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Daughter is tapped to ‘mother’ church

She remembers being about 4 and, as her father worked in his study that doubled as a bedroom, hearing a knock on the front door. She answered and a tearful woman said, “Is the pastor here?”

It was one of Sheila Schuller’s first realizations that their small house in Garden Grove was also a sanctuary. In the years that followed, long before Robert Schuller would become an iconic religious figure with a worldwide audience, she came to see her father as “just the local pastor down the street,” someone whose job it was to preach on Sundays and help ease people’s problems.

The little girl is now 58, married and the mother of four. Her father is 82, white-haired and slowed, but mounting a comeback.

And in ways that she never imagined until recently, Sheila Schuller Coleman -- not her younger brother and former heir apparent -- will be the one “to help my dad finish strong.”

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Earlier this month, Schuller anointed his eldest daughter as the church’s co-leader and the person who would carry the Crystal Cathedral’s banner into the future. The announcement capped a tumultuous year for the Schullers and their admirers, as a father-son split over “a lack of shared vision” led the younger Robert Schuller to surrender his senior pastor status and leave the church after his father stripped him of his role in the TV ministry.

The elder Schuller is among the most influential American preachers of the last half-century, having written bestselling books and converted a small, local ministry into one that broadcasts the “Hour of Power” worldwide from the gleaming Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove.

But the ministry has fallen on hard times. Hurt by the economy and, perhaps, changing viewer tastes, church attendance and TV viewership have declined. Schuller, who handed his son the reins in 2006, told the congregation this month that he will return to a prominent role and put in two more years. But in the future, he said, it will be his daughter “who’s making this church, not the preacher.”

That may sound daunting, but Coleman does not feel overmatched. “I guess it should be a scary time. Call it naivete, but I don’t feel it. I actually have a strong sense of anticipation. I’m very excited about what we can do.”

Details on her new role are yet to come, but it’s clear the church’s board believes it needs Schuller back at the helm -- at least for now when fundraising is suffering. He remains the storied, titanic figure behind the church, which traces its inception to a drive-in theater lot in 1955.

If those were carefree days, these are not. Shadowing everything at the cathedral, spoken or not, is a family squabble that would rival that of any prime-time TV series.

“The mistake I felt we made as a family -- and it was done out of love -- was that we tried to pour all our seeds into one bucket,” Coleman says of her brother’s ascension. “God wanted the seeds to be disseminated and scattered so the kingdom could grow.”

She says the entire family laments the internal friction, which is primarily between father and son. “My dad was very hurt, and Robert was very hurt. The healing will take time. I see signs it’s beginning to happen. The thing that was so hard for me and the family is that so many people in the church and our viewers and the public who saw us as the model family, said, ‘Wow, oh no.’ For some reason, they didn’t think it would happen to us.”

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Robert was the only son among Robert and Arvella Schuller’s five children. He and a business partner recently announced that their company has bought AmericanLife TV Network and hopes to make the station “the destination for family values.”

Through a spokeswoman, the younger Schuller said his schedule didn’t allow time to be interviewed, but in a written statement he wished his sister well. “I have great respect for the work she does at the ministry and as an educator and believe she will add tremendous value in her new position.”

Coleman has a doctorate in educational administration and leadership. She’s been on the church staff since 1973, except for a four-year stint as a public school teacher in Fullerton. She has been directing the church’s Family Ministries, and now will also serve as an occasional preacher.

“I know it’s going to sound very different,” she says, “but I believe my role is to mother this ministry. Which means to nurture the congregation, the staff.”

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She’s looking forward to speaking from the pulpit (maybe once every four to six weeks) but says her sermons won’t sound like those of a preacher. “My messages will be very light on Scripture. They’ll be stories, primarily, with lessons. They’ll be biblical concepts, but my platform on the ‘Hour of Power’ and the cathedral on Sunday mornings is as an outreach to the unchurched.”

Poised to become the public face of the ministry, Coleman laughs easily and acknowledges having had a bout with religious skepticism as a college student. The doubt is behind her, but she still says that faith is fraught with illogic.

“I tried to make it logical,” she said of that period. “When you’re a science major, everything is why, why, why? And every time I’d ask why, I could come up with a logical explanation but then I’d right away come up with another why. Finally, I realized I just needed to take a leap of faith. I know it sounds trite, but it’s just a leap of faith. I just said, ‘Lord, I don’t know that I can understand this, I can’t explain it all, but I’m choosing to believe in you.’ The minute I did that, everything fell into place.”

“I’ve always had a very close relationship with Jesus Christ, since I was a little girl,” Coleman says. That faith “has deepened over the years, and in the last year or so I can’t even describe to you how amazing it’s been.”

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The church’s leaders need faith these days. TV ratings are down 50% from their heyday and the church is selling properties to pay a $50-million debt.

Coleman chuckles at the notion that the cathedral’s time has passed. “Faith is believing in something even though you can’t see it, even though it goes against reason,” she says. “That’s my faith, and I do believe we have our best days yet to come.”

It may have been the fates as much as family dynamics that lined up against the younger Schuller, says the head of an association of religious researchers. As with any organization that relies on donations, the economic downturn has made the cathedral vulnerable, says William Swatos Jr., executive officer of the Religious Research Assn. and editor of the “Encyclopedia of Religion and Society.”

“Passing the torch in these situations is often difficult,” Swatos says, “because when you look at these movements -- religious among them -- there isn’t necessarily an inheritance factor that operates strongly. In many cases the footsteps . . . may be harder to follow when you’re the son than when you’re an outsider because people are expecting almost a duplication. If you brought in someone everyone knows isn’t the son, you begin with a kind of clean slate.”

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Coleman agrees, saying her brother may have been in a no-win situation.

While the family tries to heal, the Crystal Cathedral must ramp up its efforts, Coleman says. The plan is to hire an evangelist to lure non-churchgoers and to improve marketing of the “Hour of Power.”

In a way that’s both simple and far-reaching, the Crystal Cathedral is going back to basics.

“I believe in a big God who’s not done with this ministry and not done with my father,” Coleman says. “Dad still has amazing dreams and visions. He’s still the visionary of this church, and he will be as long as he draws breath.”

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dana.parsons@latimes.com

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

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The making of a mega-ministry

1955: Robert H. Schuller founds the Garden Grove Community Church in Orange County.

1961: Schuller dedicates the first walk-in, drive-in church.

1970: Schuller begins broadcasting the “Hour of Power” television ministry in Los Angeles.

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1980: Schuller dedicates the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, designed by Philip Johnson.

1981: Schuller launches “The Glory of Christmas” pageant. Three years later, he starts “The Glory of Easter.”

April 1996: Schuller formally declares his son, Robert A. Schuller, as successor.

Jan. 1, 2006: Schuller turns over leadership of the Crystal Cathedral to his son, Robert A. Schuller, 51.

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Jan. 22, 2006: Robert A. Schuller takes over as senior pastor.

Oct. 25, 2008: Robert H. Schuller removes his son from the syndicated “Hour of Power” TV show.

November 2008: Robert A. Schuller resigns as senior pastor of the church.

May 26, 2009: Robert A. Schuller announces his company has acquired cable network AmericanLife TV from the Unification Church.

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June 10, 2009: Robert H. Schuller announces that his eldest daughter, Sheila Schuller Coleman, will take over leadership of the entire ministry.

Sources: Crystal Cathedral Ministries, Times reports


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