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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.

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“The key problem with the Crystal Cathedral was not simply how much money it owed, but its leadership deficit once Robert Schuller was out of the picture,” says Mr. Hudnet-Beumler via e-mail. “That medium-sized United Methodist or Baptist Church on the corner has a much better succession plan, and succession possibilities available to it for its leadership, than does a mega-church built upon a charismatic minister's personality.”

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The megachurch, arising over the past few decades, is a new class of church where membership dwarfed that of the "typical" Protestant church, whose numbers had for centuries topped out at about 100, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Megachurches, with 2,000 or more members, account for about 10 percent of the 56 million Americans worshipping at Protestant churches. “Megachurches remain one of the most robust organizational expressions within North America,” the institute reports in its 2011 profile of large-attendance churches.

Hudnet-Beumler and others say the troubles of Schuller’s church do not bode well for other megachurches with charismatic leaders.

“We can predict, therefore, because of the ages of particular mega-churches and their leaders, that we will be hearing about more and more of these churches on financial and leadership crisis in the future,” says Hudnet-Beumler.

Villanova political scientist Catherine Wilson, who researches religion and politics and nonprofits, says the Schuller family’s ongoing battles with the church's board of directors is a classic example of "founder's syndrome," as outlined in nonprofit literature.

“The founding Schuller family, which has primarily been responsible for the organization's growth and direction over the last decades, now faces a board which is charting a new vision for the cathedral,” she says via e-mail. “And this new vision is met with considerable disapproval by the founder, who has been with the organization from the very beginning. Because the board will no longer rubber-stamp the decisions of the founder, a battle over organizational control ensues. While the founder wants to maintain control over decision-making, the board is concerned with succession planning."

Still others say a factor to be determined – which can be a strength or a weakness – is the dynamic of trying to make the church into a family business.

“Some, like John and Joel Osteen [of the 6,000-member Lakewood Church in Houston], succeed; others do not. It is part of the megachurch tradition, at least in many of them,” says Bill Leonard, professor of church history and religion at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

“In another sense, it represents at least one facet of the megachurch movement, as churches shaped by earlier trends confront the competition and new paradigms with newer, trendsetting congregations,” he says. “It reflects the fact that the movement is in its third generation, beyond which it is difficult to stay ahead of the trends.”

Says Scott Thumma, professor of sociology of religion at the aforementioned Hartford Institute, “Perhaps the biggest lesson out of this is that old models, inflexibility, and an unwillingness to change to keep up with a new religious reality ultimately spell the demise of both megachurches and smaller congregations.”

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