Iwas 7 or 8 years old, reading my way through my kiddie encyclopedias, when I infuriated my Sunday school teacher by suggesting that the miraculous parting of the Red Sea was simply low tide. At that age, Sheila Schuller was working for her father's fledgling church. On Sunday mornings, she thumbtacked the Sunday school lessons to the wooden picnic tables at the Garden Grove drive-in theater where the Rev. Robert H. Schuller preached sermons from atop the snack stand.
Today, half a century later, Sheila Schuller Coleman and her dad share the pulpit at the Crystal Cathedral, heart of a vast faith empire that he founded. In 2006, her brother, Robert, succeeded their father as chief pastor and star of the internationally viewed "Hour of Power" TV show. But this year, father and son fell out publicly and painfully. And the little girl with the thumbtacks, ordained in May in the Reformed Church in America, stepped up.
The onetime schoolteacher and mother of four (her husband is president of the church) now co-leads a church whose drawing power has slipped. She hopes to expand the church's education role here, open schools in Africa, build back the church's membership and TV viewership, extend its multicultural outreach -- and, as she often says, help her legendary 83-year-old father to "finish strong."
As a little girl in Garden Grove, you answered your door to crying people asking for the pastor. Did you ever think "the pastor" would be you?
Heavens, no. Dad has this phrase, that great dreams of great dreamers are always transcendent. That's not it exactly, but the meaning behind it is, we are surprised that the reality transcends our dreams.
Did he talk like that at home?
Oh my, yes. He was just as dramatic and vociferous at home. He'd practice his messages on Saturday night, then the next morning in church, I'd go, "Oh, I know this story." Dad is such a mesmerizing storyteller, I could hear him tell the same story over and over again.
Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Robert Schuller -- those are hard acts for sons to follow.
They are incredibly hard. I think what really saved me is the gender differentiation.
I never felt like I had to measure up to Dad. I wanted to have my life count for important things like his, but I didn't compare myself to him as much as, say, my brother did, or Franklin Graham to his father. It's so much harder for boys because it's a man following a man. But I did not grow up with that.
Nobody expected this of me -- I didn't expect this of me -- and I think that has been my saving grace. Even today, when I watch the two of us side by side -- which I don't like to do be because I always look a lot older and fatter than I think I do! -- it's just much easier. And it gives me the freedom to be who I am.
How does it feel to be up in the pulpit?
I'm having the time of my life. I was in drama and theater when I was in high school, so I'm not shy. I love being with Dad. I'm his legs, he calls me.
The denominations that don't want women to be ordained -- what are they missing?
Jesus Christ came to break barriers, and he broke not only barriers between Jew and Gentile, he also broke barriers between men and women. He was surrounded by women who took the Gospel and spread it. So I am thrilled. I've been hearing from young girls: "I can consider being in ministry now." Women weren't ordained until 1973 in our denomination; that was the year I graduated from college!
Your father's theology doesn't put an emphasis on sin but on faith and hope.
People talk about the legacy of the buildings, but I believe his message is probably his most important legacy. He grew up in a home where it was, "You don't do this, you don't do that." He's said we focus so much on what not to do that you could spend your whole life just living under that oppression. You miss out on all the good you should be doing. Today other churchmen are following suit -- they've been influenced by Dad.
He took it on the chin for years and years, that he wasn't teaching enough sin and he wasn't Christian enough. Other pastors in neighboring churches [were] warning their congregants against him. When I asked him, he said, "Sheila, I don't care what they say about me. Those are Christians. They already know Jesus Christ. I'm worried about non-Christians."
Your father removed your brother after they disagreed over broadening the church leadership beyond one man -- your brother. Your father said then that "the name that we honor is Jesus, not Schuller." What happened?
We meant well when we moved from solo leadership model to solo leadership model, but we made a mistake and it hurt everybody. We realized belatedly we should have moved to a team leadership model; [it makes for] a much more successful transition, especially if you follow somebody like my dad. And nobody could measure up and be expected to do it single-handedly. And that's why we went with the team model. I don't think that it's me versus Robert, but it's a different system. My husband likes to call me the team mom. The church needs the loving touch of a mother today.
Have you talked to your brother since you became the church's co-leader?
I have not heard from my brother. He was quoted as saying he has the utmost respect for me. Robert and I have always been close. I have the utmost respect for him, and I truly believe he's doing what he's gifted to do [he is co-owner of a cable TV network].
Rick Warren's megachurch is just down the freeway; he hosted Barack Obama and John McCain. Do political issues have a role in your church?
God calls each of his churches to a different vision. He made it clear to us that we're to remain apolitical. We are criticized by some for not taking political stances, but Jesus Christ was pressured to take a political stance against the Roman Empire, and he went to the cross remaining apolitical, and that's what we have based our decision on.
One of your father's best-known sayings is "Tough times never last, tough people do." How does the church get through tough times with fewer people in the pews, fewer television viewers?
You believe in something bigger than you. God's promised he will take care of us. That doesn't mean that it's always going to go without bumps and bruises, but he promises he will be with us every step of the way. So we approach everything with an attitude of "Thank you, God, for this trial; thank you for this challenge. Because I know that you're going to use this for good in my life." When things are easy, we don't necessarily spend a lot of time on our knees, so God will get our attention sometimes.
How much difference has this new job made for your family?
The joke here lately is you can get a promotion at the Crystal Cathedral but expect a cut in pay. That's a true test of motivation! My husband and I get to see more of each other because I'm just down the hall from him. My boys are still pretty much at home, and they still expect dinner. I walk in the back door -- "What's for dinner, Mom?" I try to scrounge something up. We probably eat out a little more than we used to.
Did you ever have a crisis of faith?
Most of us go through a faith crisis at some point; I'm actually a little dubious if someone doesn't. For me it happened when I was in college [her father's alma mater, Hope College in Michigan].
I was pre-med at the time. I tried to apply that scientific, analytical mind to Scripture and God and this supernatural, spiritual realm that there's no empirical evidence for. It did cause me to really feel lost spiritually for about a year.
Nobody knew. I didn't tell anybody I was going through this. But I had an incredible experience that following year. That's when [it] became my faith in Jesus Christ, as opposed to something I'd inherited from my parents. I said to myself, "Sheila, you just have to take that leap of faith." There's always going to be a gap between what we know and what we don't know, and how we bridge that gap is through faith. And from that moment on, the questions just seemed irrelevant. The more I learned about science, the more it just verified what an amazing God we have.
firstname.lastname@example.org. This interview was edited and excerpted from a longer taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews is online at latimes.com/pattasks.