An era closes for Schullers and their congregants

Posted March 15, 2012, at 8:16 p.m.

LOS ANGELES — Every Sunday morning, Jillian Carter climbed into her car for the 45-minute drive from Torrance, Calif., to the grandiose, glass-paneled church in Garden Grove.

The Crystal Cathedral featured stirring organ music, pageantry and the sermons of founder Robert H. Schuller, whose sunny Christianity and motivation-seminar zeal combined to make him a 20th-century colossus of American televangelism.

To Carter, the 3,000-seat sanctuary felt like home. Even as pews emptied, donations nose-dived and the aging founder passed the reins to his children in recent years, the church’s first family remained an abiding presence.

But for the first time this Sunday, the services will have no Schuller presence or influence, leaving some to wonder whether the church’s place in American Christianity will survive its tumultuous divorce from the family name.

“It’s the fall of the house of Schuller,” said Ben Hubbard, a longtime observer and professor emeritus of comparative religion at Cal State Fullerton.

It also underscores a shift away from a brand of televised ministry characterized by theatrics and variety-show flair.

The elder Schuller and his wife have quit the international board overseeing the ministry, now bankrupt, that he started more than half a century ago. The Schuller children and in-laws have been sacked as producers of the church’s “Hour of Power” program, long a pillar of American televangelism.

And the founder’s oldest daughter, Sheila Schuller Coleman, who had inherited his famous pulpit, will be preaching at her own church elsewhere — with an open invitation to follow her out the door.

Congregants like Carter, 55, now face a painful choice. Do they stay in the glass-paned church filled with memories, or remain loyal to the family that drew them there in the first place?

Carter said that she first came to the Crystal Cathedral on Easter Sunday five years ago, and that she stayed as leadership passed from the elder Schuller to his son, and then his daughter. The Schullers “knew how to do church with style and class,” she said. “And they would top it all off with a great message.”

Carter loves the glittering cathedral. It was where Carter, a single parent and an only child, found what she called her “church family.” She looks forward to socializing with friends there and taking her usual seat at the campus’s Welcome Center for coffee.

And yet she sympathizes with Schuller Coleman, who announced last Sunday that she was leaving because of the board’s “adversarial” relationship with her family. “I heard her, but I refused to believe what she was saying,” Carter said.

Carter can’t decide whether to go or stay. For now, she will attend the services of both ministries. “These kind of things hurt,” she said. She blames the church’s board of directors for the recent troubles. “It’s almost as if there is no regard for the congregation,” she said.

John Quagliani, 65, said he is torn. “It’s like having your family being broken up,” he said.

Beaten and abandoned as a child, he grew into a drug-addicted, suicidal adult who tuned in to the “Hour of Power” in the mid-1980s and heard Robert H. Schuller’s words: “God loves you, and so do I.”

For the first time, he said, he felt that someone cared about him. He started coming to the Garden Grove cathedral and never quit. “If I didn’t find Robert Schuller, I’d probably be dead or in prison,” Quagliani said. When he got married, Schuller officiated.

Quagliani said he will check out Schuller Coleman’s church out of curiosity, but as long as the Crystal Cathedral is holding services, he will attend. “Everything I know, all of my memories” are there, he said.

Earlier this year, bankruptcy led to a sale of the cathedral to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, leaving the ministry three years to find a new home. The founder; his wife, Arvella; daughter Carol Schuller Milner and son-in-law Timothy Milner have been battling the board and the church’s creditors committee over what the Schullers claim is unpaid money for contracts, intellectual property and copyright infringement.

Hubbard, the Cal State Fullerton professor, said the Schuller family’s exit signifies the end of an era. Newly minted Californians found the Crystal Cathedral an attractive destination at a time before competing megachurches like Saddleback and Mariners took flower.

Now, Hubbard said, “there are so many possibilities for evangelical-style worship.” The Crystal Cathedral “fit a certain time and place, and I think that time and place is gone, gone for good.”

The downward spiral of the Schuller empire, which involved lavish homes, limos and the founder’s worldwide fame, has the makings of a Greek tragedy, he said. “It’s true that no empire remains on top forever,” he said. “I think this ministry is going to need a miracle in order to be anything more than a shadow of its former self.”

Richard Flory, the director of research at the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture, said church splits are always messy. “I don’t see positive signs on the horizon for either entity,” he said. “If I had to go to Vegas and I had to bet on the future of these places, I would bet against them.”

The Schuller Coleman church has no home yet, and the Crystal Cathedral will need one soon. “You have to find space and you have to find a way to pay for it,” Flory said. “And Orange County is expensive.”

He said the church is suffering from an identity crisis. “What actually is the Crystal Cathedral? Is it the name or is it the people?” Flory said. “I think it should be the people, but I think it became the name.”

Will the Crystal Cathedral survive such a public split? “They need to find someone who can give them the vision that they need to pick up the pieces,” Flory said.

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