Easter at the Crystal Cathedral was once one of the church’s signature events: packed with people, decorated with a flurry of fresh flowers, a full orchestra and a pageant performed with flying angels.
But this year, things were different.
About a quarter of the orchestra — including an oboist, flutist and four French horn players — walked out a mere hour before services began Sunday. They refused to play when they found out their paychecks were short, in some cases by half of what they were verbally promised.
It is the latest woe for the embattled Garden Grove church, which filed for bankruptcy in October and has been roiled in controversy. Financial documents related to the case revealed generous pay and tax allowances for cathedral officials, many of whom are related to the church’s founder. And last month, choir members were outraged after they were asked to sign a sex covenant some perceived as anti-gay.
Crystal Cathedral spokesman John Charles said Easter services weren’t affected by the eight people who walked out. Checks have been sent to those who performed.
“No one would have ever known they were missing,” he said of the eight.
He attributed the incorrect check amounts to “accounting errors” that resulted from unintentional miscommunication.
“We’re sorry that it happened,” Charles said.
But over the years, performers have watched the cathedral’s once-majestic music programming dwindle. In addition to its financial problems, the church has undergone significant leadership changes. The Rev. Robert H. Schuller, who founded the ministry, retired in 2006, and his son and successor, Robert Anthony Schuller, was very publicly ousted in 2008. Sheila Schuller Coleman replaced her brother, but many in the congregation remain highly critical of church leadership.
“This church is known for three things: an inspiring minister with a vision, fabulous music and wonderful architecture,” said oboe player Holly Patterson, one of the musicians who walked out Sunday. “Out of those three things, only one exists now.”
For the second year in a row, the cathedral canceled its “Glory of Easter” pageant, which featured an array of live animals, such as peacocks and donkeys; an elaborate set; and hundreds of performers and volunteers. The church still sells DVDs of past performances.
Based on music rehearsed before Sunday’s services, French horn player Liesl Berry said she felt like she was at Disneyland because it was so “poppish.”
Patterson, of Claremont, said the decision to leave was not taken lightly. “The reason that this hurts so much is this core group has been so loyal,” she said.
The Hour of Power orchestra regularly performed each Sunday until late 2009, when payment for musicians became more sporadic. Some members quit, and since then the orchestra has performed only at Easter and Christmas, said Mary Oppermann of Ladera Ranch.
Several of the musicians who walked out said they still hadn’t been paid for last Easter’s services.
“We couldn’t keep playing and not getting paid for it and just getting taken advantage of,” said Oppermann, a flutist who started at the church in September of 2001.
According to various musicians who walked out, Scott Smith, the choral director, offered Sunday to send the eight people the correct check amounts this week if they stayed and performed, but the group declined, opting to take the smaller checks.
Several of the musicians interviewed said the orchestra had been like a family to them.
“Up until now, it was a really great experience for everybody,” Oppermann said. “We just loved it.”