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Deaths of Notable Church and Ministry Leaders in 2023

The following church and ministry leaders died in 2023. MinistryWatch did longer stories on them during the course of the year. You can find these stories by clicking on the names. We have arranged these remembrances chronologically.

Jack Hayford

The Rev. Jack Hayford, a popular Pentecostal leader and pioneer of the megachurch movement, often regarded as a “pastor to pastors,” died Jan. 8 at age 88. Hayford came to The Church on the Way in 1969, when it was known as the First Foursquare Church of Van Nuys. The church expanded from fewer than 20 to more than 12,000 members during Hayford’s leadership.

Hayford, an author of more than 50 books, also composed hundreds of hymns and choruses, including the widely known “Majesty,” a worship song still played in churches worldwide. The inspiration for this song came while Hayford was vacationing in Wales and Scotland with his late wife, Anna, visiting many of the castles there and sensing how “one might feel if raised in such a regal setting,” according to The Foursquare Church.

Clint Clifton

Clint Clifton, a key staff member of the North America Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, died in a plane crash in Dawson County, Ga., Jan. 12. Clifton was piloting the plane. NAMB issued a statement saying that “God generously gifted Clint in so many ways. He had a pastor’s heart and was a talented church planter with a passion for reaching people for Christ. He loved what we do here at NAMB and poured his heart and life into it…We miss him already and he leaves a void that can’t be filled.”


Charles Stanley

Charles Stanley, the pastor at Atlanta megachurch First Baptist for 51 years and longtime leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, died Tuesday at the age of 90. His life motto was “Obey God and leave all the consequences to him.” Stanley also was the founder of In Touch Ministries, a global evangelical broadcasting company, and wrote more than 70 books. He was considered, along with Billy Graham and Charles Swindoll, to be one of the best preachers of his generation, per Christianity Today.

Stanley pastored First Baptist Atlanta into his late 80s, starting as an associate minister in 1969 when the church had 5,000 members.  When he stepped down in 2020 to shift his primary focus to leading In Touch Ministries and took the title of pastor emeritus, membership had grown to more than 15,000. As president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1984 and 1985, he played a pivotal role in the so-called “Conservative Resurgence” within the denomination. In his leadership role, he supported  measures to stop congregations from ordaining women and used his position to appoint a slate of conservatives to important Baptist boards.

George Verwer

The man who founded the global Christian mission agency Operation Mobilization died on April 14. He was 84 years old.

Verwer founded Operation Mobilization in the 1960s to bring the word of Christ to new communities around the world. He directed the ministry for 45 years. Under his leadership, OM expanded in the 1960s, 70s and 80s across Europe and into the Middle East, then via volunteers crewing ocean-going ships.

Logos, the first of five vessels, was launched in 1971. Since then, more than 49 million people have visited the onboard book fairs, with more than 70 million religious texts distributed during port calls in 151 countries, the organization said. Verwer led OM until 2003, then concentrated on special projects, traveling and speaking on global missions around the world, and was “rarely seen without his world map jacket or inflatable globe.”

Harry Reeder

Briarwood Presbyterian Church senior pastor the Rev. Harry Reeder III was killed in a car crash May 18 near Birmingham, Alabama.

Reeder, 75, had been pastor of the church founded by The Rev. Frank Barker in 1960 since Barker’s retirement in 1999. Briarwood, a member of the Presbyterian Church of America (PCA), has more than 4,000 members.

In February of 1983, he became the founding pastor of Christ Covenant Presbyterian Church, growing that congregation from 38 to more than 3,000 over 17 years and planting several churches. As he replaced Barker, who died in 2021 at age 89, in 1999, Reeder called him a “mentor in Gospel ministry” and a “humble, godly, visionary friend and pastor.”

He served as an adjunct faculty member at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, and at Birmingham Theological Seminary in Birmingham, Alabama and Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia, where he also serves on the board of trustees.

Tim Keller

Tim Keller, an influential Presbyterian Church in America minister who founded a network of evangelical Christian churches in New York City, died on May 18 of pancreatic cancer. He was 72.

Known for his brainy and winsome approach to evangelism, Keller founded Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan in 1989, and grew the congregation into a hub for a network of churches across the city. His 2008 book, “The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism,” reached the New York Times bestseller list. His books have sold more than 3 million copies.

Carlton “Sam” Young

The Rev. Carlton R. “Sam” Young, a prominent Christian musician and music educator known for editing The Methodist Hymnal of 1966 and The United Methodist Hymnal of 1989, died May 21 at the age of 97.

Young was a music minister at local churches early in his career before teaching a generation of United Methodist music ministers at Perkins, the Candler School of Theology, and Scarritt College. He directed the music for nine United Methodist Church General Conferences, including the 1968 gathering that officially formed The United Methodist Church. He led the United Methodist Youth Chorale in international concert tours for the decade from 1980 to 1990.

He also served as a visiting professor and lecturer on church music.

Young composed more than 200 sacred music pieces for choir and organ and wrote nearly 50 hymn tunes. His arrangements of others’ music, such as “Star-Child,” with text by Shirley Erena Murray, and “This Is a Day of New Beginnings,” with text by Brian Wren, appear in many songbooks and hymnals.

Elizabeth Sherrill

Elizabeth (“Tib”) Sherrill, a writer and editor for Guideposts Magazine for 65 years and the author or co-author of more than 30 books, including Corrie Ten Boom’s “The Hiding Place,” died May 20 in Hingham, Massachusetts, at the age of 95. She wrote more than 2,000 articles for Guideposts, and wrote hundreds of devotions for Daily Guideposts, now Walking in Grace.

Pat Robertson

Pat Robertson, a religious broadcaster who turned a tiny Virginia station into the global Christian Broadcasting Network, tried a run for president and helped make religion central to Republican Party politics in America through his Christian Coalition, died on June 8. He was 93.

Robertson’s enterprises also included Regent University, an evangelical Christian school in Virginia Beach; the American Center for Law and Justice, which defends the First Amendment rights of religious people; and Operation Blessing, an international humanitarian organization.

For more than a half-century, Robertson was a familiar presence in American living rooms, known for his “700 Club” television show.

Stuart Epperson Sr.

Stuart Epperson Sr., who co-founded one of the largest conservative religious radio broadcast outlets, died July 17 at the age of 86. His death was announced by Salem Media, which Epperson co-founded in 1986 with his brother-in-law, Edward Atsinger. The two built Salem into a radio powerhouse that became a key communication channel for the religious right and a mainstay of the Republican Party. It helped congeal America’s religious communities into a potent political force.

Arthur Gay

Arthur Gay, an evangelical leader who oversaw the National Association of Evangelicals when President Reagan gave his historic “evil empire” speech, died July 26 at the age of 86. Gay was president of the association from 1982 to 1984 and held the same role at World Relief, its humanitarian arm, from 1991 to 1996.

Sarah Young

Sarah Young, a former missionary whose devotional prayers became a Christian publishing juggernaut, died Aug. 31 at age 77. The author of “Jesus Calling,” which has sold more than 40 million copies, struggled for years with chronic illness and Lyme Disease. News of the Nashville native’s death came a day after Publisher’s Weekly reported that the author’s health was “rapidly failing.”

Loren Cunningham

Loren Cunningham, the globe-trotting founder of Youth With A Mission (YWAM), a large, decentralized ministry that made missions work accessible to people overlooked by many missions agencies, died Oct. 6 in Hawaii at the age of 88, according to a statement from the ministry. Cunningham was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer in March. YWAM says it now has “tens of thousands of full-time staff participat[ing] from 200+ countries and various denominations and Christian traditions, serving at over 2,000 YWAM locations in nearly 200 nations.”

Arthur Simon

The Rev. Arthur “Art” Simon, the founder and first president of the Christian advocacy group Bread for the World, died Nov. 14.

Simon, 93, started Bread for the World in the mid-1970s. The anti-hunger group aimed to reduce poverty, decrease hunger and improve nutrition for people across the globe.

Carlton Pearson

Bishop Carlton D. Pearson, a preacher, singer and author who moved from Pentecostalism to what he called “The Gospel of Inclusion,” has died at age 70. Pearson died in hospice care Nov. 19, after a brief battle with a returning cancer.

Pearson, a San Diego native and a “fourth-generation fundamentalist,” wrote the 2006 book, “The Gospel of Inclusion: Reaching Beyond Religious Fundamentalism to the True Love of God and Self.” Bishops in his church, and theologians elsewhere, declared his views were “heresy.” The megachurch he led declined in membership, and he folded the remnants of his interracial Higher Dimensions Family Church in Tulsa into a Unitarian Universalist congregation, embracing its inclusiveness.