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Robert Schuller is stepping down after 55 years in the pulpit

Robert Schuller, who was senior pastor of the Crystal Cathedral for 55 years, and his daughter, Sheila Schuller Coleman, who was named senior pastor today, share a laugh during services at the church (Photo: Joshua Sudock, The Orange County Register

The Rev. Robert H. Schuller, founding pastor of the Crystal Cathedral megachurch in Garden Grove, California, and host of the internationally televised “Hour of Power” broadcast, announced on Sunday (July 11, 2010) that he is retiring from his lead pastor duties after 55 years and passing the reins to his firstborn daughter.

In a story, written for the Orange County Register (www.ocregister.com), Scott Martindale wrote that Sheila Schuller Coleman, 59, director of ministry and mission at the Garden Grove church, has essentially headed up the all-glass house of worship since June 2009.

“She will now become the sole leading pastor, after sharing that role with her father for the past year,” said Martindale. “The elder Schuller, 83, will assume the newly created position of chairman of Crystal Cathedral’s consistory, which is the church’s board of directors.”

The elder Schuller told his congregation during the 9:30 a.m. service on Sunday, July 11, 2010, “I’m very proud that Sheila has earned her doctorate at the University of California, Irvine, and that this university has declared her to (have earned) a distinguished alumnus award. Congratulations, I’m very proud of her.”

Martindale went on to report, “Coleman’s appointment comes in the wake of a highly-publicized family rift two years ago that led to the departure of Schuller’s son, the Rev. Robert A. Schuller, from the church. At the time, it appeared the younger Schuller was being groomed to succeed his father.

“Robert A. Schuller is now part of Dallas-based American Life Network, a cable channel aiming to produce family-oriented programming.”

Martindale stated that Coleman previously served as principal of a private Christian school on the Crystal Cathedral campus and head of the church’s family ministries division. She was ordained just a month before she was appointed to head up Crystal Cathedral Ministries.

“That was emotional for me, and I’m humbled and honored to be asked to take this responsibility,” Coleman said Sunday just after being commissioned, wiping away tears as she addressed her congregation. “I truly know that God is here, He loves this ministry and my call is to help take the ministry into the future and to continue dad’s ministry.”

Coleman, 59, is the author of “Mommy Grace: Erasing Your Mommy Guilt,” about the guilt that mothers feel that can take the joy out of parenting. She lives in nearby Orange, California, with her husband, Jim, and has four grown children.

Martindale went on to say that the 10,000-member church has seen some of its biggest challenges under Coleman’s leadership.

Dan Wooding interviews Dr. Schuller some years back

“Crystal Cathedral faces about $55 million in debt because of the economic downturn and dwindling donations, church officials have said. Two months ago, Crystal Cathedral sold its sprawling retreat property in San Juan Capistrano, a move that was expected to clear about a quarter of its debt,” he wrote.

“Meanwhile, the church also has laid off dozens of employees, suspended its ‘Glory of Easter’ theatrical pageant this year and allowed its ‘Hour of Power’ broadcast to go dark in some parts of the country.

“Crystal Cathedral also faces legal action from more than 100 vendors who are owed millions of dollars for their work on the church’s “Glory of Christmas” pageant and other projects.

“At least three businesses and two television stations have filed lawsuits alleging the church never paid them, and a handful of musicians have already won their cases in small-claims court. Some put the blame on the elder Schuller for appointing his children to lead the church.”

Roger Williams, the church’s longtime pianist, told the Register last month, “His children had no history of success making it on their own. Bob and Arvella (Schuller) went through tough times and built this church one brick at a time. To me, it’s those tough times you had to endure by yourself that make you great. Bob did not give that privilege to his children.”

Williams, who has recorded 21 gold and platinum albums, quit his pianist post last fall after 35 years, saying he had grown weary of “church confrontations” and “bitter family fights.”

“I had a hard time dealing with the (Schuller) kids,” Williams said in June. “All I wanted to do was play the piano. When people with no experience tell me how to play the piano – I just couldn’t deal with it.”

Also, several church members have criticized Crystal Cathedral’s decision not to pay its musicians, technicians and other vendors, said Martindale.

“The church has insisted the economic downturn is to blame and that it simply doesn’t have the money,” he stated.

The reporter said that the elder Schuller spoke positively about his daughter when she was appointed to head Crystal Cathedral last year.

“(Coleman) has earned a doctorate degree in administration and leadership, and that’s the kind of power leadership this church is going to need today and tomorrow,” he told his congregation in June 2009.

On Sunday, the elder Schuller said a prayer for his daughter.

“You have kissed her soul,” Schuller said, thanking God. “Hallelujah, hallelujah.”

It all begin in a drive-in theatre

According to the church’s website (www.crystalcathedral.org/about/history.php), the Rev. Robert H. Schuller and his wife Arvella founded the Garden Grove Community Church – today’s Crystal Cathedral congregation – in 1955 under the auspices of Schuller’s denomination, the Reformed Church in America, which provided the young couple with $500 to start the ministry.

While en-route to California on historic Route 66, Schuller listed on a napkin 10 possible venues in which to hold services. Upon learning that the first nine locations were already in use, he embraced the tenth possibility – the Orange Drive-in Theatre. From atop the snack bar’s tar-papered roof he would lead weekly services, with Arvella providing music from a trailer-mounted electronic organ. He encouraged all to “come as you are in the family car.”

Preaching from this unusual pulpit, Schuller faced ridicule – accused by many of conducting services in a “passion pit.” But his services gained in popularity, and in 1957, when Dr. Norman Vincent Peale visited to deliver the morning message, the drive-in theater was filled to capacity. Schuller noted that morning that every word Peale spoke was one of encouragement and hope, just as Jesus Christ had spoken. It was a defining moment for Schuller; from then onward he would frame his messages positively to instill Christ-centered hope in the hearts of hurting persons, encouraging and equipping them to live at their God-given potential.

A chapel was soon built three miles from the drive-in, with the intention that the drive-in services would cease. But the husband of one woman in rapidly declining health – Rosie Gray – told Schuller that the drive-in services were the only that Gray could attend. Schuller promised to continue the drive-in services – rushing there after chapel services – until Gray passed away; astoundingly, Gray’s health would improve in the next few years.

Recognizing the need for drive-in services to continue, Schuller enlisted the services of renowned mid-century modern architect Richard Neutra to design a structure in which Schuller could preach simultaneously to an in-church congregation and a drive-in congregation – a walk-in/drive-in church. Schuller envisioned a glass wall that would open to the outdoors, allowing him to be seen in an elevated pulpit by persons in parked cars. Neutra’s resulting design would shatter ecclesiastical architecture norms, to much acclaim.

From this sanctuary (now the church’s Arboretum), the church grew to a congregation of thousands, as Schuller’s emphasis on “possibility thinking” resonated within the community. In 1968, the 13-story Richard Neutra-designed Tower of Hope opened, housing to this day the world’s first church-sponsored, 24-hour suicide and crisis prevention hotline (714-NEW-HOPE). With a 90-foot-tall neon-lit cross as its crown, the Tower of Hope would be Orange County’s tallest building for more than a decade.

Dan Wooding, Assist News Service

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