GARDEN GROVE – Robert Harold Schuller’s ministry began on the sticky tar paper roof of a snack bar in the Orange drive-in theater on Sunday, March 27, 1955.
The glass panes of the landmark Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif. reflect the rain clouds of a storm that hit Orange County. Crystal Catherdral Crystal Cathedral Ministries, the megachurch founded by television evangelist Robert H. Schuller, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Monday.The cathedral owes about about $7.5 million to unsecured creditors. The bankruptcy filing seeks court protection from its creditors. Pictured, from left, The Tower Chapel, the Crystal Catherdral, and back right, the 236-foot bell tower and spire named the Crean Tower honoring John and Donna Crean who’s contributions helped to begin construction in 1988.
LEONARD ORTIZ, THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Choir member Anne Waltz, 25 years old at the time, remembers getting on the roof with Schuller and his wife, Arvella, who played the organ, which was also hoisted up there. The members of this first-ever drive-in church listened to the bellowing voice of their pastor through movie loudspeakers hooked on to their car windows.
"I knew then that I was in the midst of something very special," Waltz says. "It was an exciting and inspiring time."
The owner of the drive-in let the 28-year-old pastor rent the snack shack on Sundays for $10.
Less than 25 years after his first sermon at the drive-in, Schuller built a $16 million glass and steel architectural masterpiece – the Crystal Cathedral – that soon became one of Orange County’s top tourist attractions. By 2005, he was the head of a large congregation with an $80 million budget. By comparison, the city of Garden Grove, where the church stands, currently has an annual operating budget of about $90 million.
The church’s "Hour of Power" television show attracted 1 million viewers nationwide and millions more around the world. The "Glory of Christmas" and "Glory of Easter" pageants, featuring elaborate sets, live animals and flying angels, drew thousands each year to the cathedral. At its peak, the church had 10,000 congregants in Orange County and millions nationwide and around the world. It was sought after by such celebrities as John Wayne, Andy Griffith, pianist Roger Williams, and Evel Knievel.
But on Monday, the Cathedral filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In addition to its financial travails, the church is faced with a crisis spurred by a rift between its founder and his son, who was meant to succeed his illustrious father. Robert A. Schuller’s departure prompted some in the congregation to leave, causing a further drop in donations and revenue. The Cathedral is also struggling to find an inspirational leader to replace its aging leader in the pulpit and make itself attractive to younger church-goers.
However, the church will first have to dig itself out of a considerable financial mess. The Cathedral has a $36 million mortgage to pay off and a total debt of $48 million. About $7.5 million of that debt is to unsecured creditors – a majority of them vendors and laborers whose bills have gone unpaid.
The church has sold several assets, cut about 150 of its staff members and slashed air time by 50 percent. Its congregation has shrunk to about 5,000. According to bankruptcy filings, donations fell by 24 percent in 2009. The church, at this point, owes money to about 550 creditors. The Cathedral lost $16.8 million over three years on total revenues of $70.8 million.
The mortgage includes the cost of two more buildings on campus – the Family Life Center and Welcoming Center – which were added in 1990 and 2003 respectively. The mortgage also covers the cost of other refurbishments on campus and parking lot expansion as well as funds to acquire neighboring properties, said Jim Penner, teaching pastor and Robert H. Schuller’s son-in-law.
For the last two years, the church has tried to refinance its mortgage to a manageable level, but has not been successful. Penner said the 10-acre property in Garden Grove is valued between $55 million and $60 million.
The bankruptcy was the direct result of the Cathedral not having sufficient liquid cash flow to pay off the vendors, Penner said. Most of the church’s money is tied up in assets, he said.
Church administrators, predominantly the daughters and sons-in-law of the founding pastor, who is now 84, have said the bankruptcy is a direct result of the tough economic conditions.
But documents obtained by the Register, an interview with Schuller’s only son, Robert A. Schuller, and long-time vendors for the "Glories," reveal that the church’s financial troubles were not unpredictable. The gap between the Cathedral’s revenues and expenditures consistently shrunk between 2005 and 2008.
A major financial debacle, according to the younger Schuller and many congregants who were interviewed, came in 2005 when the Cathedral spent between $13 million and $15 million on a lavish production called "Creation." The show not only lost about $5 million, but was never staged again.
According to Waltz and other church elders, Schuller’s empire began and flourished because he preached a positive message of a loving God – a message of hope for the hopeless. He prided himself on being a "possibility thinker," a man of faith who dwelt on the unlimited possibilities before him. He did not believe that Jesus Christ viewed all of mankind as "sinners." This new, uplifting message inspired hundreds of young people.
But a church that had its humble beginnings in the dreams of one inspired man soon became a symbol of wealth and power — lacking an equally charismatic successor to take over leadership of what it is now — a megachurch.
Rift between father and son
The Crystal Cathedral is in turmoil today, not because it lacked a "succession plan," says Robert Anthony Schuller, the founder’s son. The younger Schuller, 56, says it was always a given that he was going to succeed his father
His first memories of his father’s ministry go back to the drive-in where he remembers sitting at a picnic bench drawing pictures in his Sunday school book and listening to the pastor preach to families in rows and rows of cars.
In 2006, Schuller senior symbolically handed over his gold medallion and his senior pastor title to his son. But, in 2008, Robert Anthony Schuller abruptly stepped down from his senior pastor position and quit the "Hour of Power" program.
Speaking for the first time to the Register about the reasons for his departure from the Cathedral, Robert A. Schuller gets to the crux of the issue. His father simply could not let go, he says. The same personality, strength and conviction that helped the idealistic pastor raise a glass tower from the ground also made him reluctant to hand over "his baby" to a successor – although that successor was his own flesh and blood – a Schuller.
"Energetic, successful, bright individuals have a hard time relinquishing power," the younger Schuller says with a laugh. "Such individuals did not succeed in life by letting go."
Robert H. Schuller did not respond to requests for comment.
The son’s ideas for the future direction of the Cathedral were drastically different from the father’s. Robert A. Schuller wanted the Cathedral to reach out to communities. He wanted to expand missions. But, most importantly, Robert Anthony Schuller says, he was for better governance, more accountability and better financial control.
Schuller says he wanted a completely autonomous board without family members and individuals who had contracts with the church. He believed board members should have "no conflict of interest."
He was against spending money on the "Glory of Creation" in 2005. Church administrators say the extravagant show with giant digital screens and elaborate sets, a red carpet premiere, envisioned by the reverend’s daughter Carol Schuller Milner, was entirely funded by the sale of a warehouse building in Anaheim.
Robert A. Schuller said the church still lost about $5 million and that the money from the sale of the building could have been put to better use — to clear at least a part of the church’s mounting debt. "Creation" turned out to be a one-time affair although it had been expected to join the "Glories" as an annual show.
In the end, the family was torn between a revered father, who built the family business and ministry from the ground up and ensured their financial security, and a son, who was eager to change the face of the ministry and see it take a new direction. At a meeting of church elders in January 2009, Sheila Schuller Coleman, who now heads the ministry, explained her family’s predicament thus: "We had two pastors in the family who couldn’t even talk to each other."
Eventually, the Schuller daughters took their father’s side.
"They had to pick someone and I don’t blame them," Robert A. Schuller said.
After leaving the Cathedral, Schuller joined his son-in-law, Chris Wyatt, as chairman of ComStar Media, a Dallas-based holding company that owns two television channels including American Life Network.
Schuller says he believes the future of television is not with shows such as the "Hour of Power" that ask viewers to give money, but with those shows that present a positive message tailored to a modern audience.
"This was the direction I wanted to take the Crystal Cathedral in," he said. "But it was not meant to happen that way."
Robert A. Schuller says he is saddened by the Cathedral’s current situation and that he sympathizes with creditors who are owed money by the church.
"I hope and pray this will turn around and that they will all get their money back," he said. "I pray that there will be a new dawn for that church."
Schuller is still on the church’s payroll. His wife, Donna, explained that both she and her husband are still paid by the church as part of a severance arrangement, which is for a "fixed number of years."
"It is not a permanent arrangement," she said.
All in the family
Ever since the Crystal Cathedral started – even when it was a drive-in ministry and when it was the small Garden Grove Community Church – there was never any doubt in anyone’s mind about the Schuller family’s involvement.
Coleman said during an elders meeting in February 2009 that she was her dad’s first secretary.
Arvella Schuller, at another elders meeting earlier this year, defended her and her husband’s decision to get the children involved in their ministry.
"Our children, since they were little, have been involved," she said. "There is no job on this campus that they have not done. They’ve cleaned the toilets, they’ve sorted the mail and they’ve answered the phones."
According to bankruptcy filings, all of the Schuller children are on the payroll and draw salaries totaling up to nearly $1 million. That does not include housing, car or other discretionary spending allowances.
In January 2009, after Robert A. Schuller’s departure, an announcement was made by family at an elders meeting that the next senior pastor would not have the last name of Schuller.
A few months later, Robert H. Schuller announced that his eldest daughter, Sheila Schuller Coleman, would join him as head of the ministry. Many congregants wondered how Coleman, who was a respected educator but an inexperienced minister, would lead or inspire the flock.
Penner defends Coleman, saying that her administrative skills, much needed for a senior pastor, are unmatched.
"From a spiritual point of view, there are any number of successful pastors out there who have never seen the inside of the seminary," he said. "What it takes to be a great pastor is not a piece of paper but whether you are called by God to do it."
The changes in leadership and ministry style were not acceptable to certain long-timers such as pianist Roger Williams, who played at the Cathedral for 35 years, and 10-year choir director, Don Neuen.
Neuen said he left because of the dwindling choir, heavy-handed administration by Coleman and Gretchen Schuller Penner and the introduction of loud rock-and-roll drums and "praise" music.”
"I’m not angry at them,” Neuen said. "I really did enjoy my 10 years there and am heartbroken.”
The Crystal Cathedral shows signs of a family enterprise that may have gone awry, says Kent Rhodes, a consultant with Family Business Consulting and professor in Pepperdine University’s School of Business.
In family businesses, the founders usually want everything to be fair to all the children, Rhodes says.
"Regardless of each child’s contributions to the business, the parents want everything to be equal between the kids," he says. "It’s not wrong. It’s just parents being parents. But it could seriously affect the profitability of the business."
A number of family businesses also suffer because the children or family members in charge may not have sufficient training to do the job, Rhodes says.
"In such cases, it would be a good idea to send the family member to get the necessary training and then come back to the business," he says.
The Crystal Cathedral might want to look for strong leadership to take them out of this crisis, Rhodes advises.
"There is no need to exclude family members in their quest for a leader," he says. "But it would be in their best interest to open it up to everyone. The last name shouldn’t matter."
Meeting the financial challenge
"If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you can to your mountain: ‘Move!’ And nothing will be impossible to you."
That was Robert H. Schuller’s first message to his listeners at the drive-in theater.
Schuller faced obstacles every step of the way. His biography, "Goliath," written by Penner, paints the picture of Schuller as a David who overcame Goliath – the fear of failure.
Ironically, the reverend, who seemed incapable of negative thoughts, did doubt himself at key moments, Penner writes.
What if he couldn’t raise the money to build that first church? How could he ever raise $7 million for a glass tower? What if he couldn’t become a powerful presence on television? What if he had to announce to his entire congregation that the glass tower could not be completed because they ran out of money?
The book also details the enormous personal challenges and limitations Schuller overcame. It talks about a life of poverty during the Great Depression, shucking corn in the fields of Iowa. At one time, Schuller sold postage stamps to the post office to buy milk for his children, Sheila and Robert. It talks about that phone call Schuller and his wife got when they were in Korea that their 13-year-old daughter, Carol, lost her leg in a motorcycle accident. It details Arvella Schuller’s battle against breast cancer and Robert Schuller’s own brain surgery after a car accident where he hit his head against the door and almost died.
That ministry with its humble beginnings, which faced a myriad of challenges while doling out hope to its congregants, is now causing much anger and disappointment among its vendors. They say the Schullers should pay them first before they take a salary from the church.
Waltz, one of the first to join the ministry, says she is disappointed that the cathedral would not pay its vendors.
"It makes me very sad," she said. "I think those people must be paid back."
Kristina Oliver, who supplied livestock for the Cathedral’s "Glory of Christmas" last year, has lost her house in Hemet after the church failed to pay her about $56,000 for her services. The Crystal Cathedral was her biggest client. Her family has supplied livestock for the "Glories" for nearly three decades.
On Wednesday, Oliver said she and her family were locked out of their house in the rain by the bank that acquired the property after foreclosure. Oliver has two young children and a husband who is recovering from cancer.
"We had no jackets, no medication…it was awful,” she said.
The Oliver family will get one last opportunity to pack up their things and move to a trailer, she said.
Penner and Coleman have promised that they will pay vendors 100 percent even after seeking bankruptcy protection – even if it takes several years.
"We have always been this wealthy church that pays its bills on time," he said. "So, we have built up this expectation. But we are not that rich church any more. We don’t have $7 million in the bank to pay everyone today."
There is no question that the bankruptcy is yet another major challenge for the Cathedral, Penner said. It’s a challenge, he says, but no one should be in a hurry to write a eulogy for the Cathedral.
"We are going to come out of this," he said. "When all this is done, the story that will be written is how the Crystal Cathedral walked the path of faith and serves as a shining example. Our doors are still open and it’s business as usual."
Staff writer Ronald Campbell contributed to this report.
Contact the writer: 714-796-7909 or firstname.lastname@example.org