A Further Reflection On the Coral Ridge Schism


My comments on the tragic controversy at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church (CRPC) , posted over the last two days, generated a good deal of response. Some of it can be read as posts on this site. Some of it was sent to me in private. Almost all of it was written in a spirit that entreated me as a brother and a friend, not as an enemy.

Standing-in-line

Several people informed me of concerns that I could not have known unless they wrote to me since I am far removed from the actual struggles within this large congregation. In the spirit of pursuing peace, and with the goal of preserving the unity of Christ in this church, I feel compelled to respond to the input that I have received over the past two days.

It
is important to remind ourselves here of the wisdom of Proverbs 18:17:
“In a lawsuit the first to speak seems right, until someone comes
forward and cross-examines.” In any contest over the truth where a
dispute is involved this principle is very important. Both sides in the
CRPC debate should heed this wisdom.

The purpose of my blog series is not to simply report facts without commentary. Charitable public commentary is not gossip. Newspapers are supposed to provide news stories, which they sometimes fail to do. Blogs are notoriously poor when it comes to reporting facts (news) since almost no blogger can be a real reporter of the news. In this case I followed news reports in forming my response and commentary, plus my own experience and instincts. I do obviously realize that reporters can distort the facts. I relied on the story that I had from news sources in Florida. Others have come forward to add to this story giving me a much fuller view, though still one that is limited since I write from afar. To suggest that I got every fact right was never my claim if my words are read carefully. My purpose was to use what facts I had, from various sources, and then to offer my commentary, not my judgment of people or their motives. Even my comments about Dr. Kennedy’s strengths and weaknesses were not an attack on his character, as one person suggested. I was, if you read my words carefully, attempting to explain how human personality does play a role in how churches process change in their leadership. The failure to understand this often causes great harm when major transitions in leadership take place. Dr. Kennedy was a very unique individual and a gifted man. But he was a man. We do not honor him by acting as if this is not true. Christians ought to know better but their love for "great men" often prohibits them from seeing this as they should.

My comment about politics playing a role in this conflict has also been challenged. I will not defend myself here but I must remind both friend and foe alike that Dr. Kennedy realized that he was deeply involved in politics. He never spent a lot of time defending himself on this point, at least from anything I have seen. Let me explain.

DJK

Like Dr. Kennedy I openly oppose abortion and homosexual practice. But we chose different ways to express our opposition. Here is the big difference—I taught my congregation how to think biblically about moral and ethical issues but I never engaged in direct political action as a part of my pastoral leadership. Our church financially supported crisis pregnancy work and I counseled members with homosexual struggles to help them live chaste and celibate lives. But Dr. Kennedy did much, much more than these normal pastoral functions. He publicly named political opponents and routinely engaged national political debates in a way that went far beyond simply teaching people how to think and live biblically. He believed he was called to speak to culture in a way that meant his ministry must engage many political issues in a directly partisan manner. Anyone who watched his television broadcast could see and hear these themes regularly. Further, Coral Ridge helped to create a number of ministries that sought to engage political issues very directly. One such venture was their establishing a ministry in Washington, D.C., for the purpose of changing the government through political action and lobbying.

But I am convinced (again from afar) that the situation at CRPC is much larger than all I have said above. Pastor Tchividjian brought a large number of people with him into this new ministry at CRPC, including all his pastoral staff so far as I have come to understand. He also removed a number of the CRPC staff, some who had been there a long, long time. It appears that this whole process was called a “merger” when actions were taken that do not sound like a merger as we normally use that term about two churches joining forces. What some critics eventually came to believe, many of whom assure me that they voted to call Tchividjian, is that events subsequent to the call did not follow the process they were led to expect. One person says this created “a culture of intimidation.” I do not know if this is true but it seems that a considerable number of people believe that it is true, thus they responded negatively to the direction taken by the new leadership after the pastoral call was accepted.

I phoned a good friend, who knows the charges that have been made against the pastor and the session quite well. He has enough firsthand experience to be quite helpful to my inquiry. He suggested to me that he also had real concerns about whether or not the leadership could/would listen to their critics. I hope he is wrong but this charge is clearly out there regardless of which side you are on. If the pastor and elders want to pursue the peace of the church (and loves demands that I believe they do), then I suggest that they will have to deal with this perception/charge even if it is not fair in their view. By humbling themselves in this way they could win many of those who presently think they have acted unwisely.

I have been assured that most of the 400+ people who voted against the pastor will not leave the church because the vote did not go their way. I personally hope they will not leave. I hope they will stay and graciously and carefully seek for biblical redress by pursuing peace and love, not more congregational meetings that inflame passions and make news in Florida and beyond. This may sound like a cop-out on my part but I assure you it is nothing of the kind. To lay down the weapons of church politics, and to spend real time listening to one another (perhaps in small groups), will not be easy now that a public meeting has transpired. In fact, only a gracious work of the Holy Spirit will allow this to happen in any meaningful way. I am praying that courageous and faithful men and women will not ask “How can our side win in this struggle?” I am praying that a growing number of members at CRPC will rather ask, “How can we seek the peace and the prosperity of Christ’s kingdom in the life of this congregation?” I pray the pastor will listen very wisely and if peace cannot be found by such deeply spiritual means he might consider a reasonable way to end this division without resorting to the methods of men. Should he resign? I have no idea. He stands or falls to his own Master. But I do know that a pastor's ministry is never greater than that of a whole church. If my leadership is a hindrance to the church’s well-being I am truly expendable.

Let me give you a story from my past that has some bearing on CRPC, at least as I see it. My parents were members of the famous Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tennessee. They were there when my dad was in dental school and then later returned to the church when dad moved back to Memphis to teach at the dental school.

R G Lee

They were friends of the great preacher Robert G. Lee, the minister who built Bellevue into a great downtown church. When Dr. Lee retired he was followed as the pastor by a man who was a widely respected figure in his own right, Dr. Ramsey Pollard. Not long after Dr. Pollard became the pastor a division ensued. Some of Dr. Lee’s closet friends, and even some in his own family, became involved in this division. Before it was over a large group of people left Bellevue and began a new church. Dr. Lee never left Bellevue but it was widely known that his family gave some support to the opponents of Dr. Pollard. This always troubled my parents. Though I always thought Dr. Lee was a truly great man (he prayed for me as a young minister faithfully) I must say I was always disappointed in this response after he had retired. I learned, through this story and others I have witnessed firsthand, some vital lessons. One of them is that the former pastor’s family should stay out of the struggles in a church after their husband/father/brother has left.

Another lesson I have gained from a lifetime of experience also applies to CRPC. No church that has had only one pastor, who founded that church and gave his life to build a large church, ever escapes the problems that ensue when that minister dies or leaves. Most pastors do not seem to know how to transition away from such a ministry and thus they very often stay too long. When such pastors finally die the church is not prepared to deal with the leadership vacuum that ensues. I am not judging Dr. Kennedy in this matter but I sincerely believe he would have done the church a great service if he had retired many years ago and pursued a national ministry of teaching and writing without influencing the selection process of the next pastor. There was a time period between his death and the call of the new pastor but there was hardly any buffer that could have prepared this church for the trials it would necessarily face once Dr. Kennedy was gone.

Again, I am not attacking Dr. Kennedy when I say this but face it, most pastors have a hard time walking away from a church ministry when they have spent their whole life in one place. It is natural. But I would urge them to walk away regardless. Those churches where the pastor has done so will generally do much, much better in the transition. This is a simple observation based upon what I have observed time and time again. Dr. Kennedy had a multitude of gifts and could have done just about anything he desired so long as his health was good. I have no idea why he chose to stay until he was 76 years old (thus 48 years at CRPC) but it should surprise no one that his staying had a profound impact upon what followed.

In case someone still thinks I am attacking Dr. Kennedy’s good work please understand that I also think he did as much as any pastor in America between the late 1960s and the early 1990s to win people to faith in Christ through direct evangelism. He should be honored as one of the truly great evangelists of our time. I am not worthy of what I expect will be his reward at the throne of Christ. He was a marvelous servant of Christ. But this fact should still not stop us from asking the hard questions since the best of men are still men at best!

Pastor Tchividjian wrote a public letter that appeared in the Sun-Sentinel newspaper two days before the church meeting on September 20. Here is a part of what he had to say:

In recent months our country has been treated to some of the most heated debates we've seen in years. A presidential election promising change, healthcare reform and government bailouts has led to some pretty contentious, even out of control, public meetings. Common civility seems to have all but disappeared and while some seem to enjoy the fight, others are understandably sick and tired of it.

In March I was honored to be elected pastor of one of the great churches in South Florida–and indeed in America. Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church had been led by Dr. D. James Kennedy for nearly 48 years until he died in September 2007 at the age of 76. Even though I grew up in South Florida and attended Coral Ridge for a time with my family (I was just under two years old when my grandfather, Billy Graham, preached the dedication sermon for the sanctuary in 1974), I knew the challenges would be great. First and foremost was the fact that I would be only the second senior pastor in the 50 year history of Coral Ridge. And, if that wasn't going to be difficult enough, because of my unwavering commitment to remain as Pastor of New City Church (the church I started here in South Florida 5 1/2 years ago), both churches agreed to consider a merger. So, not only would I be following an evangelical icon, I would also be in the position of "fathering" a blended family. But, God made it unmistakably clear that a merger between the two churches was exactly what he wanted and on March 15, 2009, a stunning 91% of the members at Coral Ridge voted both to call me and merge our young but growing church with their historic church.

Change can be difficult in any context–a new president, a new spouse, a new coach, or a new pastor–and we have experienced some of that difficulty at Coral Ridge. On March 18th, three days after the vote, I wrote both churches and said that in order to make this transition smooth, the Gospel needs to be embraced and applied by all from both churches. All of us need to be willing to lay our lives down for one another because Christ laid his life down for us (1 John 3:16). That's what the Gospel-centered life is. And that's the life that God has called us to live. No one from either church is going to get everything they want (that's self-protection). But everyone from both churches will have everything we need to do God's work in God's way (that's self-sacrifice). We're all going to have to give. We're all going to have to stretch and be taken out of our comfort zone.

The vast majority of the congregation heeded this charge. But there is a small number who have not–and as a result, conflict has ensued.

You may have read, in this paper or elsewhere, six members of our church recently circulated unsolicited letters and a petition voicing their opposition to my leadership and requesting a congregational meeting to vote on whether to keep me as their pastor. Citing things like my desire not to wear a robe when I preach, not honoring the legacy and preferences of Dr. Kennedy to the degree that I should, making personnel changes (bringing in my staff from New City), and not preaching political sermons, these six members have been working to remove me as pastor.

The saddest thing about all of this is that, because of the visibility of both Coral Ridge and my family, this conflict has taken on a national interest. The reason this grieves me so deeply is because the Bible says God wants the church to be a visual model of the gospel. He wants us, in other words, to live our lives together in such a way that we demonstrate the good news of reconciliation before the watching world.

The late Francis Schaeffer once noted that bitter divisions among Christians give the world the justification they're looking for to di

sbelieve the gospel. But when reconciliation, peacemaking, and unity are on display inside the church, that becomes a powerful witness to this fractured world. "Just as I have loved you," Jesus commanded, "you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:34-35).

To get this matter behind us once and for all, the elders and I have called this congregational meeting and a vote will take place on Sunday. You will no doubt read about the result, but whatever it is, I want to say three things to the South Florida community that I love so much and have called home for 37 years.

First, Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church is not my church, and it wasn't Dr. Kennedy's church. It's God's church and I want to honor Him and carry on the legacy of Jesus above anything or anyone else.

Second, I remain committed to serving our one new church and the community where we're located. We are surrounded by so much need for God's love and the hope that comes from knowing Him and I want this to be the focus of my life and ministry. I want Coral Ridge to be a church in Ft. Lauderdale, for Ft. Lauderdale. We want God to use us to make Ft. Lauderdale a better place to live for everyone, not just us.

Finally, whenever you see any of us who claim to be "Christ followers" behaving in a manner that is unlike Jesus, please forgive us. And please let that be a reflection on us, and not on Him. As imperfect people, we will continue to let you down and disappoint you, but Jesus will never let you down–he will never disappoint you. This conflict has "given the world the justification they're looking for to disbelieve the gospel", and I am sorry.


My counsel to the leaders at CRPC (once again from afar) is rather basic. Now that the vote has been taken, and the pastor was retained, why not begin a series of “listening sessions” where people can be heard? Why not schedule some regular prayer meetings at a number of times and locations? Call on the people, all of them, to seek God together. Do not let the actions of Sunday end this process as if a vote settled the issues.  Remember the counsel of Proverbs 18:19: “A brother wronged is more unyielding than a fortified city; disputes are like the barred gates of a citadel.” Nothing shuts people off from one another quite like a church dispute. And nothing impacts children and young Christians quite like a church split. Pastor Tchividjian alludes to these points in his public letter above.

Leaders of CRPC: Why not ask a small group of disinterested outside mediators to help the session truly evaluate what the real spiritual state of things is within this flock now that this public meeting is over? The political battle is finished, at least for now, but the real battle is for the soul of this church. Who will have the grace and courage to step out of your comfort zone to stand between the discouraged and the hurt people, who are turned in upon one another, and call this flock to repentance and fresh love for Christ? The reputation of people is not the issue here. What matters is not what Dr. Kennedy would do or what Pastor Tchividjian would/will do. What matters is what would Christ do?

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