Early in my reporting career, I spent quite a bit of time chasing televangelists around. That was pretty normal in Charlotte, N.C., and the Pearlygate era rolled on after I had moved on out to Denver. While researching one major feature, that meant spending time at the Crystal Cathedral, listening to the shimmering tones of the Rev. Robert H. Schuller, who was what he was and is trying to stay that way. He was the ultimate vague, happy-talk evangelical, a man who can channel the mainline Protestantism of the 1950s at will and sell it in the sunny suburbs.
Like many of the Evangelical Alpha Males, Schuller has been trying to gracefully hand his empire to his son. Things are not going well, all of a sudden. This past Sunday, I was in Southern California and, thus, had the luxury of reading the Los Angeles Times on dead-tree pulp as I headed home on an airplane. Thus, saw this story in the Metro section:
The Rev. Robert H. Schuller removed his son Saturday as preacher on the syndicated "Hour of Power" television show less than three years after handing over to him the ministry he began more than 50 years ago.
Schuller announced the removal of his son, Robert A. Schuller, in a statement read to some 450 Crystal Cathedral congregants by Jim Coleman, the church's president.
"It is no secret to any of you that my son, Robert, and I have been struggling as we each have different ideas as to the direction and the vision for this ministry," his statement read. "For this lack of shared vision and the jeopardy in which this is placing this entire ministry, it has become necessary for Robert and me to part ways."
Now you would think, after reading that phrase "it is no secret to any of you," that it would have been pretty easy for the Times team to figure out why Schuller the younger had been ousted. If you joined me in thinking that, you would have been disappointed (as I was) to learn that this was not the case.
I mean, it has only been two years since Schuller the elder handed over (kind of) the reins to his heir. What's going on?
The story did tell us that the younger Schuller was supposed to put younger viewers in the pews and in the viewing audience. Did that happen? No one, it seems, knows.
The PR statement from the church was vague, vague, vague and so was this initial story. I was amazed. It was clear, from quotes drawn from church social-network sites, that the faithful were in the dark.
But the Times team went back to the well after the initial announcement and published a follow-up story a day later. So what do we know now? There is the stated reason and then a strange reference to what might be happening behind the scenes. Here's the lede:
The schism between the Rev. Robert H. Schuller and his son at Orange County's Crystal Cathedral arose over a disagreement about broadening the church's long-running television show, "Hour of Power," beyond a single personality -- a move opposed by the younger Schuller, pastors involved in the matter said Sunday.
The elder Schuller announced Saturday that he was removing his son, the Rev. Robert A. Schuller, as the show's only preacher three years after turning the program over to him. ...
"The real minister's name that we honor is Jesus, not Schuller," he said to thunderous applause.
But, in the next chunk of the story, there is this:
Schuller built his worldwide ministry over a half century on the psychology of positive thinking and appealing to people turned off by the formality of traditional faiths. In contrast, his son's sermons have been full of direct references to the Bible.
"I was called to start a mission, not a church," Schuller told his audience Sunday. "There is a difference. ... You don't try to preach ... what is sin and what isn't sin. A mission is a place where you ask nonbelievers to come and find faith and hope and feel love. We're a mission first, a church second."
And all the people said, "Huh?" This sounds like there was a difference in theology at the heart of this split, not just a division over who gets to stand in the pulpit X number of times per month. Was the son too conservative? He paid too much attention to issues of sin and no enough attention to positive thinking? The younger man was more traditional in doctrine than the father?
Truly interesting. I hope the Times knows that it may have buried the lede. Input, inpute. We need input.