Scott Fowler

Exclusive: The inside story of David Chadwick’s sudden split with Forest Hill Church

On Easter Sunday, David Chadwick looked up into the stands of a packed middle-school basketball gym and smiled.

For decades, Chadwick had spent every Easter preaching at Forest Hill Church, the once-sleepy outpost in south Charlotte he took over in 1980 and transformed into a six-campus mega-church.

But that was all over now. Forest Hill and Chadwick officially parted ways in March. And it got messy.

While both the senior pastor and the non-denominational church he led for 39 years initially tried to put a positive spin on his sudden absence from the pulpit — including an interview Chadwick did for an Observer story that first revealed his departure — Chadwick actually had resigned under intense pressure from Forest Hill’s Council of Elders and some of the church’s other leaders.

“What happened was some number of my senior staff went to the elders in January, and they complained about my leadership style,” Chadwick told the Observer during a series of exclusive interviews over the past week. “And they basically said, ‘If he doesn’t leave, we’re going to leave.’”

Why did prominent people at his own church want Chadwick gone?

The 69-year-old pastor said he isn’t quite sure, as those who complained have remained anonymous. But there’s no doubt that Chadwick’s managerial style came under fire. He was perceived by some at Forest Hill as too demanding and authoritarian.

Tom Emmrich, the head of the Council of Elders, said in an interview that Chadwick had exhibited a “pattern of behavior” that was not “sustainable.”

Emmrich offered few specifics, but he did say that the number of staff members who complained about Chadwick was in the “double digits.” He also said the church’s issues with Chadwick had nothing to do with financial irregularities, sexual harassment or immorality of any type.

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David Chadwick says of himself: “I don’t have the greatest managerial gifts. I don’t claim that. But I’m a great visionary and I know how to communicate the truth of God’s word.” ANDY BURRISS

When we spoke on the phone, I asked Emmrich: Do you mean Chadwick wouldn’t take suggestions? That he was abrasive? That he was defensive?

“Yes, yes and yes,” Emmrich said.

“He is a good man… But we couldn’t continue on with that environment and culture, and it would have required some change,” Emmrich added. “There was a bit of a stare-down. We had issues that had to be addressed. And we had a person (Chadwick) who didn’t seem inclined that he was going to address them.”

A plea for reconciliation

Chadwick said that’s not true. He said he did want to address his flaws, meet his accusers face-to-face, and fix whatever was broken.

He provided the Observer a copy of a Feb. 19 letter he wrote to one of the council members.

The letter read in part: “I’m feeling pain and even shame knowing I gave such grave offense to the very people Marilynn (Chadwick’s wife of 41 years) and I have known and loved for so many years…. I deeply desire that my staff would be willing to enter the reconciliation process with council oversight as soon as possible…. I will accept all criticism with a humble heart. In those areas where I have blind spots and have given offense, I’ll do my best to make amends.”

David Chadwick was the senior pastor at Forest Hill Church for nearly 39 years, as the church grew from a membership of about 180 people in 1980 into a six-campus mega-church with an average attendance of 6,000 today. COURTESY OF FOREST HILL

Chadwick told me this in our interview: “I begged the council for reconciliation. I said, ‘Please, can we reconcile this? And if at the end you still feel I need to leave, I will gladly submit my resignation and move on. But let me leave with these relationships, these friendships.’”

Instead, the church sent Chadwick a letter soon afterward that warned him to either sign the church’s severance offer or else face a special council meeting on March 3 in which a vote would likely be taken on whether to fire him.

Chadwick didn’t sign the severance letter. But he resigned on Feb. 26.

“They didn’t want me anymore,” he said. “And I didn’t want to fight a battle with the church.”

Emmrich said that he believed Chadwick changed his mind several times about how much he wanted to address the issues raised by multiple whistleblowers.

“There were a few times where he seemed open to go through that process,” Emmrich said, “and a number of times that he declared the only thing acceptable to him was full restoration to the previous way of working.”

Kasay resigns from council

Chadwick never preached again at Forest Hill after Feb. 3, although he didn’t announce his resignation until early March. Then he left the church quickly, with little explanation, no celebration, no succession plan and no farewell sermon.

During the weeks that this drama was playing out, two members of the 12-person Council of Elders — one of them the Carolina Panthers’ all-time leading scorer, former placekicker John Kasay — resigned.

Carolina Panthers kicker John Kasay (right) is the team’s all-time leading scorer. Kasay was on Forest Hill Church’s Council of Elders in January when complaints were brought against senior pastor David Chadwick’s leadership style. Once Kasay believed that there was no hope of finding common ground between Forest Hill and Chadwick, who is his longtime friend, Kasay resigned from the Council of Elders. The Charlotte Observer File Photo

“I resigned,” Kasay said, “because my role was no longer needed or wanted for anything that was going to happen. I was there to try to bring reconciliation, but it was hard to find common ground.”

Forest Hill’s severance package would have paid Chadwick’s salary and insurance for 18 months. It also would have made a substantial donation to his ongoing media ministry, “Moments of Hope,” which includes a large radio presence.

There was one major caveat: If Chadwick took the money, he couldn’t start a new church within 30 miles of Forest Hill’s main campus. Emmrich described this as a “non-compete” clause that is customary in many severance packages.

A new church begins

Chadwick wouldn’t sign. He said he still felt the call to preach in Charlotte.

And so less than two months after submitting his resignation, Chadwick and an army of volunteers started a new church. It meets at Alexander Graham Middle School on Sunday mornings — about three miles from Forest Hill’s main campus.

Moments of Hope Church” opened on Palm Sunday and 650 people turned out, most learning of the service by word of mouth.

The new church’s two Easter services drew a combined 1,600 people. Chadwick estimated about half of them, at least, came from Forest Hill. (Forest Hill averages a Sunday attendance of 6,000 across all six campuses but had a combined 10,000 Easter Sunday worshipers, the church said).

David Chadwick, 69, is still preaching -- though no longer at Forest Hill Church after resigning as senior pastor earlier this year. He has started a new church that is meeting at Alexander Graham Middle School in south Charlotte. His new church holds its services three miles away from Forest Hill. ROBERT LAHSER THE CHARLOTTE OBSERVER

During his 9 a.m. Easter service at his new church, Chadwick paced the gym floor. He used no notes but did hold a Bible in one hand as he led a comparatively stripped-down service. “No lights, cameras or smoke machines,” as the pastor would say later.

But there was applause — lots of it, often interrupting the sermon.

“In case you don’t know, my name is David, ” Chadwick said shortly after he began. “’I would say I’m one of the pastors here — but right now I’m the only pastor here.”

Was it a ‘generational vortex’?

Instead of Forest Hill’s staff of 150, Chadwick’s new church has a staff of one – himself.

Moments of Hope Church holds its services inside a gymnasium, which is familiar ground for the pastor. The 6-foot-8 Chadwick played basketball for Dean Smith at North Carolina in the early 1970s.

Chadwick admired Smith’s leadership style so much that he eventually wrote a book about it and tried to use some of Smith’s maxims with his own staff. But he told me during one of our interviews that the approach might not have worked as well with younger generations.

David Chadwick played basketball for Dean Smith at North Carolina and so revered Smith that he eventually wrote a book about the coach’s leadership style. provided photo

“My mentor is Coach Smith,” Chadwick said. “I can be direct. I can be demanding. I hold people accountable. And I think I might have gotten caught some in a generational vortex.”

A father of three and a grandfather of five, Chadwick said he believes that some millennials “don’t like ‘direct’ and don’t like ‘accountability.’ … They get their feelings hurt.”

Emmrich said that’s too simplistic an explanation. “I would not say that it was generational,” he said. “It’s not: ‘Well the young people don’t want to be disciplined anymore.’ That’s really not what we’re talking about.”

What are we talking about?

“We have a talented staff that runs the church,” Emmrich said. “And just like at any company — although it’s not a company — they have ideas. And they want to do their job. And they want to feel like they have a voice, at least, in how the church is run.”

‘I pressed them to tithe’

Emmrich said he didn’t want to describe any specific examples of an unhealthy workplace culture at Forest Hill because it might reveal Chadwick’s accusers.

Chadwick, though, detailed one instance that council members raised during a tense three-hour meeting with him in early February.

In 2017, Chadwick said he had learned that 30 percent of his staff members weren’t donating any of their paychecks back to church.

During a staff meeting, Chadwick said: “I pressed them to tithe.”

Chadwick said he didn’t identify who was and who wasn’t giving, but reminded his staff that when they were hired, they had all signed a pledge to be generous in their gifts to the church.

About a year later, Chadwick said, he found out that the staff tithing percentages had barely changed.

“So I confronted it again” in another staff meeting, Chadwick said. This, he said he was told later by council members, made some of his staff uncomfortable.

David Chadwick (right) spoke at the memorial service for his old North Carolina basketball coach, Dean Smith, in Chapel Hill in 2015. Former UNC players Billy Cunningham (left) and Phil Ford also attended the service. David T. Foster, III

Chadwick is conservative politically. He believes that his reticence about publicly stating his opinion about whether women should be ordained and work as campus pastors at Forest Hill — the church has not employed a female campus pastor, although the Council of Elders has long had women members — could have bothered some colleagues. And, he said, he sometimes did talk sternly to staff members who he didn’t think were doing their jobs.

Still, the pastor said, he was never presented with any formal written complaints by the church, as he believes he should have been under Forest Hill guidelines. And he received a good job performance review in November 2018, three months before he resigned. Chadwick described that review as “glowing.”

The evaluation came from Emmrich during a year in which the church’s voluntary giving rose from $20 million to $26 million, according to the financial statements that Forest Hill publishes on its own website.

Emmrich said none of the issues that led to Chadwick’s departure “were known at that time.”

“I don’t know if ‘glowing’ is the right word,” Emmrich said. “… I don’t want to imply that it was negative…. It was kind of average.”

Issues with church direction

There were other issues at stake, too, regarding church direction. Forest Hill’s six campuses each have a “campus pastor,” who is in charge of that specific site and preaches once a month. The other three Sundays usually featured Chadwick preaching from the main campus with the sermon being shown on video at the other locations.

Although Chadwick said he had privately begun to have doubts about the multi-site church model, Forest Hill still has plans to grow. The church’s seventh campus is tentatively slated for east Charlotte in 2020.

Chadwick had announced in July 2018 at a massive Forest Hill gathering at the Charlotte Knights uptown stadium that the church planned to add 20 more campus sites altogether. (He also said at the time that he planned to stay at Forest Hill for another 10 years).

Chadwick told the church’s other leaders that he wanted all of the campuses to operate like the franchises of a restaurant or store. He wanted them to be run the same way.

Some at Forest Hill believed, however, that each campus pastor should be freer to contextualize his own worship service to fit the needs of its community. This “autonomy vs. centrality” issue was often a subject of debate, Chadwick said.

Mike Boulware serves as pastor of Forest Hill’s campus in Waxhaw. In an interview, he wouldn’t get into specifics of the Chadwick/Forest Hill split but said he still wishes that Chadwick would return to Forest Hill to preach a farewell sermon.

“The invitation is open for David,” Boulware said. “I think sometimes it just takes a little time. I fully expect he will come back (for a final sermon) because there are literally thousands of people, including me, who want to hug David and say, ‘Thank you for your years of service.’”

Rumors start to fly

Chadwick isn’t the first well-known pastor to split messily with the church that he guided to prominence. But his quick departure left a number of Forest Hill congregants shaken.

Forest Hill member Mindy Hinson has taken her two sons to the church for more than a decade.

“We have spent every Christmas Eve for the last 11 years at Forest Hill Church with David,” Hinson said. “He has been the only pastor my sons have ever known. To read in the online Observer and get an email that he was ‘gone’ was one of the weirdest days of my life.... We have been heartbroken that David did not and has not addressed the congregation from the pulpit.…. It has been confusing and hard, because of the rumor mills.”

Chadwick has heard many of those rumors: That he had cancer. Or dementia. Or that he had committed some felony.

None of those things is true, he said. But those rumors were one reason he agreed to be interviewed for this story, the pastor said. He also felt remorse, he said, for not telling a fuller version of the truth about his resignation in the Observer’s original story.

“The truth really should set us free,” he said. “I’m tired of the blanks being filled in with ‘David had an affair.’ Or that I have a porn addiction. There’s no sexual or financial impropriety … And I’m in great health.”

Besides preaching, David Chadwick has long had an interest in ministering to people over the air. He has a weekly radio show on Charlotte’s WBT-AM and has been expanding his “Moments of Hope” media ministry to satellite radio as well. Tim Funk Charlotte Observer

Chadwick hinted in our March interview that he might want to start a new church. That happened far faster than he expected.

He and his wife, who was also on staff at Forest Hill, said they were deluged with messages of support in the days following Chadwick’s resignation. A meeting seeking volunteers for the proposed new church drew 350 people.

One of those volunteers, Dave Robinette, has followed Chadwick from Forest Hill to Moments of Hope. He credits Chadwick with helping him get through a personal tragedy — his son Ben died in 1998 when he was hit by a car while practicing with the South Mecklenburg High School cross-country team.

“I am so excited that David Chadwick will now have an opportunity to preach the gospel rather than getting bogged down in the administration of a six-campus church,” Robinette said.

After the first Chadwick sermon he ever heard, Robinette said: “I was finally able to stop asking God, ‘Why did this happen to us?’ and instead start asking him, ‘What do I do now?’”

Time to ‘pick up the pieces’

Chadwick said that while he still hopes for a reconciliation with Forest Hill and any people he hurt, he just wants to “move on,” adding that he “holds no animosity” toward his former employer.

“Really, I’m living out what I’ve had to counsel people in all my years when they go through a life crisis,” Chadwick said. “I’ve said, ‘Well, you’ve got two options. You can either wallow in despair and be bitter for the rest of your life. Or you can pick up the pieces and move on and do something new.’”

Kasay, for one, hopes Chadwick and Forest Hill will find common ground. The former Panther is now taking seminary classes in Charlotte, and he has occasionally subbed for Chadwick in the Forest Hill pulpit. At Chadwick’s request, Kasay will preach at Moments of Hope Church on Memorial Day weekend.

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John Kasay, shown winning a game against Indianapolis in 1995, was briefly on Forest Hill’s Council of Elders in early 2019. Kasay resigned but still hopes that the church and its former pastor can reconcile -- a process he said he would be glad to help. Bob Leverone The Charlotte Observer

“I still have faith in reconciliation,” Kasay said. “If it’s necessary for me to stand in the gap and for our family to be members of both churches — well, I have friends sitting in both places. I love both of those churches. I want to do anything I can to see true reconciliation.”

Forest Hill did end up giving Chadwick six months of severance pay, which Chadwick said will allow him to take no salary from his new church for at least six months.

That new church’s quick opening startled the six Forest Hill campus pastors.

“David has not communicated with us,” they wrote in an email sent to the Forest Hill congregation in early April. “But we have been informed that his plans are to start a new church. We are surprised at this news, but wanted to let you know what appears to be his plans as soon as it was confirmed to us. We know this is confusing – it’s confusing for us as well.”

Forest Hill’s leaders say they aren’t sure yet if they will promote one of the campus pastors to assume Chadwick’s former role or what their new leadership structure will be. Two of the campus pastors – Jason Smith and Jonathan Scott – have been preaching the majority of the sermons that Chadwick used to give.

Hope and Chumbawamba

During his first Easter Sunday remarks at his new church, Chadwick said of Forest Hill: “I will always love that church. You don’t spend 40 years of your life in a place without loving it. I pray for blessings for that beautiful body of Christ. But today is a new day. It’s a new beginning! A new church is being birthed.”

Then Chadwick preached a 25-minute sermon about hope and resurrection. At the end, during his closing prayer, he made a small joke.

“Thank you for new beginnings,” Chadwick prayed. “Thank you for all things new. And thank you for the words of that great band years ago, those noted theologians named Chumbawamba: ‘I get knocked down, but I get up again!”

The people laughed and rose from the bleachers, streaming out into the Easter sunshine.

Chadwick stayed behind, hugging friends and family. His next service started in 45 minutes.