A Pastor With a Drive to Convert
Solomon also urges wealthy executives and bankers who attend the church to support his many ministries.
Last month, a banquet at the Tysons Hilton raised $140,000 for the church's program for Anacostia teenagers. Donors lined up to take photographs with featured speaker Kenneth Starr, a longtime member of McLean Bible who was the special prosecutor in charge of the Whitewater investigation of President Bill Clinton. During that time, Solomon sent him notes of encouragement when he was being excoriated by politicians. "I just remember the love and affection that Lon and Lon's family showed" back then, he said.
A Large Production
Solomon's imprint is especially apparent at his services, which rival a Broadway production.
Hymns and prayers rarely run more than 10 seconds over their allotted time. Executive producers follow precise cues for mood lights or, at times, a fog machine. The sanctuary stage has the same lighting system as the Kennedy Center and features 92 loudspeakers, more than Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium.
Nothing done by Solomon, a man with an admittedly obsessive eye for detail, is sloppy. During an announcement about Sunday school, he pats the head of a boy -- but not before he discusses the little gesture with his staff. Then it is repeated in precisely the same way at all six weekend services.
"Few people know how much goes on behind the scenes," he said. "And we like to keep it that way." At one recent Sunday service, congregants had no idea that church officials were scrambling to fix "a problem": The temperature of the sanctuary was 3 degrees too high.
"Lon likes it right at 67," explained Denny Harris, director of ministry operations.
"This is a driven town. It demands excellence in everything," Solomon said. "Am I controlling? I've never heard of a leader, a good leader, who wasn't a little controlling."
He also pays his staff more than most churches, he said, though he would not be specific, even about his own salary. The church has an annual budget of $15 million from offerings and raised $5.5 million last year for its sanctuary and a two-tier, 2,500-space parking complex.
The church's silence about staff salaries irks some members, who complained in interviews about the lack of accountability in an organization with so much money.
Others said the church has resorted to too much show.
"Lon has always had to have excellence," said Vic McCauley, who served on the church's board of elders through the 1980s. "To a point, this can be a detriment. They are so focused on having the timing and being precise that it becomes more of a production than a worship service."
Services last precisely 105 minutes. With thousands of people shuttling in and out of the many services, letting one extend even minutes over the allotted time causes nightmares in the parking garage and on Route 7, where off-duty Fairfax police officers hired by the church direct traffic.
By 1:30 p.m., near the end of one long Sunday morning, Solomon tells a joke in his sermon, which he has already preached five times that weekend. The congregation laughs. Then he talks about his disabled daughter and a sister-in-law who died of cancer at 27. A rapt silence falls over the sanctuary.
He exhorts his audience to trust God when they face death, when their children struggle with disabilities, when they go through trials that they don't understand. Trust God, trust God, he tells them.
Then, after a 33-second prayer, the solemn moment pops like a bubble. Solomon abruptly and cheerfully says, "Thanks for coming, everyone," and walks off stage. The service is over. Most families hardly know each other among the thousands who have come to hear the preacher. So they head for the exits, the enormous parking garage, and the streets beyond where hundreds of honking cars being driven by their fellow Christians await them.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company