Christianity Today interviewed Tullian Tchividjian last week about an attempt to remove him as pastor. In March, Tullian became the second pastor in the history of Coral Ridge, succeeding the late D. James Kennedy who pastored there for 47 years. Tullian was approved as pastor with a 91% vote in March. On September 20, 69% voted against the motion to remove him. People are wondering how things could change so much in only a few months.
There has been lots written about the situation at Coral Ridge. I don’t really want to say a lot about that specific situation, except to say how much I’ve appreciated Tullian’s preaching and writing. I’m praying for that church as they move into the future. It’s a significant work, and they need our prayers. (Jim Belcher has a post at Out of Ur today on this topic.) Although I’m not close enough to be able to judge what happened, it seems inevitable that a transition like this would be a bumpy one even under the best possible circumstances.
The situation has caused me to reflect again on what it’s like to succeed a defining pastorate. I’ve done this at Richview myself, as my predecessor – a good man and a good pastor – significantly shaped the church over a 23 year period. The transition to a new pastor was incredibly difficult for the church simply because the previous pastor had been so significant to the life of the church. Add to that the inevitable mistakes that I as a new pastor made and you have a very tough transition.
Although I received a fairly strong vote to come as pastor, I’m sure that I wouldn’t have received more than 69% support in the early years if things had been put to a vote. In fact, the transition probably took eight years – twice what I would have guessed. It simply takes time.
Spurgeon pastored The Metropolitan Tabernacle for 38 years. After his death, the congregation experienced months of turmoil and almost split. When Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones resigned from Westminster Chapel, the church struggled for some time. The same for other churches – People’s Church in Toronto, and First Baptist Dallas after W.A. Criswell.
Pastors need to prepare congregations for when they will be gone. We need to avoid becoming pastor-centered churches. The more the ministry is built around the pastor, the more the church will flounder when the pastor is gone. Just last week I heard Tim Keller preach a message that gently encouraged the church to look beyond his own leadership in the future. Even when a pastor does this, by the way, the transition will still likely be hard.
This isn’t easy, but perhaps the most important work a pastor can do the longer he stays is to ensure the congregation isn’t dependent on him.
We need to pray for churches in transition. I believe in church planting, but I also believe in transitioning churches. But we shouldn’t underestimate the difficulties. If you know of a church that is in transition, pray for that church. They need the prayers. With the right kind of leadership, a lot of patience, and God’s help, they’ll make it through.