By Ronald E. Keener
Two years ago, July 9, a hastily called meeting of board members of the Crystal Cathedral Ministries was held, and while Senior Pastor Robert Anthony Schuller was a bit mystified, he wasn’t alarmed. At the end of that meeting, where his siblings and father had majority votes, he would no longer be speaking from the pulpit. He had been effectively fired.
The troubles of the Garden Grove, CA church only grew from there, not the least of which are unpaid bills to some 185 vendors. For reflection on this ministry, and its Hour of Power, I went to a consultant on media and broadcasting, who shared this analysis:
“The single biggest issue at the Crystal Cathedral is the lack of foresight. The irony is that in his younger days, Dr. [Robert H.] Schuller was a visionary. Who would have thought a “drive-in church” would have worked? His innovations, his commitment to originality, and his foresight made the church and media ministry one of the best known in the world.
“The problem is that for all the vision of the early years, once success happened, they hunkered down and shut off the very innovation that created that success to begin with. It’s not that different from many secular companies, in the sense that the bold innovation and original thinking that put them on the map, gets shoved aside once it actually succeeds. They missed the dramatic culture changes that have transformed churches and ministries around the world:
“1. Demographics shifted and yet the church continued to focus only on the older audience. They incorrectly assumed that the older audience of the 1970s is pretty much the same as the older audience of today. What they missed is that every generation communicates differently. My parents were letter writers. I’m an email user. My daughters use text messaging and Facebook. The church lost the vital connection with future partners and donors.
“2. They refused to see the value shift. The porcelain sparrows and eagle figurines that they used for years as donor gifts got old really fast, and yet they continued sending them out. I know of one partner who wrote: ‘Please stop sending me those porcelain birds. My cabinet is filled with them and I don’t have a place for any more.’ They failed to explore new donor development options.
“3. One of the biggest shifts we’re seeing in ministry is pastors focusing less on positive thinking and more on expository, biblical preaching. The age of ‘pastor as motivational speaker’ is coming to an end. Robert A. Schuller was on the leading edge of this new thinking, and tried to focus his messages on serious, biblical preaching. But those in leadership didn’t share his foresight.
“4. Second generation leadership is dramatically different from first-generation leadership. As a result, when Robert A. Schuller took over as pastor, he should have brought in a new leadership team that would be more responsive to his own leadership style and vision. But the existing leadership team was mostly made up of family — either children or spouses of children. So he really couldn’t change anything. As a result they didn’t understand him or his vision and immediately started to undermine his goals.
“Was the son the answer? We’ll never know. First, he was the ‘Prince Charles of Christian Television.’ When his father finally allowed him to step up, it was too late for the transition to work. Second, he understood that change needed to happen, but the leadership team was too blindly loyal to Dr. Schuller, so they fought the changes that were desperately needed. Rather than take a chance on change, they dug in and defended their bad ideas and failed strategy.
“The question is, can the ministry be saved? I seriously doubt it. Today, a new generation of younger pastors has embraced the same type of innovative thinking that Dr. Schuller used to build the Crystal Cathedral. Their ideas are changing the Christian landscape, they’re focusing more on the Bible, and they’re using social media to connect to today’s culture.
“The debt is monstrous. It’s not the economy, because it’s been happening for a long, long time. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that donors don’t give to pay down debt. They give to make a powerful vision happen.”
Today, the son is engaged in a media communications company that prospers, and the grandson has his own emergent congregation. Why look back? Hubris triumphs when vision is lost.