by Lawrence Downing
The crystal has lost its sparkle. The Hour of Power has run out of steam. Contrary to Robert H. Schuller’s best-selling book, Tough Times Never Last; Tough People Do, The ‘Tough Times’ did last and the ‘Tough People’ didn’t. As a result of U. S Bankruptcy Judge Robert Kwan’ s ruling this week that the iconic Crystal Cathedral be sold to the Diocese of Orange, we will be spared hearing the latest saga of the rise and fall of the Crystal Cathedral. We who live near the Cathedral await to see the new name written there: “St. Something or Other’s Cathedral.” (Any one know a St. Crystal?”)
The ruling may well not quiet the widely and often reported wrangling among the Schuller family. The judge’s ruling and the $57.5 million the Diocese of Orange paid for the 40-acre property should provide money to satisfy the numerous lawsuits initiated against the Crystal Cathedral ministry and its staff. Left dangling are the claims filed by the Schuller family claiming they are owed millions of dollars. Robert Schuller himself has demanded he be paid $300,000 a year for life, plus royalties due him from previous book sales. Senior pastor Sheila Schuller Colemen, founder Robert Schuller’s daughter, who donned the leadership mangle when her brother, former Senior pastor Robert Schuller, Jr., was dismissed from his position by his father who only months before had appointed him. Other family members have made similar monetary claims.
Bishop Ted Brown of the Diocese of Orange is quoted by the Orange County Register to have said the court hearing was a “bitter-sweet experience” for him. (OC Register, Nov. 18, 2011, News, p. 16.) He also stated the purchase was an excellent buy. To build a new cathedral would have cost in excess of two hundred million dollars. In the deal, the Catholic Church gave Crystal Cathedral ministry a near-by smaller Catholic church and its ten acre grounds. Chapman University was one of three other groups who had joined the bidding process. When the judge issued his decision, Chapman’s James Doti stated he accepted the judge’s decision and did not plan to appeal. The other bidders had dropped out as the original price of $50 million was raised to $57.5 million.
An unexpected side development occurred when a Crystal Cathedral administrator announced to an administrator of the Southeastern California Conference of Seventh-day Adventists that the Cathedral staff would like the Adventists to buy the Cathedral. Southeastern California Conference for more than 20 years has used the Cathedral facilities for various events. The Cathedral staff, the administrator stated, has found the relationship with the Conference satisfying and would like to see it continue. As an added perk, the Crystal Cathedral congregation could have access to the facility on Sunday. Conference administrators met with several of us area Adventist pastors to consider the offer. The Conference administrators were clear: The Conferences does not have $50 million for any property! Some pastors suggested the Orange County churches sell their properties and unite at the Cathedral. This suggestion went nowhere. Conference personnel did meet with Crystal Cathedral administrators. This conversation, to the relief of many, did not result in the Conference joining the bidding process.
I’m not sure the lessons one is to take from the Crystal Cathedral debacle. The power of human greed? The risk of building a religious empire around a charismatic personality? The epoch rise and fall of one of America’s first mega-churches? What happens when the vision perishes? Each person who reads the story will come away with a different message. There are, however, specific warnings that will benefit other religious organizations, if they are heeded.
First, a lack of transparency invites trouble. The internet is a ubiquitous monitor that will out even dark and deep secrets!
The Schuller family was not forth coming on financial matters and administrative decisions. Example: Some years ago the congregation learned from a press report that Robert Schuller had spun off the Crystal Cathedral to his Hour of Power TV empire. This did not sit well with many of the members.
Few were aware how many of the Schuller immediate and extended family was on the Cathedral payroll. Millions of dollars were siphoned off to support these families, some of whom lived thousands of miles away.
The Cathedral board was a closely controlled group composed of Schuller family members and those with ties to the family.
When an institution ceases to exist, people suffer. And they do! Crystal Cathedral members shed many tears and experienced grief as they watched more than 35 years of effort come to an end. Those who lead organizations take heed: People do care and decisions do impact people’s lives! It may have been just a pile of glass and metal tubes, but there are many individuals who feel a close emotional tie to what that building represented. Thousands of people met in the Cathedral every week for worship and were blessed by the messages delivered from the pulpit. For these people, a part of their life is gone and they feel betrayed and abandoned. They wonder who they can trust. What they do know is that an end of an era has come: the sparkling Crystal that once emitted its tingly sound now offers only a clunk.