Falwell's Sons Step Out of His Shadow

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 26, 2007

LYNCHBURG, Va. -- With the Rev. Jerry Falwell's body lying in repose in the sanctuary of his church on the night before his funeral, the line of hundreds of mourners waiting to pay their respects to the evangelist and his family was inching forward at only a few feet per hour. It looked like many wouldn't be able to say their final goodbyes before the viewing was shut down at 9 p.m.

But then his two sons -- Jerry Jr. and Jonathan -- emerged from the sanctuary. The family, they said, would remain as late as needed. Far into Monday night, they and their families moved up and down the line, shaking each hand, greeting many by name, exchanging hugs, holding those who were in tears.

It was an unmistakable show of leadership by the two men who have long operated in the shadow of their charismatic father. Now, they will inherit the multimillion-dollar educational and religious nonprofit empire that their father spent a half-century building.

Jerry Falwell Jr., 44, a quiet lawyer, has been named chancellor of Liberty University, which Falwell founded in 1971 to turn out "champions of Christ."

His younger brother, Jonathan, 41, is expected to take over as chief pastor at Thomas Road Baptist Church, which Falwell founded as a young Bible college graduate in 1956.

Both institutions are big business in Lynchburg, a homey city of 65,000 that some locals wryly describe as a "nice place to live but you wouldn't want to visit."

Liberty University is the city's second-largest employer. Thomas Road and the pre-school-through-high-school Liberty Christian Academy moved last year into an 800,000-square-foot facility, where 12,000 worship in three Sunday services. The Falwell ministries also own thousands of acres of land, including a mountain. And the Liberty Channel provides "family-friendly television" for cable and satellite subscribers nationwide.

The Falwell brothers canceled a scheduled news conference this week to talk about their new roles, saying in a statement that they needed to consult with the constituents of Liberty and Thomas Road.

But at an address last Saturday at Liberty, Jerry Jr. was reassuring.

"No one can replace Dad," he said before choking up, ". . . but there's a team here ready to carry on, and we're going to give it everything we have, as he did for so long."

Both sons have worked side-by-side in the ministries with their father for more than a decade. Yet outside experts say that when a charismatic minister such as Falwell dies, resigns or retires, no matter how well-organized his succession plans are, his ministry is likely to suffer.

"It's enormously difficult," said Jaco J. Hamman, author of "When Steeples Cry: Leading Congregations Through Loss and Change." Hostility and infighting can break out among followers as they struggle to accept the changes that inevitably follow a shift in leadership.

The loss of an outsize figure such as Falwell also means the ministries could have more difficulty attracting big donors, on which the ministries have become increasingly dependent.

"One of the things his sons don't have is his public presence nationally, that ability to attract large givers from around the country," said Scott Thumma, professor of the sociology of religion at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

Until now, neither son had shown much interest in shouldering their often controversial father's role as a spokesman for conservative Christian causes. But this week, Jonathan announced on his father's Web site, Falwell.com, that he would take over writing his dad's weekly e-mail newsletter, "Falwell Confidential," which goes to 500,000 subscribers.

Friends say that the Falwell sons are markedly different from their dynamic father. Dark-haired Jerry Jr., who bears a faint resemblance to his father in his younger years, is quiet and likes to operate behind the scenes.

Jonathan, red-haired with his mother's more delicate features -- is more outgoing but nowhere near the showman that his dad was. While preaching, he strolls the giant stage of Thomas Road, speaking in a low-key conversational style, in contrast with his father's sonorous, booming sermons.

Jerry Jr., who joined Liberty as its general counsel in 1988, is largely responsible for the financial recovery of the university, DeMoss said. It almost crashed and burned in the 1990s, when its debt ballooned to $120 million.

With his father, Jerry Jr. sold off land, negotiated repayment plans with creditors and landed a $25 million donation from insurance mogul Arthur L. Williams.

As a result, DeMoss said, Liberty is "almost certainly in the best condition it's been in since its founding."

In the past decade, it has built 30 dorms, and in the past five years it doubled on-campus enrollment to 10,700. Distance-learning programs have 17,000 enrolled. The university fields 16 Division 1 sports teams. Liberty University School of Law graduated its first class last month.

Big gifts have come from Christian novelist Tim LaHaye, author of the "Left Behind" series, and his wife, Beverly, who donated $7 million for an ice rink and student center. David Green, chief executive of Hobby Lobby stores, bought a former electronics plant for $11 million and turned it over to Thomas Road Baptist Church, which renovated it into a 6,000-seat sanctuary last year. The Falwells also raised millions selling off land to retailers and restaurant chains around Liberty's campus. Nevertheless, it will be hard for the sons to live up to their father's legacy.

Said former Lynchburg planning commissioner Wayne Dahlgren: "This is Falwell country, but it's Jerry Falwell country."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company