Dennis grew up in North Carolina and Pennsylvania. His first assignment was as associate pastor for youth ministry at Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, where he was ordained in 1972. He also served as associate pastor for youth ministry at Hollywood Presbyterian Church in 1973.
Dennis would come to La Cañada Presbyterian to build upon the work of his predecessor, the Rev. Gary Demarest. And it is Demarest to whom Dennis gives credit to for the church's growth over the past 20 years.
"I don't know that there's anything that we've done in these last 20 years that wasn't an extension of the trajectory that my predecessor had started," said Dennis, speaking in the building named after the retired pastor. "All we've done is taken so many of the things that he began and we've just deepened them and expanded them. We stand on his shoulders."
According to Dennis, the church has been able to fulfill the dreams Demarest had as pastor, including updating the church's infrastructure and expanding the church's child care facilities. So in a way, Dennis said, Sunday's celebration was as much for Demarest as it was for him.
"We would not have been able to do the things that we've done if he hadn't set that trajectory," said Dennis.
Dennis adds that updating the church's infrastructure has been one of the biggest challenges for him as pastor.
"I certainly was amazed that he was able to get the contributions that he was able to get to put this together and this great, new worship facility," said Deena Keys of La Cañada, an eight-year member of the church. "It's exciting the kind of ministries that we can have with this big facility."
La Cañada Presbyterian Church Associate Pastor Jim Milley says the church's upgrades are tools that will assist the church in serving the community. Giving credit to Demarest for his accomplishments, Milley said, is simply Dennis being humble.
"He's been here 20 years," Milley said. "He's had a great impact, too. He leads. He helps the congregation get in touch with the reality of our community."
For Dennis, his biggest accomplishment, he feels, has been getting La Canada Presbyterian to thrive, even as the number of Presbyterians has declined, Dennis said. The Presbyterian Church today has roughly 2 million members nationwide, he said, compared to the roughly 4 million the year Dennis was ordained. However, La Cañada Presbyterian's numbers have remained steady, Dennis said.
"I would just call him a visionary," said church member Lori MacDonald. "He's kept the traditions of being a very friendly church."
As pastor, Dennis has learned to accept life's challenges as they come, instead of trying to push back.
"Rather than always railing against what is, as I love to tell our folks to find meaning in places that other folks would never even dream of looking," said Dennis.
Keys praises Dennis' ability as a motivational speaker and storyteller.
"I think he addresses everything and makes it easy to understand," said Keys. "He's definitely a lively speaker.
Joe Orlando, a 15-year member of La Cañada Presbyterian, has known Dennis since his days as associate pastor at Hollywood Presbyterian.
"His services are just tremendous," said Orlando.