By Tori Richards
GARDEN GROVE, California (Reuters) - After taking a breakaway congregation out of Crystal Cathedral, a daughter of the retired televangelist who built the faltering California mega-church led services on Sunday at a movie theater and urged followers to drop the mudslinging.
Sheila Schuller Coleman is the daughter of Crystal Cathedral founder Robert Schuller, the retired pastor famous for his "Hour of Power" broadcasts who earlier this month severed ties with the church in a bitter dispute over millions of dollars he and close relatives claim to be owed.
Coleman, who a week ago led worship at the cathedral, led her first Sunday service since starting a new church in recent days, by inviting followers to an Orange County cineplex. About 100 worshippers attended the simple, no-frills service.
"We will refrain from speaking ill of any other church," Coleman said from the front of a movie theater, as she led her congregation called Hope Center of Christ.
"I don't like the mudslinging on my Facebook wall," she added. "We are a church that will proceed no matter what."
The split between the Schuller family and Crystal Cathedral ends a relationship that saw the cathedral, distinguished by its 10,000 panes of glass, become a Protestant icon. Millions of TV viewers over the decades tuned in to see services bathed in a sunlight as Schuller preached the principles of "possibility thinking."
But following Schuller's retirement as senior pastor in 2006, the church suffered declining attendance and donations and filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2010. As a result, the cathedral itself was sold for $57.5 million to a local Roman Catholic diocese.
The sale calls for those worshipers who stayed at the cathedral, rather than follow Coleman to her new church, to find a new place of worship within three years.
On Sunday, about 1,400 worshippers attended English-language morning services at the cathedral, compared to about 600 when Coleman led the services, said Crystal Cathedral Executive Pastor Bill Bennett.
With a guest pastor at the pulpit, services returned to what the church described as more traditional footing than worshippers had been used to with Coleman. A choir in white robes sang hymns, and a soloist performed "Amazing Grace."
There remained elements of Schuller's grand vision for the church, as two giant screens displayed the services, which were taped for a future broadcast of "Hour of Power."
"The congregation really took the church back as opposed to having a family running the church," said Fred Gillette, who was in the pews and also works as a minister.
Crystal Cathedral is located in the suburban community of Garden Grove, about 30 miles southeast of Los Angeles. At its height under Schuller, the church had 10,000 people attend Sunday services, and counted among its visitors everyone from former President Gerald Ford to the late comedian Milton Berle.
Earlier this month, Crystal Cathedral announced that "Hour of Power," which is available to most U.S. cable subscribers and can be seen overseas, was going into reruns amid a management shakeup that included the ouster of Coleman's husband.
BACK TO THE MOVIES
Before Crystal Cathedral opened in 1980, the congregation had more humble beginnings, starting in an Orange County drive-in theater in 1955.
On Sunday, as Coleman stood before her congregation in a movie theater, the comedy "21 Jump Street" played in a next-door theater.
Dressed in casual clothes, the movie-theater congregation sat with neither popcorn nor drinks in their hands as they listened to Coleman, whose Hope Center of Christ is still looking for a permanent home.
"I'm not planning on taking a paycheck anytime in the near future," Coleman told her followers.
The topic of pay for the Schullers has become a contentious one at Crystal Cathedral.
Schuller, 85, and his wife Arvella, who did not attend church at Crystal Cathedral or at their daughter's services on Sunday -- although they say they support her -- announced in March that they had resigned from the board of Crystal Cathedral over a financial dispute.
Robert and Arvella Schuller and their daughter, Carol Schuller Milner, have said in bankruptcy court papers that the church owes them for copyright infringement and other claims.
An intellectual property claim by the Schullers covers such matters as their past appearances in "Hour of Power" and the format that Arvella developed for the broadcasts, said their attorney, Carl Grumer.
Crystal Cathedral chairman of the board John Charles has said in a statement that the Schullers want $3.5 million to settle the dispute and that would leave the church with "virtually no funds to continue its ministries."
When Robert Schuller quit leading services in 2006, he was succeeded by his son Robert A. Schuller, who then left in 2008. The son's separation agreement with the church called for him to receive a Mercedes-Benz and provided that he and his wife would continue to receive their salary for a year, bankruptcy court papers show.
Coleman took over after her brother, but attendance dropped sharply under her, observers said.
Robert Schuller continued to receive compensation from the church after his 2006 retirement, and in 2009 he collected a total of $257,000, court papers indicate.
The Schullers collected "huge salaries" while at the helm of Crystal Cathedral, said Ben Hubbard, a professor emeritus of comparative religion at California State University, Fullerton.
"They had a quite comfortable lifestyle and they just didn't manage the books and use good accounting practices and good budget management, and it just went boom," said Hubbard, who has watched developments at the church.
But Robert Schuller raised tens of millions of dollars for the church after he left as senior pastor, said attorney Carl Grumer, who represents both Robert and Arvella Schuller.
"They regret where things have come to," Grumer said. "They certainly would have liked the ministry to continue as it was, it's unfortunate circumstances required some tough choices."
(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Paul Thomasch)