You can learn a lot about a family by observing how it handles fights. And Laurie Goodstein's Sunday New York Times story shows that as the breach between James Dobson and Focus on the Family grows, all parties are keeping quiet and pretending everything is OK. Earlier this year I wrote on coverage by media outlets in Colorado Springs (where Focus and many other evangelical parachurch organizations are headquartered) about the decision by Dobson to launch a competing organization and radio program called "James Dobson on the Family."
Given the prominence of both Dobson and Focus, I was shocked at how few media outlets covered this extraordinary story about a major parachurch founder leaving his organization to start a new organization that does basically the same thing. (The silence may be partially due to the shrinking of religion pages and reporting staffs at many news outlets. And I just know the AP's Eric Gorski would have been all over this story if he hadn't recently been transitioned off the religion beat).
Goodstein did the best she could when principals aren't talking: She tracked down other folks for her story, including a former Focus executive and an unnamed Focus board member who commented on Dobson's potential motives for launching a new radio show with his son, 39-year-old Ryan:
The real reason for Dr. Dobson's new venture may have been his son. A Focus board member who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that because Ryan Dobson has been divorced, it would be against the board's policy for him to serve as the voice for Focus, which counsels people on marriage and child-rearing. (Ryan Dobson has since remarried and has a son of his own.)
Goodstein also grasped the uniqueness and singularity of this split in parachurch circles:
Experts who study Christian ministries said that whatever the reason for it, Dr. Dobson's decision was extraordinary.
"I can't think of another example where the leader of a major ministry organization founded it, built it up, then moved on and did something so visibly competitive," said Stewart M. Hoover, director of the Center for Media, Religion and Culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Goodstein also shows that in an era of media- and celebrity-driven religion, Focus's efforts to transition to new leadership (and potentially a new generation of supporters) may have been half-baked:
Dr. Dobson did cultivate a successor as leader of Focus, but he never cultivated anyone to succeed him as its media personality. Focus will continue broadcasting its radio show with a variety of hosts, including Jim Daly, whom Dr. Dobson handpicked as the new president for Focus in 2005.
Focus is talking about one topic that was formerly off limits: its plans to air a Super Bowl commercial featuring Tim Tebow and his mother, Pam. A focus spokesperson told Electa Draper of The Denver Post that it taped a "life- and family affirming" 30-second spot. Pam Tebow faced a problematic pregnancy with Tim while she served with her husband as a missionary in the Philippines, but decided to carry Tim to term nonetheless.
Meanwhile, I'm still waiting to hear Focus and Dobson reveal the truth about their split.