Column: The Rise and Fall of Pastor Tully

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William Graham Tullian Tchividjian, known as “Pastor Tully,” resigned his position at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in June.

…and why the LGBT community should care

For more than half a century, Fort Lauderdale’s religious and political landscape was dominated by Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. Founded in 1959, Coral Ridge was largely the work of its founding pastor, the Rev. D. James Kennedy. In 2004 I wrote that “Rev. Kennedy uses his Coral Ridge pulpit as the launching pad for an evangelical empire that reaches across the country and around the world.”

His Coral Ridge Ministries and its offshoot, the Center for Reclaiming America, are major players in America’s holy wars, leading the fight against abortion, ‘the homosexual agenda,’ pornography and evolution, in disregard for the separation of church and state. The history of [LGBT] rights in Broward County is to a large extent a continuing struggle between our community and our allies on one side and Coral Ridge and its supporters on the other.”

As an officer of GUARD - Gays United to Attack Repression and Discrimination - I remember taking part in more than one protest against Coral Ridge, holding signs and stopping traffic in front of the Church’s massive building with its magnificent steeple.

Coral Ridge’s golden age ended when Rev. Kennedy died in 2007. After much debate, the church installed the Rev. Tullian Tchividjian (pronounced cha-vi-jijn) as its second senior pastor on Easter Sunday, 2009.

Born William Graham Tullian Tchividjian in 1972, “Pastor Tully” comes from evangelical royalty. His grandfather is the Rev. Billy Graham, arguably the leading Protestant clergy of the last century. His parents are Virginia “Gigi” Graham, the preacher’s oldest child, and Dr. Stephan Tchividjian.

Born in Jacksonville, Tully sowed his wild oats in South Florida. He “indulged in almost everything Miami’s sensual nightlife offered,” according to a 2009 profile in Christianity Today. That was before he was “born again” and joined the family business. He was the founding pastor of New City Presbyterian Church, which merged with Coral Ridge when the two churches shared the same pastor.

Tchividjian was not popular with some of his more conservative congregants, who yearned for the days of Rev. Kennedy. Led by Kennedy’s daughter, they tried to recall their unwelcome pastor but failed, as the congregation voted overwhelmingly to retain Tchividjian. Not taking defeat lightly, the dissidents left Coral Ridge Presbyterian and started their own church.

Tchividjian’s opponents had a point. Under his stewardship, Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church joined the 21st century. Though Tully’s religious beliefs are as conservative as Kennedy’s, he favors contemporary worship and attire, delivering his sermons in a suit and tie or casual clothes instead of clerical vestments.

He ended his church’s role as a political powerhouse and refuses to speak about political issues, unlike his outspoken uncle, the Rev. Franklin Graham. Tchividjian prefers to express his beliefs in his blog or several best selling books, most notably 2011’s Jesus + Nothing = Everything. Husband to Kim Tchividjian and father to Gabe, Nate and Genna, the Rev. Tchividjian appeared to all to be the epitome of successful Christian living.

On June 21, Tullian Tchividjian’s career as a preacher took a tumble. He abruptly resigned from his pulpit at Coral Ridge, having admitted to “moral failure.”

“I resigned from my position at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church today due to ongoing marital issues,” Tchividjian declared in a written statement he sent to the Washington Post.

“As many of you know, I returned from a trip a few months back and discovered my wife was having an affair. … As her affair continued, we separated. Sadly and embarrassingly, I subsequently sought comfort in a friend [no gender indicated] 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.”

Not surprisingly, Kim Tchividjian was not happy about being thrown under the bus by her husband - blaming the wife is a popular ploy in religious circles ever since Adam blamed Eve for eating the apple - and she tartly informed the Post that Tully’s “statement reflected my husband’s opinion but not my own.”

Tchividjian is the fourth Florida mega-church pastor in recent years to resign his post due to “moral failure.” Though a preacher’s failure to live up to his own standards always makes for delightful reading, we wonder if there is more to Tully’s fall than he or his church are willing to admit. Tchividjian was always unpopular with the religious right activists who missed Rev. Kennedy’s reign of terror.

Since 2009 they have been looking for an excuse to get rid of their unwelcome pastor and Tchividjian gave it to them. Ever since the sixth century Byzantine Emperor Justinian used his newly-passed sodomy laws to dispose of his enemies, sex has been used as a political tool, in churches and elsewhere. This does not mean that Tchividjian was not responsible for his own downfall; or that he did not resign out of his own free will.

It means that the future of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, and of the community that it claims to serve, is uncertain. Let us hope that Tchividjian’s successor, whoever he or she might be, does not take the church back to the bad old days of D. James Kennedy.


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