March 20, 2012
Should Churches Hire Family Members?
The decline of the Crystal Cathedral cannot be separated from the Schuller family saga.
The post mortem on the Crystal Cathedral continues. The iconic southern California megachurch pastored by Robert H. Schuller once represented the innovative and market-savvy dexterity of American Christianity. Schuller started his church at a drive-in movie theater, allowing visitors to stay comfortably inside their cars. Then he utilized television with the “Hour of Power” ministry broadcast. Its success allowed him to build one of the largest churches in the country.
But last year the church filed for bankruptcy, the soaring glass building was sold to the Roman Catholic diocese, and the ministry is in shambles. What happened?
Some view Schuller’s ministry as the canary in the megachurch mine. It was one of the first megachurches in the country, and does its demise forecast the fate of others? Others point to demographic shifts. When built, the Crystal Cathedral was in a young and affluent community. But today the area is more economically and racially diverse.
But there is another aspect to the Crystal Cathedral’s story worth exploring: family.
Robert Schuller’s children were deeply involved in the church and television program. When the senior Schuller stepped down as senior pastor in 2006, his son, Robert A. Schuller, took over both the church and “Hour of Power.” Eventually he also resigned amid disagreements over the direction of the ministry.
Then Schuller’s daughter, Sheila Schuller Coleman, was installed as the pastor. The decline continued. Staff has dropped by 150, the building has been sold, and conflict on the board has resulted in Robert H. Schuller and his wife leaving the ministry they started over 50 years ago.
A former Crystal Cathedral board member believes family dynamics led, in part, to the decline of the ministry. "If you have a family ministry, the health of the relationships within the family is key to whether the governance of the ministry is going to work well or not," said Rev. Wes Granberg-Michaelson. He acknowledges there was a family dispute in 2006 over who would lead the church when Schuller stepped down.
"I think that Robert A. could have carried that ministry and could have continued it," said Granberg-Michaelson. "I also think that it would have been possible to find a person from the outside that would make that a mission-driven ministry and essentially a ministry that moved beyond the family. But neither one of those things happened."
There are many stories of fathers passing their ministries on to their children: Franklin Graham, Jonathan Falwell, and Joel Osteen all inherited their famous fathers’ pulpits. Last month we even featured an interview with James and Jonathan Merritt, a father and son combo on the pastoral team at Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, Georgia, about the shifting generational values around outreach.
But is mixing family and ministry a good idea? In many non-ministry organizations, this kind of thing is rejected as nepotism. It creates a shadow of doubt around a person’s gifts, abilities, and calling. Are you really qualified for this role, or did you get it because of your name? And, as Granberg-Michaelson points out, is it wise to link the fate of a ministry to the strength of fragile family relationships?
What do you think? Would you want your children on staff with you? Would you want to be part of a church that's essentially a family business? Are there strengths to this model we may not recognize? And what can be done to ensure ministries with leaders from the same family do not suffer the same fate as the Crystal Cathedral?