Tullian Tchividjian knows all about filling big shoes. Not only is he the grandson of Billy Graham, but in 2009 Tchividjian (pronounced cha-vi-jin) stepped into another pair of Shaq-sized sneakers. He succeeded the late James Kennedy as pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Tchividjian's church plant, New City, merged with the larger Coral Ridge, but the honeymoon was short-lived. Seven months later a group of church members, headed by Kennedy's daughter, circulated a petition calling for his removal. On September 20, 2009, Tchividjian survived a vote to remove him from leadership.
Today Coral Ridge has largely moved past the conflict and is thriving. Tchividjian's energy and enthusiasm (some Coral Ridge staffers call him "the tornado") belie the recent ordeal. Drew Dyck sat down with Tchividjian to discuss how he endured those dark days, what he learned, and how he found light on the other side.
How did you respond when you received the invitation to come to Coral Ridge?
I was humbled. I was honored. But I wasn't interested, for a variety of reasons. First of all New City, the church I had planted and pastored for five years, was going strong. God was doing great things in and through that church and I was very happy there. I also wasn't naïve. I knew that whoever comes in after a founder is probably going to be gone in a year or two. The success rate of guys who follow a founding pastor isn't great.
Second, Coral Ridge had been in pretty serious decline for 10 or 15 years. While everybody outside the church knew it was declining, most people inside the church thought everything was just fine. There were some people who realized things needed to change, but for the most part people in charge thought everything was okay. So I said "no." They came back to me two months later and asked if I would reconsider. Again I said, "I'm humbled. I'm honored. But no thank you."
What finally changed your mind?
They came back five months later, in December of 2008, and asked me to reconsider. And at that time we started talking about merging the two churches. So my ears perked up a little. We were having multiple services in a high school auditorium, so we were looking for property.
We'd set aside some money, and were actively pursuing properties. And so it was initially intriguing to me because I thought, This could be God's remarkable way of giving us the property that we need. They need a leader; we need a building. But that was really secondary. I started to envision how a merger could potentially serve as a model for other churches. But I knew it wasn't going to be an easy transition, taking on an established church that had only ever had one pastor and preacher. It wasn't like wow, we get the big building! We knew that it was going to be hell on earth. We couldn't predict the specifics of what we were going to face, but we knew it was coming.
Some of the reasons you were opposed seem trivial. You didn't wear a robe, like Dr. Kennedy did. You weren't political enough from the pulpit. Was there something beneath those objections?
Not preaching politics was a big one. But yes, I'm sure there was something underlying those complaints. Part of it may have been an old-fashioned power struggle. There were people who had been in places of power under Kennedy who felt that this was their church, and they should be in charge of running it. I think some of them probably saw in me a young guy who would be wide-eyed by coming here and would basically do whatever they said. What they underestimated was that we had prayed and thought hard about what God wanted this church to be, and we were very determined to get there.