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Skip W. Sigh

Passing the baton

Church Transitions | How mega-ministries grapple with a founder's departure

Issue: "The schools that Arne built," April 11, 2009

Before a backdrop of soaring stained glass and the 6,000 gleaming pipes of a Ruffatti pipe organ, Tullian Tchividjian on March 15 preached one of the pivotal sermons of his life. Tchividjian, 36, pastor of New City Presbyterian Church in Margate, Fla., was preaching 12 miles down the road in Fort Lauderdale.

The occasion: Tchividjian's nomination to succeed D. James Kennedy as senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church.

There had been some dissent in the congregation over who would fill Kennedy's sizable shoes. Kennedy founded the church in 1959 and pastored it for 47 years. In 1974, he launched the multimillion-dollar nonprofit Coral Ridge Ministries, along with the Coral Ridge Hour, a television program that would ultimately reach an audience of 3.5 million.

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In December 2006, Kennedy suffered a cardiac arrest from which he never fully recovered. Eight months later, he retired from Coral Ridge and 10 days after that, died at home in his sleep. Most members of the church had never known another pastor.

After a 14-month search, a Coral Ridge committee nominated Tchividjian, grandson of Billy and Ruth Bell Graham, to succeed Kennedy. Once a prodigal who, ironically, dropped out of Coral Ridge's Christian high school at age 16 to immerse himself in South Florida's pleasure-soaked culture, Tchividjian rebounded to graduate from Reformed Theological Seminary and to found New City Church in 2003.

On that pivotal Sunday in March, Tchividjian preached on the Lord's Prayer to thousands of Coral Ridge worshippers. Then he left the campus, clearing the way for the 1,100 church members who stayed behind to debate his nomination.

"We knew that whoever was nominated to succeed Dr. Kennedy would not have unanimous support," said Coral Ridge executive minister Ron Siegenthaler. "There were too many different ideas and opinions and agendas. I expected there to be some dissension and maybe a little heat."

After a two-hour debate, Siegenthaler called for a secret vote. Twenty minutes later with the vote tallied, the church clerk met Siegenthaler at the front of the sanctuary to report the results.

The leadership transfer at Coral Ridge is one among several recent changings-of-the-guard in which control of major evangelical ministries has passed from founder to first successor. As with Kennedy, some successions have occurred due to death: When Moral Majority and Liberty University founder Jerry Falwell died in 2007 at age 73, his son, Jonathan, succeeded him as senior pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church, the congregation the elder Falwell launched in 1956.

Others evangelical leaders, such as Billy Graham, 90; Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson, 77; televangelist Pat Robertson, 78; and Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, 72, have retired or passed most control of their ministries to successors. Still others, such as Robert H. Schuller, 82, senior pastor of 10,000-member Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., have experimented with succession plans, only to change course later.

Mega-ministry succession strategies are as varied as their locales. As Kennedy advanced in years, for example, he fielded an increasing number of questions about succession, Siegenthaler said: "In the corporate world and in many ministries, succession plans are highly developed. But Dr. Kennedy's position was that it was not his place to choose his successor.

His position was consistent with Presbyterianism, which sets forth the pastoral succession process in a denominational document called the Book of Church Order. In brief, the congregation elects a "pulpit committee," which then conducts a search for a candidate, then nominates that person to the congregation. Accordingly, Kennedy "did not 'train up' anyone," Siegenthaler said. "He did not anoint anyone. He did not even point out someone he thought would be suitable."

That didn't sit well with some church members from business backgrounds who were familiar with corporate succession models. Some advisors mistook Kennedy's refusal to put a plan on paper as a sign that he wasn't facing reality.

Instead, Kennedy likely understood a major succession pitfall of large ministries and mega-churches: Because they are often built around a charismatic and creative leader, "when you start looking at some kind of succession process, someone with an equivalent strength of gift, those folks are relatively rare," said J. Russell Crabtree, co-author (with Carolyn Weese) of The Elephant in the Boardroom, which examines pastoral succession hurdles and offers a blueprint for effective transitions.

For years, Crabtree watched churches unravel during the interregnum between pastors, a phenomenon he calls transitional "rot." Part of the problem is denial: "In the church in general, there has not really been a culture that encourages thought about succession. Church members want to talk about it, but often leadership doesn't."

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