Worship goes on amid dispute at Crystal Cathedral

AP News
Posted: Mar 13, 2012 7:27 PM
Worship goes on amid dispute at Crystal Cathedral

The soaring, glass-paned megachurch built decades ago by the Rev. Robert H. Schuller will keep airing its weekly "Hour of Power" television broadcast and hold services, despite a dispute between its board and its 85-year-old founder that has torn apart the storied congregation.

In a statement released Tuesday, Crystal Cathedral Ministries said it will hold regular worship services on Sunday and continue to air the television program both domestically and internationally, although Schuller and his family members have been fired or have cut ties with the church.

Crystal Cathedral Ministries also said it objected to attempts by Schuller and some of his family members to collect more than $5.5 million in breach-of-contract claims and to file intellectual property claims against the church. Crystal Cathedral Ministries is in bankruptcy and sold its landmark cathedral and 31-acre campus last month to help pay off more than $40 million in debt.

The claims would leave the church with no money for operations or to pay its unsecured creditors, even with a $3.5 million settlement proposed by the Schullers, the statement said.

Schuller and his wife Arvella, 81, resigned abruptly from the ministry's board last weekend because of the dispute. On Sunday, the last family member at the Crystal Cathedral _ daughter Sheila Schuller Coleman _ announced she was leaving to start a church with her parents' blessing.

Another daughter and two sons-in-law were ousted this month as producers of the "Hour of Power" and director of creative services. Schuller's son, Robert A. Schuller, left in 2008, less than three years after a disastrous leadership transition.

The public fallout between Schuller and the church he founded has tarnished Schuller's legacy at the twilight of an otherwise important and influential career, said Scott Thumma, a professor of sociology of religion at the Hartford Institute for Religious Research.

Schuller has been considered an innovator since he got his start preaching the "power of possibility thinking" from the roof of a Southern California drive-in movie theater concession stand in the post-World War II era. He went on to help shape the megachurch movement from his Southern California cathedral.

"There comes a point where you just say, `How much more dirt can we smear on our Crystal Cathedral before we leave it?' It's really sad," Thumma said.

"I didn't expect that Schuller would hold ransom his old church and the board for $3.5 million. We know from the last year or so worth of reports that the church was in a bad way financially ... and the church is in this position because of the Schullers' leadership. Why pay them a bonus to leave? It's almost as bad as Wall Street."

The blame for the current impasse lies with the church board and not with Schuller or his family, said Carol Schuller Milner, a Schuller daughter who has filed a claim as part of the bankruptcy proceedings.

The Schullers allege a 2005 contract with the ministry guarantees the elder couple compensation and health insurance for life, totaling more than $300,000 a year. The family also filed a claim for copyright infringement stemming from the use of Schuller's materials for an "unknown" amount, according to papers filed in bankruptcy court.

Schuller Milner said her father's books have been reprinted and sold online without consulting with him and that since seeking bankruptcy protection, the church has claimed ownership of her parents' intellectual property.

"They have, in the last year or two, suddenly claimed they own everything the Schullers have always owned," she said. "They're just saying, `We own it all.'"

Her parents remained on the ministry's board in the hopes that their claims could be negotiated in good faith. Last week, church officials said the talks were over, she said.

"They basically slammed the iron door and said, `We are your adversaries,'" she said.

Carl Grumer, the Schullers' attorney, said he believes the church should have the money to honor the family's claims.

In its statement, however, the Crystal Cathedral Ministries said its unsecured creditors _ many of them small businesses and vendors that provided services for the church's elaborate holiday pageants _ cannot be paid by the bankruptcy court until the dispute with the Schullers is resolved.

The church "will be praying as the legal system continues to a resolution," the statement read.

John Charles, chairman of the ministry board, has not returned phone messages and emails left by The Associated Press since Saturday.

The charismatic Schuller used his success preaching at the drive-through movie theater in the 1950s to found a church and then build a religious empire. By 1970, Schuller was beamed from his pulpit into 1 million homes each Sunday as he stood before the cameras in flowing purple robes and aviator glasses.

A decade later, he opened the Crystal Cathedral, a 2,900-seat see-through church made of 10,664 panes of glass. The $20 million architectural marvel designed by the acclaimed Philip Johnson became a major Southern California landmark that drew visitors from around the world.

After a botched leadership transition to his son, donations began to plummet and in 2010, the Crystal Cathedral sought bankruptcy protection.

Bob Canfield, a 73-year-old congregant, said he blames the Schullers' children for bringing the church to ruin.

"For us that love the church and have given a lot of money and have been there for years and years and years, we are just absolutely elated that they're gone," he said of the younger Schullers. "They were spending money absolutely like there was no tomorrow."