After over nearly three decades of leading what has grown to become the largest church in Minnesota, pastor Bob Merritt has retired from the nine-campus Eagle Brook Church.
Months after announcing his plans to retire, the 63-year-old Merritt officially stepped down as Eagle Brook’s senior pastor on his March 1 birthday, giving way to longtime teaching pastor Jason Strand to assume his position.
“I feel a great deal of loss right now,” Merritt told The Christian Post after returning from a week out of the country with a group of friends. “I should be in the office, interacting with my colleagues and thinking about the message and getting busy with writing that. It’s an abrupt stop from a life that I have lived for 30 plus years. There is a real grieving that’s going on in my own spirit.”
In a phone interview, Merritt looked back on his time at Eagle Brook with fond memories, though some times were harder than others.
As a pastor’s kid from Pennsylvania who graduated from both Bethel Seminary and Bethel University, Merritt was brought on as the pastor of what was then the 300-member First Baptist Church of White Bear Lake in 1991. He took the job after receiving his Ph.D. from Penn State University in speech communications.
In the first year, things were tough for Merritt as there was some contention among the staff and church membership with his hiring.
“In the first year, almost didn’t make it,” he recalled. “I had an associate who basically wanted my job and he didn’t get chosen. So he was tough to deal with for a year. Some people left the church as well because they weren’t sure I was the guy. Then in the second year, we went from 300 to 400 [members], then from 400 to 500 and then it just started to climb.”
Merritt did not believe First Baptist Church, which was the name of the church since 1945, was a “good name to reach people.” He sat on that opinion for about five years as he gained credibility and confidence with the congregation before suggesting that the name be changed.
By year 10, Merritt said the church had grown to over 5,000 people.
'Our church was climbing but I was failing'
In addition to being the senior pastor of Eagle Brook, Merritt also taught at Bethel Seminary. But the workload and responsibility on Merritt’s plate as a seminary teacher and pastor might've gotten the better of him as he struggled with issues of anger and depression.
“I wasn’t doing well,” he admitted. “I was probably clinically depressed, burned out, completely tired. It was not fun to be around.”
Merritt said there were times he verbally misbehaved at home and around the church staff.
“I don't think the congregation was aware of all the backstory. It really was manifested among my staff. That's where I really kind of misbehaved, and at home as well,” he said. “I just had a couple of really discerning board members who saw it. And they began hearing things from the staff and they began digging deeper.”
Merritt said there was one board member in particular who went through similar issues and began to “lean in on it.”
“He saw my verbal misconduct, impatience, harsh language, those kinds of things. But beneath it, I was this man angry at everybody for not getting in line and not doing their job right or whatever it might be. It could have been a number of things. But a lot of it was I just didn't have any capacity to deal with the demands on my life. I just couldn't keep up."
One night, he was told at a church board meeting that he needed to “get help” or he was going to be fired.
“Our church was climbing but I was failing, personally, in every way just trying to survive,” he said.
Merritt said the church graciously hired a counselor to serve as his leadership coach.
“He brought me through a full year of counseling. And this guy basically interviewed all my friends, my family members, my staff, anybody who knew me and asked two questions: ‘What's good about Bob? What's bad about Bob?’” he said.
“And they unloaded. He compiled 240 pages of feedback from all these people and spent three days reading it back to me. And I was just split wide open.”
Merritt recalled the one statement from the pile that he’ll never forget.
“My son, who was 15 years old at the time, said, ‘I just want to know why my dad's angry all the time.’ And it wrecked me,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. I just dropped my head in my hands and started crying. I couldn't believe that I didn't see it. I was going so fast. I was just trying to keep all the balls in the air. And it just about took me out.”
The first thing Merritt’s counselor told him to do was to resign from his teaching role at Bethel Seminary.
“I was so relieved to have someone give me permission to do that,” he recalled. “That probably saved me, saved my career. I started making changes in my behavior.”
“But eight years after that, the church board said I still had some cracks and wanted me to go back and see the counselor. I agreed to go back. He dug a little deeper and got to the real issues of where my anger was coming from and my unwillingness to forgive people and those kinds of things.”
Merritt said that counseling not only saved his career but also saved his marriage.
“After all that was said and done, our church took off again. And in the last couple of weekends, we've had 31,000 people [attend] and 25,000 watch online. So over 50,000 people are watching us and listening to us every week. That never would have happened had I not dealt with my dysfunctions.”
'We all have disfunction'
Because of his own experiences, Merritt encourages pastors to see counselors.
“We all have disfunction,” he said. “And so what I would say to pastors in this area is, if you've never given yourself the gift of seeing a coach or a counselor, you got to do that because I guarantee that you got some blind spots, some dysfunction, and it's affecting your life, your marriage, your career.
“You may not even know what it is, but others do. And until you give someone the permission to dig around in your life a little bit, you may not ever find out until it's too late.”
Every year, there are seemingly a handful of pastors who garner headlines because they were booted or forced to resign from their church over some kind of personal failing, whether it's sexual immorality or some other form of sin. But Merritt is happy with the fact that in all the years he has been with Eagle Brook, there has not been a single scandal.
He advises pastors not to even get close to a line they are not willing to cross.
“I've learned over the years as I've observed this stuff, it's not rational; it's emotional. And if you allow yourself to get close to a certain line, your emotions override your intellect,” Merritt said. “So the key is never to get close to that line. And so what you got to do is you got to build safeguards and boundaries in your life that you just never violate because this happens in churches.”
During Merritt’s tenure, Eagle Brook instituted strict rules for church staff to ensure they never get too close to that boundary.
“Some of the safeguards we put into place for the church are that all of us have a lengthy floor-to-ceiling window in our offices by our door so that anybody can see into the offices when they walk by,” he explained. “We're not allowed to have a female or male drive in a car alone together if one or the other is married. They're not even allowed to drive from our office to our main campus, which is just a mile away from our office.”
Additionally, Eagle Brook staff are not allowed to have lunch alone with somebody of the opposite sex if one person is married.
“It's just dangerous. It can ruin you,” Merritt said. “And so we just don't allow that stuff. And by the way, we've never had a scandal at our church.”
Merritt said that even though he is feeling a sense of “loss” from his retirement, he felt the timing was right.
“My teaching pastor, Jason Strand, has been with me for 12 years,” he said. “We had conversations about him being the guy to succeed me. There wasn’t any pressure from him. He never put that kind of pressure on me. But I knew in my spirit that he was ready. There just seemed like there was a convergence of my time coming to an end and his time coming.”
Merritt said he plans to take the next few months to quiet his mind to figure out what God is calling him to do next. He plans to take “a couple of days” away alone to clear his thoughts.
“I will not be leading another church. I am not going to be doing interim work. My gifting is teaching. … It’s got to line up with my giftings. I am not sure what that is going to look like,” he stressed. “A lot of times, God doesn’t show us what is ahead. He didn’t show Abraham what was ahead. He didn’t show Moses, necessarily, what was ahead or Paul. Day by day, I believe God will reveal that to me.”
Although Eagle Brook will still be his family church, Merritt said he is now just a church member. He worked out an agreement with Strand that he will always be available to offer advice but will not do so in an encroaching manner.
Merritt is also the author of several books, including Done with That: Escape the Struggle of Your Old Life and Get Wise: Make Great Decisions Every Day.