MIAMI (AP) — Descendants of two of the country’s most influential evangelical leaders — Billy Graham and the late D. James Kennedy — are feuding over control of a Florida megachurch that is a bedrock of the religious right.
Under the leadership of Kennedy, the former pastor who died in 2007, Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church was a forerunner to modern evangelical megachurches and a fiercely conservative voice on social issues like homosexuality and abortion in the mostly liberal, Democratic city of Fort Lauderdale.
Graham’s grandson, Tullian Tchividjian (pronounced TUH’-lee-uhn chuh-VI’-dee-uhn), took over earlier this year as its pastor.
But some Kennedy loyalists, including his daughter Jennifer Kennedy Cassidy, are upset with the direction Tchividjian is taking the church and have called for his ouster.
Tchividjian cuts a far different image from Kennedy. His hair is spiky, his beard sometimes scruffy, his skin tan. He has forgone wearing a choir robe at services, as Kennedy had.
And while he has shown no sign of theological differences with Kennedy, he has rejected politics as the most important way to change the country, while Kennedy was extremely active in politics as an influential Christian broadcaster.
Cassidy and five other members recently circulated a letter with a petition urging a meeting to consider the firing of Tchividjian, indicating he had misled them in their search for a new pastor.
Dissenters at the church have been vague in their criticism of Tchividjian’s leadership. Their letter called him “a disaster” who has shown “a complete lack of respect” and made “grievous missteps.”
They lament the merger with Tchividjian’s former church, the far smaller New City Presbyterian, saying “their staff has taken complete control.”
“We were told many things that all sounded good at the time, but in fact those soothing words have largely proven empty and it keeps getting worse,” the dissenters wrote. “They range from preferences bordering on the mundane to violations of ethical standards that have guarded the purity of the church for decades.”
Tchividjian dismissed the dissenters as “a super small but very vocal minority” in an e-mail message to The Associated Press, but referred calls to Bill Ashcraft, a longtime member and church elder. Ashcraft estimated fewer than 100 of the church’s roughly 2,000 members support the pastor’s dismissal.
“They would like for things to be exactly as they were under Pastor Kennedy,” Ashcraft said. “We didn’t bring Tullian Tchividjian to Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church to do exactly what D. James Kennedy was doing.”
After the Coral Ridge members circulated the first letter, Tchividjian called a meeting to address their concerns, but Ashcraft said none of the dissenters attended, instead sending a second letter. After that, they were told they were not welcome at the church until an internal judicial process was complete.
“They spelled out some vague complaints for the pastor but they didn’t ask for any modification of anything. They just asked to sign a petition to sever this pastor’s relationship with the church,” Ashcraft said. “It’s hard to negotiate with people like that.”
Jim Filosa, a Coral Ridge elder who along with his wife is among those disciplined by the church, said he couldn’t discuss the matter in detail. Cassidy and others who were disciplined didn’t return calls seeking comment, but Filosa said Kennedy’s daughter shouldn’t be described as the effort’s ringleader.
“She is just one voice in many,” he said.
Cassidy still remains on the board of Coral Ridge Ministries, the broadcast ministry founded by her father that is technically separate from the church, though it is closely affiliated. A spokesman for Coral Ridge Ministries, John Aman, released a statement saying despite Cassidy’s involvement in the leadership challenge, there was no further comment.
Ashcraft said the hope is that the dissenters eventually rejoin the fold. In an Aug. 6 letter to congregants, Tchividjian wrote “No church government can tolerate such an insurrection from those who will not listen to admonition, refuse all counsel and will stop at nothing until they have overthrown legitimate authority and replaced it with their own.”
Tchividjian, 37, is the middle of seven children born to Stephan Tchividjian and Graham’s eldest daughter, Gigi. He attended Coral Ridge and its adjacent school as a young man and Graham officiated at the church’s dedication ceremony. Tchividjian eventually dropped out, spending about five years partying on SouthBeach before recommitting to Christ, joining the seminary and becoming a minister.
Coral Ridge’s founding in 1959 marked the creation of what would become one of the country’s first megachurches. It had been without a pastor from Kennedy’s death in September 2007 until Tchividjian was appointed in March.