Jim Poit, Executive Pastor, Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove, CA

When a pastor takes a new assignment with a church it is as much an adjustment for the family as it is for the candidate.

By Ronald E. Keener

When a pastor takes a new assignment with a church it is as much an adjustment for the family as it is for the candidate. So it was for the family of Jim Poit when he accepted Robert A. Schuller’s invitation to become executive pastor at the Crystal Cathedral when Robert became senior pastor, succeeding founding pastor Dr. Robert H. Schuller, two years ago.

It was a no brainer for Poit’s two youngest children, 5 and 7, when they looked out from the 12th floor of the Tower of Hope on the campus and saw Disneyland in the distance. “When do we move?” was their response.

His 10-year-old daughter was fine with the move, but his oldest son Adam didn’t want to move. “He loved Third Reformed, he just absolutely loved it,” says Poit of the church where for three years he was executive pastor in Kalamazoo, MI. “To have your 16-year-old boy love a church that much,” says Poit, “you have to take a deep breath.”

The family met the Schullers, saw the campus and on the way home, Adam came to his father in John Wayne Airport and sat next to him, saying “we need to talk about this.”

Poit said, “What do you mean?” And Adam said, “Dad, I don’t want to move to California, but if this is God’s call on your life, then we need to do it.”

“I’m like Jonah,” said Adam, “I don’t want to move to Nineveh, I just don’t want to do it. But Jonah should have heard the call of God and gone to Nineveh, and if that’s what we need to do, we will do it.”

Says Poit of his son, “He is really a neat guy.”

On his first interview for the job, Poit sat across the table from Robert A. Schuller and had to admit “I’ve never seen the Hour of Power.” Schuller laughed and said, “You’re kidding?” Poit said he knew what the program was, but in Michigan it is broadcast at 10:00 Sunday mornings and he is in his own church at that hour. His only exposure to the church was a Reformed Church denominational meeting in Garden Grove in 2001.

Poit peppers his conversation with the latest author names and book titles on church and business management, and admits his personal library has more business books in it than books on theology, even as he holds a M.Div. from Princeton Seminary and a Ph.D. from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

At Third Reformed he became its first executive pastor. “We all looked at Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great. We studied it and asked how does that apply to the church? Tom Rainer had just written a book called Breakout Churches, and I was fascinated. I can not read enough business books, church growth books and leadership books.”

Your first pastorate was with a small church of 50 people that in five years grew to an average of 140-150 attendance?

It was a small church just four miles from downtown Princeton, NJ, and it had all these business executives. They took me out to lunch one day. They had a stack of books and they said, “Jim, if you’re going to be our pastor, you need to speak our language,” and they passed the books off to me.

They said we want to mentor you: We’re not theologians, we don’t know a whole lot about church business and operations. But they were all frustrated because the church didn’t operate like they ran their businesses. I had the chief information officer for M&M Mars Corp. as a member. I had one of the vice presidents of Chase Manhattan Bank as a member. I had one of the vice presidents of a company called TCG —Teleport Communications Group — and this woman helped negotiate the $12 billion buy out to AT&T.

We were an hour out of New York City. They’d work all day in New York and then they’d come home and they’d come to our small, elder consistory meeting. They were frustrated with just how slow the church was in making decisions, how it just didn’t function. These people were used to saying, okay, let’s do it differently.

They’d give some orders and it happens.

… and it happens. But not in the church.

When I went to Third Reformed I was fascinated with how one might take those business principles and apply them to a church. What we really did at Third was leadership development of the laity and the staff.

To be honest with you, we retrained staff, we let some staff go, we hired new staff on, and we kept using Jim Collins’ phrase of  “getting the right people on the bus.” And then deciding what seats they should sit in and where the bus needs to go.

Jim Collins says find the right people. I hired a woman at Third Reformed and [senior pastor] Jeff Porte said to me, “What are we going to have her do?” I said, “I don’t know, but she’s the right person for the bus now.”

Her name is Deb Yurk. She’s one of the most pastoral people I’ve ever met but she has a phenomenal administrative mind.  When I hired her, within six months we went from 50 small groups to 150 small groups.

Two weeks after I arrived here, our pastor of Congregational Life retired. I called Jeff Porte and I said, “Jeff, I need Deb Yurk. I need someone who understands ministry and Deb and I worked amazingly well together at Third Reformed. We think so much alike that Deb could finish my sentences. I need someone I don’t have to retrain, someone who understands where the Cathedral needs to go.”

We hired her on here and one of the first things we struggled with is figuring out whether our many visitors each week were local guests or tourists. We had trouble discovering who the local congregation is. Right now we’re working with a company out of Las Vegas called Connection Power, and they’re putting in a new system to help us connect and follow up with people. It’s an online system where people can update their own information. It’s like a MySpace for congregants.  Deb’s department, including key volunteers, is now in the process of straightening out all our database records and making sure that we have current information for everyone.

We see a very close connection with new member assimilation, community missions and volunteerism. Deb is great at seeing the big picture and organizing the supporting departments into a very real ministry oriented team.

You have a membership that you call global? What’s unique about that?

We did a survey of our viewers and we found out that there’re so many viewers who see us as their church, after years of continuing to encourage people to get involved in their local church. We still do that. Robert regularly says you need to connect to your local church, you need to find fellowship, you need to find care.

We still find that there’re so many people that don’t. I had a man in his 80s call me from Pennsylvania, and he said he and his wife just can’t get to church. They’re Lutheran and they love their local Lutheran church. In fact, they were founding members of it, they still are connected with it, but they just can’t get to church on Sunday mornings because of health issues.

He said, “You’re our church. In fact, my wife and I stand when you say stand, we say God loves you and so do I.” They stand in their living room, turn to each other and say God loves you and so do I. He said, “When there’s a time for the offering we take out our checkbook and we write out our check. You’re our church service.”

I think what’s unique about the Cathedral is there’re so many television ministries that broadcast the sermon. We broadcast the entire service and I think we are the only one that does that. When people come here to visit they say you’re actually a church, you’re not just a studio.

So what does the global membership really mean?

We thought, okay, we have all these people who view us and we’re trying to encourage them to connect with their local churches, but what happens if they’re not? We have a pastoral responsibility to them. How do we do that? A couple of months ago if you were in my office you’d look at the windows and you’d see worship, discipleship, pastoral care [Poit uses the large windows on two sides of his office as a “whiteboard.”], all the elements that a local congregation offers.

And the question is how do we take this globally? How do we offer care to that couple that sits in Pennsylvania that can’t get to church? How do we offer care to people who watch us from Florida? When Florida has a hurricane we try to call our members there: people who connect with us, people who have given us their name and a number. They are so surprised when they’re sitting in their home and they’ve had a hurricane go through and the phone rings and the caller says this is so and so from the Crystal Cathedral, and is everything okay? Can we pray with you? We don’t solicit funds; we just want to say are you okay?

When they had the shooting at Virginia Tech we called people within a certain radius of the area that we had names and numbers for. We called them and said we’re praying for you.

How do you reach out to your local community?

What we’ve done with the local community is we have so many people who live in the community who’ve said I live down the street and I’ve never been to the Crystal Cathedral. This community is a pretty poor community. In fact Lampson School, which is right here, is below poverty level.

We’re seen as a pretty wealthy church and we have this huge church sitting in the middle of this community. This church started because Robert Schuller had a passion for the community. There are stories of how he would walk door to door and shake hands and how he started the drive-in ministry and how he’d greet people as they came and went.

Over the years with the television ministry I think we kind of lost sight of that. The question is how do we reclaim that again and help the community understand that we are for them? We started last fall with a big Community Fest and we opened up our doors and we contacted all the nonprofit organizations, all the humanitarian organizations in town and said would you like to come for a Community Fest? We had police and fire departments and civic leaders and they all came here.

Afterwards we thought okay that was good, but it was still “come and see.” Our community missions director came to my office — she speaks fluent Spanish —and she says, this isn’t going to do it. It’s still the “come and see” model. It has to be “go and do” — go and be a part of the community.

What initiatives have you been taking to go and do?

We started a partnership with Habitat for Humanity, and by partnership I mean we’re trying to get our church members connected with Habitat and build homes. We did the Jimmy Carter Habitat for Humanity in Los Angeles, 
and we’ve partnered with our local Orange County Habitat for Humanity. We’ve partnered with the Garden Grove police. We go door to door asking if there is anything we can pray for.

We have our Hispanic service. We just started an Arabic speaking Christian service. There are 300,000 Arabic speaking people in the greater Los Angeles area, and how do we reach them? So we’re trying to work with community missions. We’ve adopted Lampson School and its reading program.

We provide all the bikes for them. I was told there are 87 different dialects at Lampson School.

You seem to be saying that in over 40 years of Hour of Power, you have raised awareness where you now feel you have an obligation to those people. They have seen the program over the years, it has become their church for many people and you can’t walk away from that. This church has got to respond to what it started years ago.

Thomas Bandy in his book, Kicking Habits — I read it years ago, loved the book, it really influenced me — he said something along the lines that people when they get up in the morning they go to church because (a) they want to connect with God and (b) they want to make a difference in the world. They don’t even know it but I think Christ’s church is going to grow because we are really connecting people with God and it’s going to grow because we’re helping people make a difference. We’re helping them leave a legacy; we’re helping them get connected with a bigger picture.

When I got here I decided that it cannot be all about us. First, it has to be really about the glory of God, it has to be about honoring God. And then in everything we do we have to ask how does it help glorify God, in everything we do how does it help to know God more, to love people, and to serve the world?

That will excite people, that will get people connected. The younger generation is very skeptical of religion. You read George Barna’s book, Revolution, and basically people are saying today, “I want to know God but I don’t need to know institutional religion.” In the same way, I think the Crystal Cathedral is not only on a local level but on a global level.

I think the Crystal Cathedral has been given much and if we’re good stewards of that and we can bless much, God can do incredible things. In many ways we just need to step out of the way and let God just go at it. So I see some great things coming, I really do.

Second generation leadership of churches is different than the founding, first generation leadership, like Dr. Schuller.

Dr. Schuller and I have lunch regularly and sometimes Arvella is able to join us. I have so much fun with them.

How do those conversations go?

It’s fascinating. You know I am such a young fellow, what can I teach him? So I go with a great sense of how can I learn? He’s constantly saying to me, tell me more about this and how does that work? He’s so open to new ideas and new things, and my style of leadership is very different than his. I’m all about building teams and doing everything through teams. In fact I was at a meeting one day and it was all staff. I said we can’t have a meeting; we don’t have any lay people here.

So I opened up my door, found the closest lay person and I said come into the meeting. It was Doug Robinson, a ministering elder. He said what do you need? I said, Doug do you have about an hour? He answered, well, I have to get back to work. Doug, can you give us an hour? And he said, yea, and I said come on in, we’re planning the Community Fest.

I said to the staff that morning, I said no more, we’re not going to have any more meetings without lay people.

After 50 years, Dr. Schuller is very protective of the church, but I’m amazed also how open he is to say, Jim, run it. Occasionally he’ll call me up and say we need to go to lunch. One day I was messing around with one of his pet projects, and he very clearly gave me the vision for that project.

He didn’t tell me I couldn’t cancel it. I finally said Dr. Schuller, I know what you’re doing, you don’t want me to mess with this. He says, you do what you want. OK, I said, it’s losing church support, it’s losing volunteers, we’re having trouble getting volunteers to do it, and can you give me the freedom to mess around with it a little bit? I’m not going to cancel it, but let me see what I can do to change it here and there, with the understanding it may look totally different by the time I get done. But I will assure you the founding principles, the premises, will still be there. And he said, that would be great.

Here I can change things because I constantly go back to the thought, wasn’t Dr. Schuller’s vision really to reach out to people who would never step foot in a church? So when I change something I go back to that, isn’t that what we’re trying to accomplish? If I put it in those terms people kind of scratch their heads for a moment and they go, “You’re right.” And there’re willing to say, let’s do that differently.

Crystal Cathedral: More than the Hour of Power

What viewers of the Hour of Power see is only a part of the ministry and mission of Crystal Cathedral Ministries.

In fact, those services are now called Crystal Cathedral Classic, where worshippers will find some of the best traditional music and worship. It’s the service that is telecast throughout the U.S. and to 177 countries. It is viewed by 20 million people.

At another level is the emergent church experience called The Gathering that is shepherded by Bobby Schuller, the grandson of Robert H. Schuller and son of the senior pastor of the Cathedral, Robert A. Schuller. Those services are described as “a real, vintage faith experience through artistic expression, worship and community.”

In between those worship experiences in worship style is Crystal Cathedral Contemporary — or C3 — that meets twice Sundays in the Freed Theater on the campus. The service is hosted by Gretchen Schuller-Penner and worship pastor Kyle Steven.

Steven explains that C3 is connected to the main church service and receives the same interview and message via a video feed, but features contemporary worship and gospel music to reach young to middle age adults.

In something of an understatement, Steven says, “It’s a place that gives people the feel of a small church environment in a large church setting.” He says too that “we believe that God has placed our ministry in a position to usher in the next generation of Christians at the Crystal Cathedral.”

But there is more choice at the Cathedral as well.

The Hispanic Ministry meets twice on Sundays and is described as a multidimensional ministry for those who speak primarily Spanish.

The newest addition is the Arabic Ministry for Arabic-speaking friends, led by Pastor Emeel Shenoda, who grew up in an Orthodox Christian church in Egypt. The vision for the ministry is to eventually broadcast their services back to the Middle East, says Jim Poit.

There’s an Evening Service as well, when Poit is often the speaker.


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