Bob Merritt was named pastor of First Baptist Church in White Bear Lake in 1991, the first step in the unexpected creation of one of the nation’s largest megachurches.
Its 300 members exploded to 25,000 over the years, and the church took a new name, Eagle Brook. The one building grew to nine campuses, from Wayzata to Woodbury to Rochester, making Merritt one of Minnesota’s best known clergy.
It’s been both an exhilarating and exhausting journey, Merritt said Sunday when he took the stage to thank his congregation and say farewell as he retires as senior pastor.
“Apart from my family, leading this church has been the greatest honor of my life,” he told a packed and sometimes tearful auditorium at the Lino Lakes church, where his preaching is broadcast to the Eagle Brook community.
“I strongly believe that our best days are ahead,” he said.
Eagle Brook’s teaching pastor, Jason Strand, will be the lead pastor delivering most weekend sermons, part of the team overseeing the staff of more than 300 and thousands of volunteers.
“Now it’s your turn to carry the ball,” Merritt told Strand.
It was an emotional weekend for Merritt, who was hired by the White Bear Lake church 28 years ago. Church attendance soon began rising, and the church ran out of space, recalled Tyler Gregory, now executive pastor at Eagle Brook.
It built the Lino Lakes campus, but soon Lino Lakes was packed too, he said. It was the beginning of a pattern of opening new churches as existing ones filled.
Today, up to 20,000 people watch Eagle Brook services online, said Gregory, in addition to about 25,000 who drive to the sprawling campuses for a morning of Christian music, mingling with friends, and sermons designed to teach, not preach.
On Sunday, two police cars and more than a dozen volunteers directed traffic in front of the otherwise quiet street near Lino Lakes where Eagle Brook is located.
Inside the huge auditorium, an announcer asked the crowd to move to the center of their aisles.
“There’s a long line of cars out there still waiting to get in,” he said.
The service was an homage to Merritt. The congregation was treated to a video of Merritt’s life and loves — hunting, fishing, golfing, canoeing, sky diving — and video of bloopers from his countless sermons. His son David and daughter Megan delivered emotional tributes to Merritt and his wife, Laurie. Family dog Blue made a guest appearance.
There was also a video clip from Merritt’s announcement last fall that he would retire on March 1, his 63rd birthday.
“I’ve been running the race so hard for so long that I’m going to need some time alone with God, time alone with my family,” Merritt said. “I’m going to need at least six months for my head to clear and my soul to restore, and then trust that God’s going to show me what’s next.”
Merritt has long said he never set forth to create a megachurch, just to reach as many people as he could with the word of God. Unlike many leaders of the nation’s megachurches, Merritt didn’t seek a national spotlight; instead he honed a teaching style that took gospel messages and made them relatable to ordinary people.
The church has a laser focus on weekend services. While Merritt has done most of the preaching, each campus has its own minister, staff and band. Lighting and sound systems are among the best in the Twin Cities.
“We want excellence, not average, so it’s easy to invite [family and friends],” said Dale Peterson, executive director of the Eagle Brook Association.
The sex scandals that have marred some national megachurches did not mark Merritt’s tenure. The church had a policy of not allowing married men and women to travel or fraternize alone together.
Louis Thompson of Minneapolis was among the crowd gathered at the Lino Lakes church Sunday. He said he wound up at Eagle Brook two years ago after a relative invited him. He was immediately struck by Merritt’s ability to make Bible stories relevant to his life. It was a common refrain.
“It’s helped me in my personal life and in my work life,” he said.
Eagle Brook became part of the Twin Cities’ fast-growing church landscape in 1990s, as evangelical megachurches were taking root, said Carl Nelson, president of Transform Minnesota, the umbrella organization of evangelical churches. Merritt’s legacy includes pastoring with an unassuming and ethical leadership style, Nelson said, and being a Minnesota pioneer in the use of multisite churches.
Merritt said he wanted to leave while the church was on excellent footing, noting “sometimes pastors and leaders stay too long.”
He has not announced any plans except that he may write or teach. But most important, he said, he and his family plan to attend Eagle Brook — this time as members.
“We’re not going anywhere.”