Crystal Cathedral's Chapter 11

The Crystal Cathedral is kind of a big deal. A stone's throw from Disneyland, the megachurch is a SoCal cultural landmark in its own right. And Robert H. Schuller who started it all in a drive-in parking lot, became a pioneer of televangelism with the "Hour of Power." Over the years, the power struggle over who would succeed Schuller and then a rumor that he had come out of retirement were big news. And not surprisingly.

So it should come as no surprise that news outlets were all over the story when the Crystal Cathedral filed for bankruptcy last week. Even the Los Angeles Times -- after all, Garden Grove is about 30 miles from downtown LA, and for years the LAT seriously competed for Orange County news -- got involved with a first-day story, another online from the AP and an editorial ("Cracked Crystal").

Yes, the puns and crystal metaphors are painful but rather unavoidable. To be sure, the Crystal Cathedral is not actually made of crystal.

Of course, neither article was written by a religion reporter. The article by LAT writer Nicole Santa Cruz included the essentials and was a pretty standard nuts-and-bolts news article. I would, however, expect more from a religion reporter. And last time I think the LAT has one.

Here's what happened when, albeit a week late, The New York Times sent its religion reporter, the boycotted and recently re-honored Laurie Goodstein, to Disneyland-adjacent. Here's what she writes in "Debt and Disputes Cloud the Crystal Cathedral."

When Mr. Schuller announced in 2006 that he was turning over the pulpit to his only son, the Rev. Robert A. Schuller, the church was already carrying a huge debt from its last lavish building project. But in a little more than two years, the son was pushed out before he ever really took the reins, and some of his sisters and their husbands stepped in.

The family feud left the church without clear leadership, just when its programs badly needed a makeover to attract a new generation of followers.

At stake is the legacy of the senior Mr. Schuller, who at 84 is still occasionally preaching his brand of upbeat, inspirational Christianity. His Sunday program, "Hour of Power," has been broadcast for 40 years and was the nation's most-watched weekly religious program for more than a decade. Unlike other religious broadcasters, Mr. Schuller largely steered clear of politics, and avoided the sexual and financial scandals that brought down competitors like Jimmy Swaggart.

Until now, the younger Mr. Schuller, pained by the rift with his family, has avoided speaking publicly about what happened. But in a lengthy interview this week in Los Angeles, he explained the sequence of events, later confirmed by others, that preceded the current turmoil.

"It boiled down to, they weren't ready to accept my leadership," he said of his relatives and some of the other board members of the cathedral. "And had they been, they wouldn't be where they are today."

That is a bold statement, but it lies at the heart of a much more interesting story. Goodstein focuses not on the Crystal Cathedral's bankruptcy but on how they got there and how the church's trouble with transition was a familiar them when larger-than-life pastors decide to move on. And it leaves little wonder as to why the elder Schuller and his successor chose to speak with the LAT and refused requests from Goodstein.

Even when you're talking about megachurches, size doesn't matter. But at 1,482 words -- as long as an LAT Column One these days -- Goodstein's article is full of meat while the LAT's 536-word piece is really just the milk.

PHOTO: The Crystal Cathedral spire, via Wikimedia Commons

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