GARDEN GROVE, Calif.
Since age 4, Sheila Schuller Coleman has held just about every job at her father’s Crystal Cathedral, from copying Sunday programs at the kitchen table to launching a private high school on the church grounds.
Now, five decades after the Rev. Robert H. Schuller Sr. established the church, his daughter is facing her most challenging job yet: Taking over her father’s megachurch and its famous “Hour of Power” television ministry at a time of both financial and family crisis.
The church and its internationally known telecast have been bleeding dollars and members for years - a trend that accelerated last fall when the cathedral’s heir apparent, the Rev. Robert A. Schuller Jr., suddenly left in a bitter family feud.
Mrs. Coleman, 58, hopes to rescue her father’s legacy as the founder of one of the nation’s largest megachurches by being upfront about the family’s recent mistakes and refocusing on the original mission of outreach to the unchurched.
“I feel like I’ve been a part of this ministry my whole life, and it’s almost like another child to me. I feel like I helped raise it,” said Mrs. Coleman, a former public-school teacher who holds a doctoral degree in education and administrative leadership.
“I’ve been here doing the work; I’ve been here caring for the people. They know me and they trust me.”
In the evangelical world, sons often are tapped to succeed their fathers as leaders of the ministries their dads built. The Rev. Franklin Graham succeeded his father at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Texas preacher Joel Osteen took the helm of his father’s church.
But “it’s very rare” for a woman to take leadership of a megachurch, said Scott Thumma, a sociologist at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research.
Mrs. Coleman will not be the senior pastor at Crystal Cathedral; instead she will act as a top administrator. Still, Mr. Thumma said, “It’s quite an interesting and probably even a pretty bold move on the part of the Schuller family and the church as a whole.”
One of the biggest changes Mrs. Coleman will make is in the ministry’s leadership style and the structure of the “Hour of Power” broadcasts. She plans to move the church and its telecast away from the kind of ministry that puts all the attention - and all the pressure - on one superstar pastor like her father.
She thinks that the church’s biggest mistake in recent years was asking her 54-year-old brother to step into his father’s role without enough support or preparation.
The much-heralded change over ended disastrously, with the younger Mr. Schuller disappearing from the “Hour of Power” broadcasts and abruptly leaving the church altogether last year, fewer than three years after he took on his father’s mantle. He recently announced his own weekly show on AmericanLife TV Network.
From now on, Mrs. Coleman said, the “Hour of Power” will feature a stable of up to six preachers, including herself and her father, and all decisions will be made by ministry teams whose members bear equal responsibility for results.
“I do believe the biggest mistake we made is we put Robert in a no-win situation by putting him in a solo leadership position following a solo leader,” she said of the father-son transition.
Mr. Thumma said team ministry is an increasingly popular strategy among megachurches that are preparing for a leadership change.
“A lot of congregations have gone to that proactively in order to avoid the situation that’s happened at the Crystal Cathedral, where all the identity rests on the shoulders of one person,” he said.
Mrs. Coleman declined to discuss the details of what triggered her brother’s departure. But she said the yearlong leadership vacuum that followed was disastrous - with viewership, church attendance and donations all dropping. Her father, 82, also was devastated.
In her first sermon earlier this month, Mrs. Coleman apologized to worshippers for the family rift. She lugged a bucket of corn seed to the pulpit and urged followers to help the church return to its original mission by sowing the seeds of faith among family and friends.
“It caused a lot of pain, and a lot of people were hurt because our family was not the ideal ‘Brady Bunch’ family that they thought we should have been,” she said in a later interview.
“I feel it’s my responsibility. I wanted to tell the people I’m sorry for the pain that you’ve had to endure.”
Mr. Schuller first formulated his outreach to the unchurched in the mid-1950s when he opened a ministry at a drive-in theater in the suburbs of Orange County that catered to Southern California’s emerging car culture. He pulled people in with his sermons on the power of positive thinking.
The little church grew into the 10,000-member Crystal Cathedral, a worship hall with a soaring glass spire that opened in 1970 and remains an architectural wonder and tourist destination.
Mrs. Coleman hopes that her team ministry approach will allow the church to refocus on her father’s original mission - and boost membership and donations at the same time. She likes to say that her father will still “be the vision and I’ll be his legs.”
Mrs. Coleman is considering starting community outreach programs such as after-school tutoring and art classes to make up for budget cuts at public schools. She also hopes that within 10 years, the cathedral will open schools overseas to combat illiteracy.
For now, it’s too early to tell how “Hour of Power” viewers will react to those plans and to a woman in the pulpit. Mrs. Coleman will appear on the broadcast each Sunday, but she won’t always preach - and neither will her father, she said.
“I’m very excited about the future. My call is to help my dad finish strong,” she said. “I really think our best days in ministry are ahead of us. I really do.”