When Wealth and Debt Destroy a Mega-Church: Robert Schuller, The Crystal Cathedral and the Coming Church Crisis

When the history of the 20th century American church is finally written, one name is likely to stand out as more influential than almost any other name from that era: Robert H. Schuller.  In addition to founding the “Hour of Power,” which is the longest running “evangelistic” television program in the world, he was also the architect of a new style of preaching that de-emphasized teaching on the subject of sin in favor of teaching that “Jesus met needs before touting creeds.”  As the ministry began to experience unprecedented growth, the “Crystal Cathedral” was erected as a new base of operations for the expanding church.  At the time of its completion, Schuller has this to say:

“We are trying to make a big, beautiful impression upon the affluent non-religious American who is riding by on this busy freeway.  It’s obvious that we are not trying to impress the Christians… Nor are we trying to impress the social workers in the County Welfare Department.  They would tell us that we ought to be content to remain in the Orange Drive-In Theater and give the money to feed the poor.  But suppose we had given this money to feed the poor?  What would we have today?  We would still have hungry, poor people and God would not have this tremendous base of operations which He is using to inspire people to become more successful, more affluent, more generous, more genuinely unselfish in their giving of themselves.”[1]

But the recent years have not been so kind to Schuller’s ministry.  In 2006, as he continued to advance in age, Schuller made the decision to hand the ministry over to his oldest son, Robert A. Schuller.  Less than three years later, however, on October 25, 2008, Schuller removed his son from that position citing “a lack of shared vision.”  In a news release made public to the mainstream media, he is quoted as saying:

“Different ideas as to the direction and the vision for this ministry …[have] made it necessary … to part ways in the Hour of Power television ministry”[2]

As the internal tension within the church leadership continued to mount, the congregation was rocked by its second public suicide in just five years.[3]  It appears as if all of this may have been too much for the congregation to bear.  As many within the body began to leave en masse, the annual revenue stream took a serious turn southward .  In an attempt to combat the problems brought on by the dwindling income, Schuller and the leadership team made plans to sell off approximately $65 million in property to pay off mounting debt.  But things were moving too fast and the national economy had entered a nasty downward spiral.

In July of 2010, Robert H. Schuller announced his retirement as the Principal Pastor of the Crystal Cathedral, while maintaining his position on the church’s board of directors.  His daughter, Sheila Schuller Coleman, was

The Cyrstal Cathedral in Grove Garden, California

installed as the new Principal Pastor just three months before the church was forced to publicly announce that it was seeking bankruptcy protection.[4]  Making matters even worse, a lawsuit has been filed by creditors, alleging that the Schuller family has borrowed more than $10 million from the church’s endowment fund for the purpose of funding extravagant salaries and other church-related expenses.[5]  One would think that these sorts of financial straights would serve as a wake-up call to the leadership of the Crystal Cathedral, but in an almost unbelievable turn of events, recent emails suggest that nothing has been learned.

As Robert H. Schuller’s wife, Arvella, struggled with pneumonia in November of 2011, the leadership of the church saw fit to distribute an email asking for the congregants to provide the family with low-sodium “meals for the next three to four weeks.”  The email went to say:

“[The meals] are to be sent to the church in order to be transported to Arvella. The limo drivers could pick up the dinners or meet in the Tower Lobby around 4:30 p.m.”[6]

In the words of Bob Canfield, a church member: “They’ve completely depleted the church’s funds.  But they have shown that they have absolutely no remorse for what they’ve done. They’re still being chauffeured around in limos. We, the congregants, have nothing.”[7]

Last week, almost two years after filing for bankruptcy, the Crystal Cathedral was sold, by court order, for $57.5 million to the Roman Catholic Church.  In a recent episode of “The Hour of Power,” Pastor Sheila Schuller Coleman had this to say to the nearly 20 million viewers:

“Some of you have been asking me ‘Where’s your Dad?’ and I just need to ask you to continue to pray for my Dad … You can understand, it’s just too painful for them to be here right now.”[8]

All of this, of course, is nothing new in the era of the modern, evangelical mega-church.  When Pastor Ted Haggard of New Life Church was caught in a sex-scandal, it was also revealed that his church was $25 million in debt.[9]

So the question is: what are we to make of this?  Is it possible that we are beginning to see the cracks in the mega-church movement?  Is it possible that the non-denominational model is actually setting these men up for failure, by creating environments in which larger than life personalities are provided with minimal accountability?  And if that is true, how can we possibly begin to reverse this trend, even as these churches continue to grow in size and power?

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10 Responses to When Wealth and Debt Destroy a Mega-Church: Robert Schuller, The Crystal Cathedral and the Coming Church Crisis

  1. Ryan M. Mahoney says:

    I wonder how many other large churches are in deep debt and struggling due to the recent economic downturn. You know, they borrow, borrow, borrow to build, build, build, assuming a better tomorrow then BAM the real-estate market crashed. I have to imagine large churches everywhere are stuck like many Americans with debt on property that is no longer worth the mortgage.

  2. clair strohl says:

    I always found it amazing that small churches learn to survive on minimal amounts. They set up funds to keep them afloat during bad times and add to that fund during good times. They trust God to keep them going and doing ministry and His work. But some take the leap and borrow money or work towards something amazing and when it comes through, rather than secure it, they keep taking leaps. Now I am not saying God will or will not be there for every leap they take, but sometimes I think God likes us to help ourselves. Don’t test faith. Don’t do stupid things expecting God to save you. Borrow money, grow the church, and pay it off and save so you can help the community and congregation when needed. It’s what the “Church” should be doing. catholic churches used to be known for feeding the poor, housing them, building homes for those who’s houses were destroyed, etc… When was the change that said bring in the $ and hoard it and spend it on yourself? Did Jesus show us that? Did God command that? A servant of God in HIS house does not need a multimillion dollar salary. Pastors used to live in houses owned by the church and drive cars owned by the church and the money went towards the community. That has changed and the church is getting a bad rap for it. But such are the times needed for Jesus to return like a thief in the night. It will take a world dismissive of God and religion for such an act to occur that does not phase the public at large. The church and religion can only cry, “The end is tomorrow” and have so many horrible scandals for the world to ignore the real signs of the return of Christ.

    • Morning Chip,

      You asked: “When was the change that said bring in the $ and hoard it and spend it on yourself?” If I may be so bold, I’d like to suggest that here in the States, it is a product of Capitalism. We, as a society, have largely decided that unchecked Capitalism is the best means of deciding what is worthy of survival. In a lot ways, we are very Darwinian in our approach to culture. And what’s really interesting is that we will do this even when the evidence is against us. Look back at the whole VHS vs. Beta VCR wars. Beta was clearly the more advanced, sophisticated machine; and yet, VHS won because it sold more. And we as a society accepted an inferior product because of Capitalism.

      I think the same unchecked Capitalism has been imported into the church. And we are accepted the VHS version of the church, even though many of us know that the Beta version is, in fact, superior and more “true” in every way. But the Beta version asks for a costly discipleship that demands a radically different lifestyle, and for many of us, we’d rather go with the cheaper, flashier, easier version of the faith.

  3. Not that I am Christian at all, but Scott, THIS is what screams Hypocrisy. Jesus didn’t say build him a multimillion dollar church. Or to only go after the affluent.

    I think Matthew Chapter 6 sums it up pretty well.

    to quote a few lines:

    1 ‘Be careful not to parade your uprightness in public to attract attention; otherwise you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven.

    5 ‘And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward.

    19 ‘Do not store up treasures for yourselves on earth, where moth and woodworm destroy them and thieves can break in and steal.

    24 ‘No one can be the slave of two masters: he will either hate the first and love the second, or be attached to the first and despise the second. You cannot be the slave both of God and of money

    (Yeah, I think that this one gets LARGELY Ignored by the Megachurches)

    • Morning Kendra,

      First things first. I really appreciate you chiming in on an article outside of our “Voices in the Static”conversation. Quite honestly, one of my real hopes for this site is for it to become a place where Christians can engage in meaningful discussions with those that do not worship Jesus the Christ. So thanks for stepping in.

      In terms of hypocrisy, I am right there with you. There was a reason that I chose the quote that I did. Everything about that quote is wrong, and it makes me angry, sad and hopeful at the same time. Angry because it’s so off in its focus on wealth and its willingness to ignore the 2000+ passages that speak to caring alongside the poor. Sad because I don’t want people to think that this kind of thinking in any way represents the voice of Christ in our culture. And hopeful because I think that wildly inappropriate statements such as this can actually stir up real conversation and debate, pushing all of us to consider our core convictions and how we live them out. As you and I have both said, there’s a little hypocrisy in all of us. And when we see it so clearly in someone else, it forces us to pick up the mirror.

      As for you citation of Matthew 6, I’m not sure I can track with you on that point. Yes, it is a valid Scripture, and it does apply to the public practice of faith. But the context of the passage seems to suggest that this is a public practice of faith outside the collective body. Moreover, the warning seems to be against practicing the faith for the purpose of drawing attention to oneself. So for instance, I cited this passage in an article I wrote on the NFL quarterback, Tim Tebow. But we, as Christians, are called to build the church, and no matter how large or small, a church is a public venue that speaks into culture.

      I’m not saying this well. In a nutshell, there is a dual call that simultaneously asks us to avoid acts of piety that draw attention to ourselves while at the same time engaging in a public witness that calls attention to the Trinitarian God. And that can be a knife’s edge that we walk upon. Does that make sense?

      Again, thanks for chiming in. Anyone who is paying attention to this site should be really excited that a self-described pagan wiccan is talking about the relevance of the church in a broader culture.

      • Scott,

        I’m on this site because I’m your friend, and you engaged me in conversation. :)

        Of course the church is relevant, Christianity has dominated Western Civilization for a few hundred years, ya know.

        It can’t NOT Be relevant. (I just don’t think it’s the only path to the PtB, but that’s another conversation)

        Anyway, I guess what i’m saying is if someone is up there on their marble “stage” so to speak, and has to have a building that is several million dollars to build…what is the purpose? You talked about TeBow, but I will bring up another post you had written, about the GCB, and those are the kind of personalities that are seen in these Megachurches. It does not, appear from the outside, to REALLY be about expressing one’s faith as much as looking and being SEEN as being Pious.

        There’s a difference between a public venue and one that is the equivalent of a 60″ HD TV, top of the line.

        And are those “followers” really worshipping God, or are they idolizing their leader?

        I don’t know, it seems that there are a lot of those Pharisees in the mega church loudly praying and preening while they are in church, that go home and don’t live Jesus teachings.

        • While I am not willing to throw everyone who either attends or leads a mega-church under the bus, I do believe that EVERY SINGLE QUESTION you just raised is worthy of discussion. And at a BARE MINIMUM, it’s worthy of discussion because that is how some people, such as yourself, perceive the large churches.

  4. doneinlove says:

    Unfortunately, this is the reason that when I think “mega-church” I think “debt” and “scandal”. As more and more comes to light with these establishments, we realize how much influence these mega-church pastors have. If these places go under, or dissolve due to lack of finance, imagine how many new believers will stray from the faith.

    I remember actually reading about this in WORLD Magazine and I thought that the church was seriously doomed. The last thing we need is believers taking advantage of God’s blessings and being called out by non-believers as hypocrites.

    • So two quick thoughts. One, the church has thrived for 2,000 years. Some seasons are lean, while others are healthy and robust. But Scripture tells us that there will always be a “faithful” remnant; and I take it as a matter of faith that God will protect those whom He has called.

      Secondly, what might happen if we decided not to run from meltdowns like this, but instead, we ran towards them? What might it look like if the church wasn’t afraid of our hypocritical failures, but instead opted to shine a light on them? Could it be that a reinvigorated commitment to transparency and authenticity might lead to real conversations that actually matter?

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