The Shattering of the Crystal Cathedral

Dec 7


David Wolfskehl

David Wolfskehl

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Most of us have heard that the Crystal Cathedral and the public and televised minstry of Robet Schuller is in financial and management trouble. Convinced that all of the troubles facing this famly business can be traced to a failed succession and exit strategy, the author outlines what went wrong to cause such severe consequences of succession planning failure.


Just weeks ago the leadership of the Crystal Cathedral,The Shattering of the Crystal Cathedral Articles a Christian ministry founded by Robert H. Schuller back in the 60s, filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection in the California courts. The leadership of the church, which broadcasts every Sunday morning to over a million people worldwide, has claimed that the financial troubles resulted from the economic challenge of the past two years and the inability of the Church to respond with enough budget cuts fast enough. It is more likely, however, that the very ugly succession fiasco that occurred within the leadership in 2008 is the cause of the financial difficulties and the leadership vacuum in the church.

Schuller began his unique ministry in the 1960s, preaching to a congregation that gathered in at an old drive-In movie theater. His preaching infused middle-of-the-road mainline Christianity with the core of Norman Vincent Peale’s “Power of Positive Thinking.” It was the right message at the right time. By 1970, Schuller’s worship services were being broadcast on television. The size of his ministry peaked in the 1980s, when he had about two million viewers around the world. Today, the audience is admitted to have shrunk by half.

The perfect storm that might bring down this house of glass began to form about ten years ago. Other ministers throughout the country have built megachurches on a different blend of Christianity and self help messages. Their great popularity indicated a shift in the interests of the audience and the answers they wanted to hear. As this trend built a good head of steam, contributions to the Schuller ministry, attendance at the Crystal Cathedral and the number of television viewers began a slow decline.

According to ABC News, the church now has a $55 million budget deficit and a 27% drop in revenue over the last two years. Just Saturday, The Christian Post noted that “The U.S. Trustee Program and creditors are objecting to salaries given out by the Crystal Cathedral to several employees . . . . “ The Schuller family also decided to cut their own salaries in half for an unspecified period of time.

Following the pattern of most other television evangelists, Schuller (who is 84) announced that his son, Robert A. Schuller would take charge of the church and would be the primary preacher on the “Hour of Power.” It was clear to all watchers that the senior Schuller had been grooming his son to replace him. Bit according to a recent article in The New York Times, church insiders revealed that the elder Schuller and his wife were not sure their son could measure up to the job.

The church was rocked and a few of the panes of glass in the cathedral were shattered when the elder Schuller announced from the pulpit of the Crystal Cathedral in July 2008 that due to a difference of opinion about the direction the church should go in the future, he had fired his son and that other members of the family would assume leadership of the church.

The younger Schuller was an adequate speaker by the standards of most. His personality was different from his father’s charismatic appeal. He did not have – or did not cultivate – his father’s deep and resonant voice or his emotive style of dramatic reading from the Bible and preaching. This presumably led his sisters and brothers-in-law to claim that his preaching was “not anointed” (whatever that means today) and to remove him from preaching responsibilities after just two years.

The real reason the younger Mr. Schuller was ousted appears to lie in the other changes he wanted to make. He also tried to institute changes that would put the ministry under the kind of governance practiced by most successful nonprofit agencies.  The changes included use of new technologies to expand the ministry, changes in the message and the nature of the program to make it more appealing to a younger audience (the average viewer today is a 53 year-old woman), and to “remove anyone with a conflict of interest from the board of directors” (according to The New York Times).

Changes in the technologies used to reach a larger audience and adjustments to the message probably had less to do with the events that followed than the significant governance changes. If “good governance” had been put in place, no one who was an employee of the church would be able to sit on the board (thus avoiding conflicts of interest). This would have limited the control and influence of some of his sisters, his parents, and his brothers-in-law or their ability to earn their living from the church.

Many viewers, including long-standing viewers, were horrified by the events. Many stopped watching “Hour of Power” and many stopped sending money The preaching was handed over to a series of people with vastly different messages for about 18 months. During this time there was a clear leadership gap at the top of the church and revenues and attendance in the Crystal Cathedral continued to decline.

Finally, in 2010, Sheila Schuller Coleman (daughter of Robert H. Schuller and sister of Robert A. Schuller) was designated as the Senior Pastor and primary preacher for the ministry. According to one thirty-year viewer, the choir has dwindled to nothing (this due to the inability of the ministry to continue to pay professional choir members), there are more and more empty pews every Sunday, and Sheila Schuller Coleman does not know how to preach. She is insulting,” says this former viewer. “It sounds like she is talking to a bunch of pre-school children.”

Today, the continuing decline in contributions and attendance, as well as the loss of a significant part of the television audience (at least in the U.S.) combined with the actions of long-standing creditors who are suing for past-due payments, points to a loss of confidence in the leadership and the future direction the church. What went wrong? How could a succession planned for more than 50 years fall apart so quickly and create such a public scandal?

- The senior Mr. Schuller did not demonstrate sufficient confidence in his son during the transition to provide the support needed.
- The transition itself was botched.
- The younger Mr. Schuller assumed leadership in a very difficult time – declining revenue, loss of television stations and audience, declining membership and attendance, and economic difficulties. None of these problems occurred under his leadership.
- The change in governance should have been handled by the Senior Mr. Schuller before the transition occurred – his endorsement would have made the bitter pill easier to swallow.
- There was apparently no written succession plan and no statement of the qualifications necessary for anyone to become senior pastor.
- The leadership of the church should have been reclaimed by the senior Mr. Schuller in the aftermath of the coup.
- The leadership gap was allowed to continue for too long, causing creditors and followers to lose confidence in the ministry.
- Other financial troubles are likely to be ahead in light of recent revelations about how salaries are paid in order to avoid income taxes.
- More former followers and financial supporters are likely to leave in light of the recent revelations of the details of the coup.
- Asking people to double-tithe (20%of income) to save your sinking ship in a time of record unemployment and global economic crisis smacks of an ego gone wild or losing touch with reality.
- If the senior Mr. Schuller had such long-term doubts about the ability of his son and chosen successor to lead the church, why was there no one else waiting in the wings?
- Why, if his son was not adequate for the job, was a successor not named who was not a member of the family? 

While the financial struggles of this church appear to be many years in the making, the leadership vacuum is not.. The weakness that has resulted from the succession fiasco is clearly related to the widespread loss of confidence and trust of creditors and followers. Many followers were disenchanted by the public and ugly leadership coup. Some are disturbed that the current situation is looking more and more like a man trying to save a family dynasty than a minister trying to preserve the faith and ministry of a church. Many who expected the church to die slowly now expect the financial troubles to destroy it quickly.

As the world watches more and more of the 10,664 windows of the Crystal Cathedral shatter, many family-owned businesses are wondering if the same thing could happen to them. The answer is a reverberating “yes.”  If you are the owner or the CEO of a family-owned business or any business that is privately-owned or partner-owned, and you do not have a written (and funded) succession and transition plan, this kind of mess could happen to you.