How do you follow a larger-than-life predecessor? In 2007 Jonathan Falwell became the senior pastor of Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, after the sudden death of his father, Jerry Falwell, who had founded the Thomas Road church in 1956, and founded Liberty University in 1971 and the Moral Majority in 1979. For seven years, Jonathan has ably led the Thomas Road church. Warren Bird of Leadership Network interviewed Jonathan about his experience of following someone as influential as Jerry Falwell.
Before that terrible day of your father's collapse, how much discussion was there about a successor to your father at the church?
There wasn't a lot of discussion. My dad's plan was to be here until he was about 115 years old, and he had every intention of continuing to serve. He didn't believe in retirement. I differ with him on that. I do believe in retirement; the older I get, the more I believe in it! (Laughter.) But Dad always said he wanted to die with his boots on.
In fact, two weeks before he died, he preached a sermon and said, "God's man is indestructible until he has finished the work that God has called him to do."
But he never really talked about what the future looked like after him. In fact, in the last year of his life, he said more than once that "I'm trusting God to do more in the next five years than he's done in the previous fifty." And for him, having seen Thomas Road go from 35 founding members to thousands in 2006, that was a pretty big statement. It was hard for a lot of us to get our brains around how God could do more in the next five years than he'd done in the previous 50.
Then, when Dad passed away, that statement became even more difficult to understand
Was there an envelope with a name in it for insurance purposes? Any forecast of what should happen if his plane went down?
Not at all. I wish there'd been some instructions. I would love to have had a document where he laid out what was on his heart. That would have helped us get from point A to point B in those early days. But there wasn't anything like that.
In hindsight, I'd love to have had his guidance, but in another way I'm thankful that there wasn't because it drove me and it drove the rest of our church to do the most important thing that we could do at a time like that, and that's to get on our knees and say, "God, what do you want us to do?"
And that's exactly what we did. That first Sunday after my dad passed away, we gathered at the altar of the church and knelt. We cried out to God: "Okay, God, what's next? Where do you want us to go?" And we continue to do that even now, six years later.
So you became the senior pastor, and the church is grieving the loss of a much-loved, incredible leader, and you are grieving—this is your dad. And yet you are leading the church into a new future. How did you balance the honoring, the grieving—personally and congregationally—along with dreaming the new dream for what God has next?
I remember that Saturday night after my dad passed away, knowing the next morning it was my responsibility to preach and say something of value to encourage and comfort the congregation. To be honest with you, I had nothing to say.