Q&A with Bruce Terrell

Q&A with Bruce Terrell


Redeemer Presbyterian Church, founded by pastor and bestselling author Tim Keller, is one of the most influential Protestant churches in America. More than seven years ago, when Keller expressed his desire to eventually step down as senior pastor, he and his staff began preparing the church for his transition away from Redeemer and into a full-time role at the nonprofit organization City to City.

As executive director of Redeemer for the past 11 years, Bruce Terrell has overseen that transition. He reflects here on the process of moving from one church under a well-known leader to a family of three churches serving New York City.

When Success Means More Than Succession

Q: What was the process that led to Redeemer becoming a family of three churches? 01

Seven or eight years ago, Tim expressed that he didn’t want to be the senior pastor by 2020, when he will be 70. Our mantra has always been that we’re not building a great church; we’re building a great city. Knowing that, we asked, “What will that mean for Redeemer in a post-Tim Keller era?”

Instead of the pressure of trying to find another Tim Keller, we felt our best strategy was to raise up new leaders, new voices and new churches for the good of the city at large, not only our congregation. Our goal was to move evangelicals in New York City from 5 to 15 percent of the population. We believe that proportion will create a tipping point for gospel renewal in the city. With that goal in mind, we decided for the time being to remain one church with Tim as the senior pastor, and transition from a multi–worship site church to a multi-congregational church.

We went from four services to eight in rapid succession. That led to us hiring lead pastors for each of those congregations. Starting about five years ago, those in the pews were hearing Tim about a third of the time, and primarily hearing from the lead pastors of their own congregations.

In addition to selecting those leaders, we moved much of the ministry we had been doing centrally to the individual congregations, including small group ministry, children’s ministry and youth ministry. Our eventual goal was to create three churches, not just three congregations. Those churches, with their own governing bodies, are still part of a family of churches and ministries, which we call the Redeemer Network or Redeemer Family, but they’re autonomous and independent.

Q: How did you create buy-in from the congregation throughout the transition? 02

We had to keep in mind the larger picture of succession. It didn’t seem right to rush the transition and say five years ago, “We’re going to identify three senior pastors, create three churches and then you’re on your own. Tim is out of here.” We knew we needed a long ramp for this change, as well as proof-of-concept to show it was going to work. In many ways, it was a grand experiment to create those three congregations.

We didn’t know if people were going to say, “I’m just here for Tim, so therefore I’m going to find another church” or “I’ll figure out which service Tim is preaching at and go there.” We had some people do that, but it was a small minority.

We worked hard to communicate our 10-year vision of creating three congregations that would eventually become three churches, and we explained that our goal was for those churches to generate one new site each over the following 10 years.

Q: What advice would you have for churches undergoing a leadership succession? 03

I would strongly encourage them not to forget the spouse of the person who is leaving. Kathy Keller is the co-founder of Redeemer, and she and Tim have a remarkable partnership and marriage. They are very different, but Tim leans on Kathy a great deal, and Kathy was in significant leadership early on and really set the tone for the church.

It has been, and continues to be, very important for us to be considerate of Kathy’s feelings in this process. The reality is that while the Kellers knew this needed to happen, it’s still difficult. They’re having to let go.

Q: Do you feel that forming the Redeemer Family of churches has been successful? 04

I would say overall it has been really successful, which is amazing when you consider we couldn’t find a model of another multi-site church that created multiple churches. That meant we were building the plane as we flew it.

We did wonder if many people might leave the church, but that has not happened. In fact, I think people are even more engaged. While they love Tim and his preaching, and appreciate all his leadership has helped to create, they know Redeemer is not going to fall apart when he leaves.

People have responded very positively to their new leaders. They love their preaching and their leadership, and are glad their pastors are accessible in ways Tim hasn’t been able to be. Also, now that we don’t have just one or two leaders at the top, these individual churches can focus like never before on their own neighborhoods.

It’s going to be fascinating to see whether we can continue to partner and collaborate as a family of churches and ministries when there is no central head. That’s the next chapter of Redeemer, and we hope it will remain successful.

Back to the Study

Before the Transition

Read Section