By Ronald E. Keener
Truth comes hard for the Crystal Cathedral, as it blames the recession, the creditors’ committee, and those who just aren’t giving enough.
“Too much crystal, not enough cathedral.” That was one of the responses to the article in the Orange County Register reporting the bankruptcy filing of Robert H. Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral in October. So true.
What has not been true are the causes of the church’s money woes and resulting bankruptcy, when you listen to the church talking. It was the national recession, the church has been saying, and the decision of a committee of creditors to stop looking for a way out of the $50 million deficit and some $30 million still owed to 180 creditors.
Another reader of the Register report spoke to how the church likely looks at the reasons the creditors’ committee gave up on drawing up a payment plan:
“Let’s see, you hire me to do something. I spend my money and time. You don’t pay me. I ask for my money. You ignore me. I ask again. You still ignore [me]. I demand or else. You form a committee which will go on till hell freezes over. You know I’m broke, need money desperately, may lose my house. You live in wonderful digs, drive expensive cars and still ignore me. You ask for an extension of time, again and again, obvious dodge. I file against you. You declare bankruptcy and blame me for not working out something with you which you have no intention of paying anytime soon and which you created. My God.”
One creditor did lose her home because she was owed some $50,000. What is apparent is that the church’s money problems began years ago. Another writer observed from personal experience: “I used to stand in line monthly with other banks to collect their delinquent loan payments on their construction loans. You would have thought that people would have learned then that they could not and would not take ownership of their bad management of money.”
“They may have started the church with good intentions, but that’s not how it’s ending up,” one respondent says. It was only when the son, Robert Anthony Schuller, fired two and a half years ago from senior pastor, finally spoke his mind to The New York Times and the Orange County Register, did truth begin to emerge.
It became fertile grounds for gossip and innuendo: that the Mormons had approached the Cathedral about buying the property, for example. Another pastor in southern California was asked if he had interest in taking over the ministry there. When the pastor asked if he could bring in his own leadership team, the conversation ended. Schuller went against the judgment of his board when the Welcome Center was proposed, and he built it anyway, now accounting for much of the church’s debt. There is also the contention that Schuller moved all the church’s assets to Robert Schuller Ministries and the Hour of Power, so that today the church itself owns virtually nothing and the property is under Schuller’s direct ownership and control.
There are also the stories of the ugliness of how the Schullers treat people, even those who would wish the ministry well. There is an embarrassment for the church that makes one squirm. On a recent Sunday Schuller tearfully asked his TV audience to tithe — and to double tithe. As the cameras panned the congregation, the empty seats were testimony to the future of this church, where even people of good will for the ministry could find little to support with their presence.
Once again a church disappoints its followers. It’s a moral failure of another kind. It’s another poke in the eye of believers who can’t find the words to explain it to nonbelievers. As one reader of the bankruptcy wrote: “With all due respect, this is what makes Christians look like jerks, and it’s what makes those of us who want to share the real Jesus Christ so difficult.” Addressing the church leaders, he writes, “Please, own up to your failures, call it for what it is, and do not try to minimize or blame. At least that way it doesn’t spill over as much to those of us trying to truly represent God’s heart here on earth, which isn’t usually found in the megachurch, but in the simple and authentic places that worship in Spirit and in Truth.”
In this financial bankruptcy, it is hard to find the words of comfort for this morally bankrupt organization that, somewhere, just went wrong.