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Tumult at Crystal Cathedral megachurch rooted in perils of succession

The Rev. Robert H. Schuller's very public split with the megachurch he founded, along with all family members, points to the perils involved in handing over the reins to the next generation, say analysts. Crystal Cathedral fits that pattern.

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer / March 14, 2012

This photo shows the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif.

Jae C. Hong/AP/File

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Los Angeles

In the end, the Rev. Robert H. Schuller, the founder of a famous southern California megachurch and the inspiration behind television's "Hour of Power" worship service, encountered the same hurdle many such leaders do: succession.

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The Rev. Mr. Schuller, his wife, and his children who were still part of Crystal Cathedral Ministries all split with the church he founded during the past 10 days, in a very public feud with the church's board over matters both theological and financial. It's the "end of an era," proclaimed a Los Angeles Times headline.

It definitely is the end of an era for Crystal Cathedral Ministries, which Schuller built over four decades from a lowly beginning, using the snack-shop rooftop at a drive-in movie theater as a pulpit, into a religious and media empire. Sociologists who study religion and church historians debate whether the troubles of Crystal Cathedral portend anything for the megachurch phenomenon as a whole, but they largely agree that Schuller is not the only dynamic religious leader who proved unable to steer the future of his own church upon relinquishing the reins.

The problems at Crystal Cathedral speak to the difficulty many religious leaders – especially Protestant evangelical leaders – have had planning beyond themselves. In this sense, they fit a pattern seen at Oral Roberts University, the Billy Graham Association, and at CBN ministries with Pat Robertson.

“In all of these cases, the founders of these organizations found it impossible to hand over leadership to someone else who had the spiritual and practical skills that were required for leadership, and leadership subsequently devolved to their relatively untalented children,” says Douglas Jacobsen, distinguished professor of church history and theology at Messiah College in Grantham, Pa., via e-mail.  

This is “not to say that the children of these leaders are totally incompetent," he hastens to add, "but that they lack the extraordinary talents or charisma of their fathers and simply cannot keep the organization going in the same way. What is happening at the Crystal Cathedral is a heightened version of this general trend."   

Schuller retired in 2006, passing the baton to his son, Robert Schuller Jr., and then falling out with him over the church's direction. The church's income has fallen dramatically since the elder Schuller stepped back, and in February the church sold its Crystal Cathedral campus in Garden Grove, Calif., to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange for $57.5 million, to avoid bankruptcy. Then, a weekend ago, Schuller and his wife, Arviella, resigned from the church board, citing “a negative environment” after a dispute about the timing of payments to church creditors. Last weekend, daughter Sheila Schuller Coleman announced she was departing as well, stating her intention to start a breakaway church and leaving no Schuller family member on the ministries' board for the first time in the church's history.

“One reason why people beyond the immediate membership of the Crystal Cathedral should take notice of its demise is because of the trend of the last several decades to pattern large congregations on charismatically led mega-churches associated with television ministries,” says James Hudnut-Beumler, dean of the Vanderbilt Divinity School and author of “In Pursuit of the Almighty's Dollar: A History of Money and American Protestantism.”

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