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.
What was your initial reaction to the resistance?
Well, we expected it. But it’s one thing to talk about war and another to be a soldier on the ground when the bullets are flying. It was hard. It was the first time in my life where I was leading a church where I knew many people didn’t like me.
Things started blowing up pretty quickly because there were things that had to change immediately. There were issues on staff that had to be addressed immediately, dangerous things. Yet if you’re not in the know, all you see are these changes taking place. To some it looked like we were just being disrespectful, that we were bulls in a china shop. We were coming in as the guest and taking over. So there were a lot of those kinds of accusations. They weren’t accurate, but we couldn’t disclose all the reasons we had to make the changes.
It was tremendously uncomfortable coming to worship every Sunday morning during that time not knowing who liked you and who hated you. There were people in the choir who, when I would stand up to preach, would get up and walk out. People would sit in the front row and just stare me down as I preached. It was extremely uncomfortable. People would grab me in the hallway between services and say, “You’re ruining this church, and I’m going to do everything I can to stop you.” I would come out to my car and it would be keyed. Some people would stop at nothing to intimidate.
They put petitions on car windows during the worship service. They started an anonymous blog, which was very painful. Here we were trying to build consensus and there’s this anonymous blog fueling rumors and lies. The blog almost ruined my wife’s life. Anonymous letters were sent out to the entire congregation with accusations and character assassinations. It was absolutely terrible.
Did you ever question yourself and think, Was I really called here?
Oh, definitely. The shelling got so bad I thought to myself this was a huge mistake. Two churches are ruined now. I could hardly eat, had trouble sleeping, and was continually battling nausea. I felt at the absolute end of myself. In the summer of 2009 when we were in the midst of this, my family and I left to go on vacation. On the first day of vacation, I went out on the balcony of a cabin we rent, looking over the Gulf of Mexico. And I finally just unleashed all of my fury on God. What have you done? I’ve been trying to keep a stiff upper lip and play the role of martyr for truth. But bottom line is, I’m mad. I’ve done everything you asked me to do. I put my baby, the church that I planted, on the altar. I didn’t want to do this in the first place but I submitted and did it. And this is the payment I get from you?
But then I started thinking, why does this bother me so much? Yes, I have people writing nasty things about me, lying about me, spreading rumors about my team. They’re after power. And they’re not getting it, and these are the tactics they’re using. But why does that bother me so much? I remember saying to God in that moment, “Just give me my old life back.” And he said, “It’s not your old life you want back. It’s your old idols you want back. And I love you too much to give them to you.”
I opened up my Bible. In the reading plan I was following, it so happened that the day’s passages included the first chapter of Colossians. As I read those verses, my eyes were opened. My true situation came into focus. I’d never realized how dependent I’d become on human approval and acceptance until so much of it was taken away in the roiling controversy at Coral Ridge.
In every church I’d been a part of, I was widely accepted and approved and appreciated. I’d always felt loved in church. Now, for the first time, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of being deeply disliked and distrusted, and by more than a few people. Now I realized just how much I’d been relying on something other than the approval and acceptance and love that were already mine in Jesus.
I was realizing in a fresh way the now-power of the gospel—that the gospel doesn’t simply rescue us from the past and rescue us for the future; it also rescues us in the present from being enslaved to things like fear, insecurity, anger, self-reliance, bitterness, entitlement, and insignificance. Through my pain, I was being convinced all over again that the power of the gospel is just as necessary and relevant after you become a Christian as it is before.
When that biblical reality gripped my heart, I was free like I had never felt before in my life. It gives you the backbone to walk into a room full of church leaders and say “this is what we’re going to do and this is why we’re going to do it, even if it gets me thrown into the street.”
There is a fresh I-don’t-care-ness that accompanies belief in the gospel. Whether you like me or not doesn’t matter, because my worth and my dignity and my identity are anchored in God’s approval. Christ won all of the approval and acceptance I need.
Your crisis awakened you to your idols. What about the pastor who goes through a crisis and just feels like he can’t even pick his head up off the pillow in the morning?
Oh, that was me. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. Initially I was sad, afraid, and angry. In other words, it’s not like I had this remarkably spiritually mature response. I was just as messed up as the next guy who initially faces a shelling. It’s like, I don’t deserve this. What’s wrong with you?! What’s wrong with me?! That was me. I was frustrated, scared, and mad.
I really needed comfort and encouragement, and thankfully, it poured in from many places. But I didn’t need encouraging words about my self-worth. I didn’t need to find the hero within. No, my problem was stemming from the fact that I’d dug deep trying to find the hero within when what I needed to do was to die. I didn’t need to pull myself up by my bootstraps. I needed to let go. I could only find the greatest sense of comfort and encouragement by looking up instead of in. It’s very counterintuitive. But like Jesus said, “If you want to find life, you have to lose it.”
How did you rebuild and restore unity?
There were a couple of things we did to rebuild. From Easter of 2009 to the end of September 2009, it was war. After the vote to remove me from leadership in September till December, it just felt like everyone was still in shock. It was aftershock. There was this big mess. The attitude was let’s just everybody grab a broom and start sweeping. There was a lot of pastoral care and counsel happening at that time. We were cleaning up the mess and it was hard. It was very painful. We were trying to reassure people, even those who stayed but were still skeptical. For many the jury was still out. They were sticking it out, but had heard so many bad things that they were watching and waiting to see what would happen.
Something changed at Christmas. We felt like the ship turned, and in January I started preaching through Colossians. The series was called “Jesus plus nothing equals everything.” And that was a foundation-laying series of 22 sermons. Basically it was me saying the answer is the gospel. The answer to everything we’ve been through as a church, the answer to everything you will go through as an individual, the answer to the brokenness of your marriage and the brokenness of your family, the answer is the gospel. It’s Jesus plus nothing. It’s not Jesus plus a particular style of music. It’s not Jesus plus a certain agenda. That was foundation-laying. There was real rebuilding happening through the winter and spring of 2010.
Then we made a big decision in June 2010. One of the things I inherited when I came to Coral Ridge was a contemporary / traditional worship service split. We decided to combine the services. This was monumental in terms of rebuilding unity. I knew we had to get rid of the two-service format. I had known all along it had to go away, but I didn’t address it immediately because there were so many other things I needed to address. But after I preached the “Jesus plus nothing equals everything” series, I went to the elders and said it’s time. It’s time to pull the trigger and eliminate these separate services. And so we made the decision and announced it to our congregation. We were all going to be coming together. It’s been incredible to see the energy and unity that has come out of that decision.
There’s been a lot of talk about how the gospel is for Christians. Have we forgotten that the gospel is for pastors too?
Yes! I mean it has to be for pastors first. There’s absolutely no way that our people will experience the liberating now-power of the gospel if the pastor doesn’t even know what the liberating now-power of the gospel looks like. When I speak to pastors I say, “There is only one thing that will enable you to survive, and that’s the gospel. It’s not whether your church grows or not. It’s not having the right leadership principle. All of those things might be helpful, but the gospel is the only thing that will save you in ministry.” You inevitably face crises, slander, unfair criticism, pressure to perform in your professional and personal life. You have to have a model marriage. You’ve got to have the model children. You’ve got to be the one logging hours of private prayer every day. I mean there is heavy-duty pressure on pastors to be spiritual giants. What I love about the freeing, liberating power of the gospel is I can stand up on a Sunday morning without fear or reservation and be able to identify my own idols in front of my people. I’ll say things like, “I hate to admit this, but part of my motivation for preparing the sermon that I am preaching today is because I want you to think I’m a good preacher. It accentuates my sense of worth.” Is that embarrassing to admit? Absolutely! But it’s incredibly liberating. I don’t have to feel like I have to always be on, that I always have to be performing well, that every sermon’s got to be a homerun, that I’ve got to be modeling perfect piety before all of our people. The pressure’s off. Jesus measured up so I wouldn’t have to live under the enslaving pressure of measuring up for others. And that’s good news.