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 , Staff writer

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

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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.

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.

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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.”

“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.”

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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