Scandal. Burnout. Illness. Division.
Those are the reasons you hear most these days when a senior pastor exits a big church before reaching retirement age.
But the Rev. Steve Eason says his decision to leave Myers Park Presbyterian Church next April is a “good news story.”
“No hidden agenda,” Eason, 60, told me after emailing his decision to the church’s 4,700 members this week. “Nothing is wrong here at the church. It’s not a story of burnout. This change is coming out of a position of strength and gratitude.”
After 12 years of leading one of Charlotte’s most prominent – and most generous – churches, Eason said he’s being called to take what he’s learned and share it with other clergy.
As director of consulting services with Atlanta-based Macedonian Ministries, he’ll teach, coach and organize workshops for ministers of various denominations.
It’s a group that desperately needs more support in an age when men and women of the cloth are called on to be there 24/7 for others.
“We’re in a situation where clergy are dropping out of this profession at an alarming rate,” Eason said. “Or not going into it at all.”
So Eason will try to pass along to his next flock – a group ranging from Catholic priests to Pentecostal preachers – what he’s learned about preaching, empowering lay people and more.
He’ll take his leave from a Charlotte house of worship that’s now the biggest Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) church in North Carolina and the fourth largest in the country.
It’s one that’s blessed with enviable demographics: The largest age group at Myers Park Presbyterian, Eason said, is those between 30 and 40. That means young families with kids – a good predictor of growth into the future.
And it has deep pockets: members include developer Johnny Harris, former Bank of America CFO (and now top Carlyle Group executive) Jim Hance, and the Belks, the department store family.
But it’s also a church that gives in a big way: Under Eason’s leadership, it completed a $30 million capital campaign, then spent $11 million on everything from affordable housing in Grier Heights, a low-income neighborhood in Charlotte, to clean water projects in Malawi and the Congo.
“It’s a great witness for a church to make in this culture,” Eason said. “We didn’t raise that to spend it all on ourselves. I’m proud how mission-minded this church is.”
Eason also likes how Myers Park Presbyterian has weathered the intra-denominational battle over ordaining gays and lesbians – a change that prompted some big conservative churches to leave the PC (USA).
“We have conservatives, moderates and liberals, and they all end up together at the Communion table,” he said of his Charlotte church. “We disagree on things, but we don’t fragment and fight. … My job has been to not polarize the congregation.”
Eason will be around for seven more months, long enough, he said, to pastor his Charlotte flock through one more Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter.
But the grieving has begun. Eason said he’s already gotten “a flood of affirming emails.”
The good feelings are mutual. “You have taught me so much,” Eason told members, “that I now can share with others.”
I’ll leave the last words to evangelist-author Leighton Ford, who’s been attending Myers Park Presbyterian with his wife, Jean (Billy Graham’s sister) for 20-plus years.
“He’s going to be terribly missed,” Ford said. “He’s loved. And the gift he’s given us – the clear, compelling preaching of Christ – has drawn in so many people.”
-- Tim Funk