On the day after Zachery Tims’ funeral, evangelist Paula White preached a Sunday sermon to the congregation that the outside world will be watching to see whether New Destiny Christian Center can survive without its inspirational, dynamic founder.
“New Destiny, it’s not just about you any longer. It’s about the nation watching you. It’s about how you are going to respond, about what you are going to do,” said White, pastor of Without Walls International Church in Tampa.
How the Apopka mega church responds will depend largely on who the church picks to carry on the vision of Tims. Replacing a beloved pastor is difficult, made harder by the size of the church, and compounded by the circumstances of Tims’ sudden death, said Phil Cooke, a California-based church leadership consultant.
“The single biggest reason most of these mega churches grow so quickly is because the leader is a powerful and compelling personality. People naturally want to follow a visionary leader,” Cooke said. “In the case of New Destiny, the intense focus on Pastor Tims during his life, and the questions surrounding his death, all indicate that finding a successor during a time of questions and uncertainty will be extraordinarily difficult.”
Kevin Dougherty, a Baylor University sociologist, said what New Destiny is going through is what’s ahead for the two-thirds of the 1,600 American megachurches headed by the founder, who is often a dynamic and charismatic leader.
“This is something these churches around the country and the world are confronted with,” said Doughtery, who specializes in researching megachurches.
Tims, who was found dead in a New York hotel room at age 42, did not appear to leave behind a clear line of succession. His congregation, with an estimated 7,500 members, was a nondenominational church of his own creation started in 1996. It has no experience in picking a new pastor and, like many other churches, probably never anticipated it would need to do so, said Sheila Strobel Smith, an expert on leadership transition in mega churches.
In older, mainline churches there are often a number of assistant pastors who have been groomed by the senior pastor to eventually take over. New Destiny doesn’t seem to have that structure in place. The fact Paula White — whom Tims considered his “spiritual mother” — preached the first sermon after his death is an indication that nobody inside the church had the stature or preparation to take over, Smith said.
“There was literally one pastor. For a congregation that size, that is very unusual,” said Smith, author of a book on the complexities of pastoral change and transition in mega churches.