Scott Fowler

Exclusive: Why did David Chadwick just resign after 39 years at his Charlotte mega-church?


After 39 years of leading Forest Hill Church as it grew into one of Charlotte’s most well-known houses of worship, senior pastor David Chadwick has resigned.

He announced his departure shortly before 9 a.m. Thursday in an email to his congregation of some 4,000.

Chadwick, 69, said in an exclusive interview with the Observer on Wednesday that he isn’t retiring but instead “re-firing.” He is leaving Forest Hill on his own terms, he said, and has decided that he wants to get himself fired up about some other things.

Chadwick said he would like to expand his “Moments of Hope” media ministry, which has grown from a series of one-minute vignettes on WBT radio following the Sept. 11 attacks into a multi-faceted spiritual platform that includes 30-minute sermons on satellite radio, as well as several books and a large social media presence. He is writing another book – his 10th. This one tackles anxiety and is tentatively titled “The Fearless Life.”

Chadwick also has three children and five grandchildren he wants to see more often. And he doesn’t completely rule out the idea of starting over, at a much smaller church, as a pastor.

“I love to build things,” Chadwick said. “With God’s help, I built (Forest Hill) from 180 members to however many thousands it is right now … It’s in great health. So I asked myself: ‘Do I want to continue to oversee this, or do I want to build something new?’ ”

The answer, Chadwick determined after many conversations with his wife Marilynn and a handful of other church elders over the past six weeks, was that it is time to leave.

Running Forest Hill — a non-denominational mega-church which Chadwick said has a budget of $25 million and a staff of 150 spread over its six Charlotte-area campuses — had become such a time-consuming job that it left little time for other pursuits. The pastor said he remains healthy and still loves to preach, but that the rest of his duties weren’t as fulfilling.

“I’ve told Marilynn many, many times that if I didn’t have preaching opportunities every week, I’m not sure I would want to do this job,” Chadwick said. “It’s so much – meetings, planning, staff oversight, job performance reviews – all of those things.”

David Chadwick became pastor of Forest Hill Church in south Charlotte in 1980. When he arrived, the church had about 180 members. ROBERT LAHSER THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

A former North Carolina basketball player, the 6-foot-8 Chadwick once wrote a book about his beloved former coach Dean Smith.

Smith was one of the greatest influences on Chadwick’s life. Smith himself retired as UNC’s basketball coach at age 66, although in later years the coach confided in Chadwick and others he may have left too soon. What would Smith say about this decision?

“I think he would say, ‘David, follow your heart,’” Chadwick said. “And that’s what I’m doing.”

‘I began to struggle with that’

The preaching, though – Chadwick will miss that. He will still talk about the gospel in front of a microphone for his “Moments of Hope,” but rarely in front of a live audience anymore.

Chadwick describes himself as a “thoughtful conservative” on most political issues. He opposes abortion and same-sex marriage but believes God’s love extends to both sides of such spiritual debates.

His greatest work-related joy each week for decades has been crafting and delivering his 35-minute sermons. His Saturday night sermon was videotaped, usually at Forest Hill’s SouthPark location, and then shown Sunday morning to the five satellite campuses while Chadwick was delivering his message live again on Sunday during two more services. His messages became known for their gospel of hope, their self-deprecating humor and their embrace of popular culture to illustrate Biblical points.

Said Chadwick: “Preaching to people who I just love — that’s why I kind of have been dragging my feet (about leaving).”

But Chadwick also admitted he has begun to have doubts about the multi-site church model, where the head pastor appears mostly on videotape to the majority of the congregation.

“Churches all over the country are doing it, with videos shown on the screen in other places,” Chadwick said, “Elevation (Church) is probably the primary example here in Charlotte. You know, I just began to wonder more and more – how effective is that?

“I know I’m a good communicator … I can have people come and listen. But doesn’t a pastor need to speak to his people? So I began to struggle with that, too.”

Succession plan unclear

In his resignation letter to Forest Hill Church’s 4,000 members and 12,000 annual visitors, a copy of which he provided to the Observer, Chadwick stressed that he is “as excited about sharing God’s Word today as I was in 1980 when I came to this church.”

But he also wrote that “I have concluded Forest Hill would benefit from new leadership.”

Chadwick never established a clear heir apparent at Forest Hill, he said in our interview, and it’s unclear if the church will replace him or instead make each of their campus pastors more autonomous.

Forest Hill spokeswoman Stacey Martin said Chadwick was leaving of his own accord and that the church will form a transitional leadership team to determine its next steps.

“The Campus Pastors will be sharing preaching responsibilities and will work collaboratively with senior leaders to continue to lead Forest Hill while we format the next leadership structure of the church,” Martin wrote in an email.

Although David Chadwick has resigned as senior pastor of Forest Hill Church, he plans to expand his “Moments of Hope” media ministry and will also continue doing radio shows and spots for WBT. Tim Funk Charlotte Observer

Chadwick said he will continue and perhaps extend his radio segments with WBT – on his weekly one-hour show, he recently had both Panthers owner David Tepper and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly as guests. He also said that that he and Marilynn, who is also an author and sometimes shares the pulpit with him, will likely give one final sermon together at Forest Hill on an undetermined date in the near future..

‘It’s been wonderful’

“We talked about a six-month strategy with (the church elders) and slowly easing out,” Chadwick said. “And I thought, ‘That’s just going to make it harder on us and probably for the congregation too. Let’s just move on, that would probably be best.’ So maybe in a couple of weeks Marilynn and I will both just get up and say, ‘Hey, we’ve had a great ride. We’ve loved it. It’s been wonderful. But we feel led to go do something else.’”

Marilynn Chadwick said she has seen her husband “light up” about the idea of trying to establish “Moments of Hope” as a national or even international ministry (it already has 60,000 Facebook followers).

“It’s an adventure, really,” she said.

“There’s some grief for me,” David Chadwick said, “just because of the relationships and all the years (at Forest Hill). But there’s also an excitement.”

As he approaches his 70th birthday in July, Chadwick said he plans to work for as long as he is able – within reason.

“My dad preached until he was 89,” Chadwick said, “and he died when he was 91. And he loved it… So I think this is just a new vision. A new calling… But maybe, I’ll actually get to sleep in a little, too.”

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. In 2018, Fowler won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing. He also hosted the Observer’s hit podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named the best podcast of the year in 2018.