Church History

Established in 1989 by Gene Koth, Walnut Hills has a rich history of community involvement.

“It all began with a house, a telephone book, and a short line of credit.” That is how Gene Koth, organizing minister, begins the story of Walnut Hills UMC. Indeed, those were the church’s total assets in the summer of 1989. However, it did not take long for things to start happening. A massive telephone calling campaign was organized, involving 180 people from throughout the Des Moines area making over 25,000 dial-ups. Over 2,500 households said they were not active in a local church or synagogue. After a series of special mailings and targeted telephone invitations, opening Sunday came that Oct. 15th with over 300 in attendance at the first location, Western Hills Elementary School in West Des Moines, Iowa.

Walnut Hills UMC was not started in 1989 because there was a need for another United Methodist church. There were already four in the western suburbs of Des Moines, Iowa. What was needed was a new church that could reach those not reached by the existing churches. Walnut Hills UMC succeeded by marketing itself as “a community moving beyond the traditional, in touch with the lifestyles, needs and resources of people today.”

That being “in touch” meant a simpler, more informal celebrative worship, more short-term commitments, small groups to get acquainted, and opportunities to make a difference in the world. The name, Walnut Hills UMC, was by design non-religious in order not to scare people before they even made a visit. Traditional words like “sanctuary,” “narthex” and “chancel” were replaced with “celebration center,” “gathering area,” and “platform.” These things have culminated into the unique culture of Walnut Hills UMC. 

How did Walnut Hills get started? 

In the spring of 1989, Iowa United Methodists decided to begin a new church in the western suburbs of Des Moines because of the rapid growth in the area. That summer Gene Koth was appointed to start the church, and by Oct. the first service was held.

How did the church get the land?

Efforts to find land began with local realtors without much success. Then someone suggested talking to Don Hohnbaum, who lived just north of our land. Although he was not actively trying to sell the land, he was excited about the idea of it becoming the home for a new church. The purchase was completed in the summer of 1991.

How did it get its name?

It’s just a happy accident that Walnut Hills UMC now sits high on a hill surrounded by trees. The group that met to form the new church wanted to avoid religious names in order to appeal to people who did not have a church background. They also wanted to avoid having the name identified with a single neighborhood or development.