Who will succeed Pat Robertson?

The Virginian-Pilot/June 17, 2007
By Steven G. Vegh

He heads a university, an international relief agency, a conservative legal center and the Christian Broadcasting Network. But at age 77, Pat Robertson is still not ready to disclose who will succeed him at any of those organizations.

The unexpected death in May of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, 73, highlighted the question of leadership succession for an aging generation of Christian leaders.

Robertson declined to be interviewed about his successors at Regent University, Operation Blessing, the American Center for Law and Justice and CBN. All but the law center are based in Virginia Beach.

In an e-mail statement, CBN spokesman Chris Roslan said, "there is a comprehensive plan in place that will be announced at the appropriate time."

Regent, Operating Blessing and law center representatives also refused to talk about who would succeed Robertson at those organizations.

At the Washington-based American Center for Law and Justice, "Jay doesn't think the story is appropriate," spokesman Gene Kapp said in an e-mail, referring to Jay Sekulow, the group's chief counsel.

At some other major evangelical organizations, plans and protocol for leadership transition are public knowledge.

Falwell, who helped forge conservative Christians into a powerful voting bloc in the 1980s, was founder and head of Liberty University and Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg.

Mark DeMoss, a Liberty trustee and former Falwell aide, said Falwell made clear his sons would succeed him.

"He'd say, 'Jonathan's going to take my place one day at the church, my other son's going to take my place at the university,' " DeMoss said.

"This was not a real secretive thing."

Liberty trustees formally adopted the succession plan for the university several years ago when they made Jerry Falwell Jr. vice chancellor.

"When we cast that vote, we did so with the full understanding that we were voting to make him chancellor immediately upon the death of his father," DeMoss said.

Jonathan Falwell, the executive pastor at Thomas Road since 1994, was elected by congregants on June 3 to succeed his father as senior minister.

He was the sole candidate considered by the deacons' board of the 22,000-member church.

At Focus on the Family, the mortality of founder James Dobson, 71, is acknowledged online with a link titled, "How is Dr. Dobson's health? How old is he?"

Dobson, a Christian broadcaster, founded the Colorado-based Focus in 1977. It is among the most influential evangelical organizations in the country.

He gave up daily control of Focus in 2003, shifting those duties to a new president, Don Hodel, while continuing to speak, write and broadcast.

"That was an easy transition," Dobson told the The Gazette in 2006. When Hodel stepped down in 2005, Focus' board of directors chose Jim Daly as president and chief executive.

Dobson told The Gazette "there will come a time to move on" and that after he is gone Focus will be "shaped by people with other skills and unique personalities. That's a good thing."

Succession is clear-cut at the Billy Graham Evangelical Association, which appointed Franklin Graham several years ago as successor to his father, Billy, now 88.

At Prison Fellowship Ministries, founder Chuck Colson, 74, was succeeded as president by Mark Earley, a former Virginia attorney general, in 2002.

The group's board selected a new chairman in 2006 after Colson stepped down from that post.

DeMoss, president of a public relations firm that represents many evangelical organizations, said that not all religious groups arrange successors. Some just trust that God will make a successor clear after a leader dies, he said, and others don't want to talk about a leader's inevitable death.

But DeMoss said organizations with large staffs and lots of supporters have a responsibility to look ahead. "When you're the leader of an organization, I think you must talk about your death, or at least let other people talk about it on your behalf and plan and be prepared," he said.

Of Robertson's four children, his son, Gordon, is most active at CBN, serving as regular co-host of "The 700 Club," the network's signature show. He is also a vice president and member of the board of directors, according to CBN's latest tax statement.

Robertson's wife, Adelia "Dede" Robertson, is also a vice president and director.

Ann LeBlanc, a daughter, is an associate vice president.

Robertson's wife and other son, Timothy, are on Regent's board of trustees. At Operation Blessing, Dede Robertson is a vice president and director; Gordon is a director.

Vinson Synan, a professor and former dean of Regent's divinity school, said there had been no hint of Robertson's plans for succession.

"He's holding those cards close to his vest," said Synan, who has known Robertson for decades. "I don't think anybody knows at this moment what's in his mind."

David Edwin Harrell Jr., a historian preparing a biography of Robertson, said Gordon is the likely successor at CBN.

"He's just positioned for it, both in his title in the ministry and in his television role," said Harrell, who is visiting the CBN campus to research the organization's archives.

He said it is less certain who will take charge of Robertson's other groups. "In Robertson, you've got this person with years of insider political knowledge and acquaintance," Harrell said. "He'll be hard to replace."

He speculated that CBN and sister groups may equate talk of a post-Robertson era with the idea that Robertson's death is imminent.

"And that neither he nor the others here feel is the case," Harrell said.

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