New Minister of Famed Fla. Megachurch Facing Leadership Challenge

A small but vocal group of congregants at the famed Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., are challenging the leadership of their newly installed senior minister, the Rev. Tullian Tchividjian, and accusing the staff of his former church of having "taken complete control."

In the five months that have passed since Coral Ridge officially merged with Tchividjian's New City Church in Margate, up to 100 of the church's roughly 2,200 members have come together in support of their new pastor's dismissal.

"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," six of the dissenters wrote in a letter mailed to church members on July 24. "They range from preferences bordering on the mundane to violations of ethical standards that have guarded the purity of the church for decades."

 Tchividjian, whose grandfather is the world renowned evangelist Billy Graham, had been installed this past Easter as Coral Ridge's second senior minister in five decades after the weekslong process that ensued following a monthslong search by Coral Ridge's Pulpit Nominating Committee (PNC).

In January, the PNC had extended an invitation to Tchividjian to become the megachurch's new senior pastor after months of combing for a pastoral candidate to recommend to the Coral Ridge congregation. Coral Ridge's founding pastor, the Rev. D. James Kennedy, had retired in August 2007 and died less than two weeks later.

Because of Tchividjian's "unwavering commitment" to remain the pastor of the church he founded in 2003, however, the churches had to first agree to a merger before he could consider the offer. So following the PNC's invitation on Jan. 18, leaders from the two churches met for nearly two months to discuss and hammer out legal, financial, ministerial, structural and philosophical matters, among others.

The meetings eventually culminated with a vote "unanimously and enthusiastically" supporting and approving the merger and paved the way for Tchividjian's acceptance of the PNC's offer.

Tchividjian was invited shortly after to preach in front of the Coral Ridge congregation – 91 percent of which went on to vote in support of the call for the 36-year-old minister to serve as their new senior minister.

While the number of those who didn't and still don't support the selection of Tchividjian is "a super small but very vocal minority," according to the minister, their efforts have put extensive strain on Tchividjian, who confessed last month that the weight of his burdens have made him "want to give up and give in."

"The current contractions of our one new church have me feeling more desperate than I've ever felt," he wrote in his blog on July 30. "People who don't know me (and haven't taken the time to try) have said things about me that are untrue and cruel, calling into question my character, my leadership, my theological credibility, and my motives."

In the first letter that was circulated, the dissenters – including the daughter of the church's late founder, Jennifer Kennedy Cassidy – called Tchividjian "a disaster" who has shown "a complete lack of respect" and made "grievous missteps."

They also accused Tchividjian of misleading them in their search for a new pastor.

As he noted last month, however, Tchividjian said he "didn't go looking for this merger and ... didn't need it."

"Before God brought this around, I was enjoying the thrill of pastoring a thriving 5 1/2 year old church that I had the privilege of planting. It was strong. It was healthy. I was happy. Therefore, in my weaker moments I have been tempted to relieve myself of this burden and go back to the way things were," he wrote.

"But God won't let me," he continued. "There is no going back–only onward and upward!"

After six of the Coral Ridge members circulated the first letter, Tchividjian called a meeting to address their concerns, but Bill Ashcraft, a longtime member and church elder, told The Associated Press that none of the dissenters attended, instead sending a second letter on Aug. 1.

As a result, the six – including Kennedy's daughter – were told they were not welcome at the church until an internal judicial process was complete.

According to a letter mailed to Coral Ridge members over the weekend, the dissenters have been ordered to stay off church property and out of church programs, and "to stop writing accusatory letters to the congregation.''

"No church government can tolerate such an insurrection from those who will not listen to admonition, refuse all counsel, and will stop at nothing until they have overthrown legitimate authority and replaced it with their own," Tchividjian wrote.

The church, meanwhile, is forming a judicial commission to deal with the six main dissidents, who, according to the letter, "will be given a hearing so that they can give an account for the controversy their actions have created."

Coincidentally, Tchividjian had written on Mar. 27 - two weeks after church elders approved the merger of Coral Ridge and New Gate - that "[t]he odds are against us," after he read an article in World magazine titled "How Mega-Ministries Grapple with a Founder's Departure."

"But if God is for us, who cares about the odds," he exclaimed. "May this 'succession' be a demonstration to the whole world that with God all things are possible and that this is Christ's church and 'the gates of hell cannot prevail against it.'"

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