Schuller daughter aims to heal Crystal Cathedral

  • Follow Your Faith

GARDEN GROVE, Calif. --- Sheila Schuller Coleman has held just about every job at her father's Crystal Cathedral, from copying Sunday programs at the kitchen table to launching a private high school on the church grounds.

Now, five decades after the Rev. Robert Schuller Sr. first planted the church, his daughter is facing her most challenging job there yet: taking over his megachurch and its famous Hour of Power television ministry at a time of financial and family crisis.

The church and its internationally known telecast have been bleeding dollars and members for years -- a trend that accelerated last fall when the cathedral's heir apparent, the Rev. Robert Schuller Jr., suddenly left in a bitter family feud.

Mrs. Coleman, 58, hopes to rescue her father's legacy as the founder of one of the nation's largest megachurches by being upfront about the family's recent mistakes and refocusing on the original mission of outreach to the unchurched.

"I feel like I've been a part of this ministry my whole life and it's almost like another child to me. I feel like I helped raise it," said Mrs. Coleman, a former public school teacher who holds a doctorate in education and administrative leadership. "I've been here doing the work, I've been here caring for the people. They know me and they trust me."

In the evangelical world, sons often are tapped to succeed their fathers. The Rev. Franklin Graham succeeded his father at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Texas preacher Joel Osteen took the helm of his father's church.

But "it's very rare" for a woman to take leadership of a megachurch, said Scott Thumma, a sociologist at Hartford Institute for Religion Research.

Mrs. Coleman will not be the senior pastor at Crystal Cathedral, instead acting as a top administrator. Still, Mr. Thumma said, "it's quite an interesting and probably even a pretty bold move on the part of the Schuller family and the church as a whole."

One of the biggest changes Mrs. Coleman will make is in the ministry's leadership style and the structure of the Hour of Power broadcasts.

She plans to move the church and its telecast away from the kind of ministry that puts all the attention -- and all the pressure -- on one superstar pastor.

She believes that the church's biggest mistake in recent years was asking her 54-year-old brother to step into his father's role without enough support or preparation.

The much-heralded changeover ended disastrously, with the Rev. Schuller Jr. disappearing from the broadcasts and abruptly leaving the church altogether last year, less than three years after he took on his father's mantle.

He recently announced his own weekly show on AmericanLife TV Network.

FROM NOW ON, Mrs. Coleman said, Hour of Power will feature a stable of up to six preachers, including herself and her father, and all decisions will be made by ministry teams whose members bear equal responsibility for results.

"I do believe the biggest mistake we made is we put Robert in a no-win situation by putting him in a solo leadership position following a solo leader," she said of the father-son transition.

Mr. Thumma said team ministry is an increasingly popular strategy among megachurches that are preparing for a leadership change.

"A lot of congregations have gone to that proactively in order to avoid the situation that's happened at the Crystal Cathedral, where all the identity rests on the shoulders of one person," he said.

Mrs. Coleman declined to discuss the details of what triggered her brother's departure, but said the yearlong leadership vacuum that followed was disastrous, with viewership, church attendance and donations all dropping. Her father, 82, was also devastated.

In her first sermon this month, Mrs. Coleman apologized to worshippers for the family rift. She lugged a bucket of corn seed to the pulpit and urged followers to help the church return to its original mission by sowing the seeds of faith among family and friends.

"It caused a lot of pain and a lot of people were hurt because our family was not the ideal Brady Bunch family that they thought we should have been," she said in a later interview. "I feel it's my responsibility, I wanted to tell the people I'm sorry for the pain that you've had to endure."

The Rev. Schuller Sr. formulated his outreach to the unchurched in the mid-1950s, when he opened a ministry at a drive-in theater in the suburbs of Orange County that catered to Southern California's emerging car culture.

He pulled people in with his sermons on the power of positive thinking.

The little church grew into the 10,000-member Crystal Cathedral, a worship hall with a soaring glass spire that opened in 1970 and remains an architectural wonder and tourist destination.

Mrs. Coleman hopes that her team ministry approach will allow the church to refocus on her father's original mission -- and boost membership and donations. She likes to say that her father will still "be the vision and I'll be his legs."

She is considering starting community outreach programs such as after-school tutoring and art classes to make up for budget cuts at public schools. She also hopes that within 10 years, the cathedral will open schools overseas to combat illiteracy.

For now, it's too early to tell how Hour of Power viewers will react to those plans and to a woman in the pulpit. Mrs. Coleman will appear on the broadcast each Sunday, but she won't always preach -- and neither will her father, she said.

"I'm very excited about the future. My call is to help my dad finish strong," she said. "I really think our best days in ministry are ahead of us. I really do."

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The Knave
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The Knave 06/27/09 - 08:17 am
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Uh-oh, the Crystal Cathedral

Uh-oh, the Crystal Cathedral has developed some pretty large cracks. It's always quite intriguing to see the hypocritical bible-thumpers get a little antsy when the revenue starts to drop off. These folk have sucked the life and fortunes out of a large number of people and now some are beginning to see the fraud for what it is. It's not unlike Bernie Maddoff -- the Ponzi model will continue so long as new suckers are found to keep the money rolling in.

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