Crystal Cathedral stays optimistic amid declining revenue


On a recent Sunday morning in the Crystal Cathedral, Sheila Schuller Coleman, its co-leader, offered a sermon about the necessity of rising above turbulence in the storms of life.

It is familiar ground for the Garden Grove megachurch, which is in the midst of its own financial turmoil.

The church, founded by Robert H. Schuller in the 1950s, announced in late January that it is laying off dozens of employees, selling a 170-acre retreat, pulling its “Hour of Power” television show from seven stations and canceling its annual Glory of Easter pageant.

Crystal Cathedral officials said the church suffered a 27% drop in revenue in the last two years. In anticipation of a further decline, church leaders decided to cut $4.9 million from its $20-million annual budget, spokesman John Charles said.

The church attributes its struggles to the recession, as well as declining television viewership and a drop in contributions from its aging congregation.

“The reality is that the church has to operate like a business,” said Coleman, 58, the eldest daughter of the ministry’s founder, who appointed her in June to help lead the church. “We can’t spend more than we bring in.”

During her sermon, as Coleman stood on stage in the glass cathedral, she lifted a number of sandbags and dropped them about 20 feet toward the seated congregation.

The sandbags were marked with tags illustrating the cares that weigh people down, including resentment, fear, depression, inferiority and shame.

“We at the Crystal Cathedral have our own struggles,” Coleman told the congregation.

In 2006, Coleman’s brother, Robert A. Schuller, succeeded his father at the ministry’s helm, a move that had been anticipated for years, said Jim Case, a former board member of the church.

By the fall of 2008, the father and son had decided to part ways in a messy family dispute. Last summer, the elder Schuller told congregants that he would return to a prominent role at the church for two additional years, and that his daughter would be his co-leader.

Case said the dispute was a disappointment for congregants, who expected consistency.

The church has said that its financial difficulties are not related to the leadership turmoil. A study last year found that the change did not lead to decreased donations, Charles said.

Coleman, who previously directed the church’s family ministries, said the Crystal Cathedral is going through a “regeneration,” in which younger families are arriving, helping to fill out a predominantly elderly congregation.

“Our church is changing in front of my eyes,” Coleman said in an interview in her office last week. Four large pieces of butcher paper were taped to the windows with objectives written on them in marker, harking back to her days as a teacher.

Among her goals for the church: tripling the number of baptisms, increasing the number of children in the youth ministries from 250 to 400 and building the congregation by 16%.

Coleman said the church is trying to focus on activities that are relatively inexpensive, such as an after-school tutoring program and feeding the homeless with donations from restaurants. “You don’t have to have money to do great things for God,” she said.

In the meantime, Coleman takes encouragement from some of her father’s trademark phrases, including his view that a setback is just a setup for a comeback.

“I believe with all my heart that the best days are yet to come,” she said.

Some members of her congregation are optimistic as well.

Sandy Maxwell, 68, said she first came to the church in 1963, when it was still a drive-in ministry. The elder Schuller inspired her to go back to college and graduate at 50.

“Every business is having problems,” Maxwell said. “The church will prevail.”