Dobson's family squabble

Dr James DobsonIt was a busy New Year's weekend for Mark Barna, religion reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette, who covered the growing split between James Dobson and Focus on the Family, the powerful and prominent evangelical parachurch organization he has led for decades. Focus, which has struggled with declining income and layoffs, has for years been concerned about its future and its transition to a new generation of leaders. Dobson resigned as chairman of Focus's board in February 2009 and is scheduled to host his last Focus radio program on Feb. 28, 2010. He recently began spelling out his unexpected plans for what he will do after that.

Thursday's Gazette story reported:

James Dobson may be leaving Focus on the Family in late February, but he's not going away.

Dobson, who founded Focus in 1977, announced on his Facebook page that in March he will launch a nonprofit Christian group and host a new radio show with his son, Ryan.

Retiring is attractive, Dobson writes, but "the institution of the family continues to be in deplorable condition, and children are growing up in a culture that often twists and warps their young minds."

Friday's story reported that Dobson is now competing with Focus for the donor dollars needed to support his new venture, which is called James Dobson on the Family.

And in a post on his blog, "The Pulpit," Barna raises questions about Dobson's motivation:

On his Facebook page, Dobson estimates first-year operation costs to be $2 million. "Your participation will be greatly appreciated, especially during this time when startup costs will be very expensive," he writes.

Dobson's new ministry will have a similar agenda to that of Focus, which is to build up family values. The centerpiece of the ministry will be a daily radio show Dobson will co-host with 39-year-old Ryan.

Dobson's departure from Focus only to start a similar ministry has some outside observers speculating that Dobson was forced out of Focus and that a bitter Dobson decided to create a competing organization. Dobson, they say, may also feel that Focus' kinder and gentler approach under CEO and president Jim Daly is not doing the trick, motivating Dobson to start a family nonprofit where fiery rhetoric is the norm.

Both Focus and Dobson deny these reasons.

Barna quoted some of the usual suspects (Randall Balmer, John Green) who said Dobson's actions were unusual, but he didn't feature any parachurch experts or non-official Focus insiders, some of whom have told me that Dobson has long expressed frustration about the board forcing him to leave before he was ready. "He didn't jump; he feels he was pushed," one told me months ago.

On Sunday Gazette columnist Barry Noreen added to the intrigue with this speculation:

Dobson wants to pass the torch to his son, Ryan, and couldn't do it at Focus because Ryan Dobson went through a divorce in 2001.

Meanwhile Rich Tosches, a columnist at the Colorado Springs Independent, wrote on Dec. 24 that Focus may--or may not be--spending millions to air an anti-abortion commercial featuring Tim Tebow's mother during the Super Bowl.

A source says the new head of Focus, Jim Daly, spoke at an evangelical conference a few months ago and unveiled the Super Bowl ad plan. Then he begged for donations from like-minded organizations. According to the source, Daly was given about $3 million, and Focus dipped into its general fund for the other $1 million.

This, of course, will come as a surprise to the 150 or so Focus employees who were fired a few months ago, supposedly because of a steep decline in handouts from dwindling legions of followers. In 2008, some 200 workers were fired from the Christian organization just weeks before Christmas.

I'm looking for stories that go deeper into the mystery of why Dobson now seems to be competing with the organization he birthed and nurtured for so long, and will keep you posted if anyone brings this into clearer focus.

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