After admitting to an extramarital affair, Billy Graham’s grandson Tullian Tchividjian resigned as senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church over the weekend, leaving the Fort Lauderdale mega-church that streams its Sunday services to thousands without a permanent spiritual leader.
“Several days ago, Pastor Tullian admitted to moral failure, acknowledging his actions disqualify him from continuing to serve as senior pastor or preach from the pulpit, and resigned — effective immediately,” according to a statement on the church’s website. “We are saddened by this news, but are working with and assisting Pastor Tullian and his family to help them through this difficult time, and asking people to join us in praying that God will bring restoration through this process and healing to all involved.”
This is only the second time in the church’s more than 50-year history that it is without a permanent leader. Pastor D. James Kennedy founded Coral Ridge in 1960 and built it into an evangelical empire, which in its peak, reached three million viewers in 200 countries through its television and radio ministry, The Coral Ridge Hour. Kennedy, co-founder of the Christian lobby known as the Moral Majority, led the church until 10 days before his death in 2007.
Tchividjian, 42, named after the third century theologian Tertullian, was hired as his replacement in 2009, with 91 percent of congregants approving his appointment. While he had a rocky start — some feared he was straying too far from Kennedy’s conservative Christian views — he ultimately won the congregation’s support.
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On Sunday, Father’s Day, Tchividjian, married to his wife Kim since 1994 and father of their three children, acknowledged to the Washington Post that he had resigned:
“I resigned from my position at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church today due to ongoing marital issues,” he wrote in a statement to the newspaper. “As many of you know, I returned from a trip a few months back and discovered that my wife was having an affair. Heartbroken and devastated, I informed our church leadership and requested a sabbatical to focus exclusively on my marriage and family. As her affair continued, we separated. Sadly and embarrassingly, I subsequently sought comfort in a friend and developed an inappropriate relationship myself. Last week I was approached by our church leaders and they asked me about my own affair. I admitted to it and it was decided that the best course of action would be for me to resign.”
Tchividjian could not be reached for comment. Kim Tchividjian declined to comment to a Miami Herald news partner CBS4 reporter who visited the family’s home in Pompano Beach on Monday.
She did send a comment to the Washington Post: “The statement reflected my husband’s opinions but not my own. Please respect the privacy of my family at this time, thank you. I do thank everyone for the outpouring of love for my family as well during this difficult time and we appreciate all the prayers and support we are receiving.”
While followers of Tchividjian were disappointed in the news, some said he is human.
“He is a man,” said Kimberly Davis, who lives in New York and has registered for some of Tchividjian’s conferences. “I don't condone it, but I don’t think they should crucify him.”
Tchividjian’s road to senior pastor at Coral Ridge has been paved with a few potholes. He dropped out of high school at Westminster Academy in Fort Lauderdale and partied a lot, he told the Herald in a 2005 interview.
His parents — his mother, Gigi Tchividjian, is Billy Graham’s oldest daughter — kicked him out of their home when he was 16. He worked in construction and waited tables at Chili’s. By 21, bored with the party scene, he prayed for God to lead him.
“I said, 'All right, God, you take over,’” he said at the time. “‘You're the one who built me; you're the one who can fix me.’’’
He got a GED and graduated from Columbia International University in South Carolina in 1997. He earned a divinity degree in 2001 from the Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando.
He founded New City Presbyterian Church in Coconut Creek in 2003, and borrowing from the oratorical gifts of his famed grandfather, he built the congregation from a few to 400.
In March 2009, he was tapped to lead Coral Ridge.
Six months later, hundreds of church members — including their choir director — defected and held services in Butterfly World in Tradewinds Park in Coconut Creek. A petition called for Tchividjian’s removal, saying he was not living up to the legacy of Kennedy, who built the church on a bedrock of Christian conservatism and political activism.
The church voted whether to retain him as pastor; Tchividjian won by a margin of about 69 percent to 31 percent.
“My family and I thank the Coral Ridge family for standing behind us and supporting me as your new pastor,” Tchividjian wrote in a statement at the time. “Change is difficult for any institution, but it is especially difficult for a church which has known only one pastor in its 50-year history and I understand that.”
For the next six years, Tchividjian, who remembers riding in a limo with Johnny Cash when he was 4 to hear his grandfather preach in the Detroit Silverdome, led the church. He focused more on Biblical passages than preaching politics.
Gene Rausch, who lives in Ohio, often listened to his sermons through the church’s live-streaming service. She said she was impressed because he knew so much about the Bible at such a young age.
Nonetheless, she said he had to resign.
“I think that was the right thing to do," she said. “He needs to have time to get himself together.’’
This is not the first time the senior pastor of a well-known church resigned after a “moral failing.” A year ago, the Rev. Bob Coy stepped down from the mega-church Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale. In a sermon after Coy’s resignation, Calvary Chapel’s Outreach Pastor Chet Lowe revealed Coy had committed adultery with more than one woman and “committed sexual immortality, habitually, through pornography,’’ the Christian Post reported.
Daniel Alvarez, a senior instructor with Florida International University's Department of Religious Studies, said Protestant pastors “are held to a higher standard,” and it’s not surprising to see them succumb to the pressure.
“The problem is that so much is expected of them and any failure is so magnified in the eyes of the parishioners that there is no redemption.”
In his statement to the Washington Post, Tchividjian asked for his congregants to pray for him and his family.
“Both my wife and I are heartbroken over our actions and we ask you to pray for us and our family that God would give us the grace we need to weather this heart-wrenching storm. We are amazingly grateful for the team of men and women who are committed to walking this difficult path with us. Please pray for the healing of deep wounds and we kindly ask that you respect our privacy.”