Over 400 Leave Famed Megachurch After Failed Ouster

More than 400 people from the late D. James Kennedy's famed Florida megachurch have left to form their own congregation following an unsuccessful effort to ouster their new pastor.

Organizers of the new congregation said its first service this past Sunday drew more than 450 people – nearly all of which came from Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale. That's around how many church members had voted last month against keeping the Rev. Tullian Tchividijan as the megachurch's second senior minister in five decades.

That's also around how many the Coral Ridge transition team was told the church would probably lose even before a seemingly smooth leadership transition came across some turbulence.

Elder Bill Ashcraft, who has been acting as a spokesman for Tchividjian, said a church expert had informed the team that any new pastor would probably lose 300 to 400 members.

Few, however, had expected things to turn out as they did after 91 percent of the congregation voted earlier this year to call Tchividjian to serve as its new senior minister.

Five months after Tchividjian was installed as Coral Ridge's senior pastor following a monthslong process, more than 400 church members signed a petition calling for a congregational meeting to reconsider the church's decision, saying that they were opposed to Tchividjian's leadership for a number of reasons, including his alleged failure to present the Gospel clearly, his failure to raise awareness on current issues, and the replacement of Coral Ridge staff with "less qualified staff members who are, however, 'loyal' to the new administration."

Many of the complaints centered around Tchividjian's inability or unwillingness to maintain the legacy of the church's late founder – who was considered by some evangelicals as one of the Church's "truly significant figures" before his death more than two years ago – as well as the church's departure from long-standing traditions, such as the conclusion of every sermon with a call for visitors to receive Christ.

"We have seen a complete lack of respect towards the congregation and for long standing traditions that have been part of Coral Ridge's rich heritage for decades," stated a letter drafted late July by the six most vocal dissenters, which included the late-Kennedy's daughter, Jennifer Cassidy.

"We were told many things that all sounded good at the time, but in fact those soothing words have largely proven empty and it keeps getting worse," they added.

Because the dissenters' petition was able to collect well above the minimum 100 signatures needed, church elders were required under their Book of Church Order to call for a congregational meeting for the purpose of conducting the business requested by the petitioners – namely to vote on whether or not to "amicably" dissolve the relationship with Tchividjian and the consequent merger of Coral Ridge and New City Church, the Margate-based church Tchividjian had founded in 2003.

During the Sept. 20 meeting, church members in good standing heard from fellow members on why they supported or opposed the motion to dissolve the relationship with Tchividjian.

In the end, Coral Ridge members voted 940-422 (69 to 31 percent) in favor of keeping Tchividjian as the church's senior minister.

As a result, many longtime Coral Ridge members, including church elders, the organist, choir director and hundreds of choir members, decided to leave the congregation they helped build.

Despite the bitter nature of the split, Tchividjian's spokesman said the church was praying for those who left and that the breakaway represents "a win-win situation."

"Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church is going to grow. And the other church ... is going to grow also," Ashcraft told The Associated Press. "And God will be glorified at both."

Since Tchividjian's installation on Easter Sunday, Coral Ridge has reportedly experienced growth "in virtually every standard of measurement," including weekly attendance, financial offerings and new members.

During the past six months, 300 new members have been added to the congregation and 192 people have registered for the next new members class, making it the largest new members class in the church's 50-year history. Over the past year, church attendance has also reportedly doubled.

The new breakaway church, meanwhile, tentatively called The Church, is reportedly applying for 501(c)3 tax-exempt status and searching for a permanent facility to hold services.

As of Thursday, the new congregation planned to hold its second Sunday service at Butterfly World in Coconut Creek, where they held their first service. Butterfly World is the largest butterfly facility in the world today.