Crystal Cathedral to move on without a Schuller

GARDEN GROVE, Calif. — The Crystal Cathedral is heading into a new era for the first time with a non-Schuller at the helm, the church’s senior pastor announced to a group of elders Saturday morning.

Rev. Juan Carlos Ortiz, who was appointed as the Crystal Cathedral’s interim senior pastor in December, said his job is to prepare the church for a leader who would in no way be aligned with founder Robert H. Schuller or his family. The church has been in turmoil since the departure of Robert A. Schuller, the son of the founder, who many believed was groomed to take over the ministry from his father.

Robert A. Schuller left the church’s weekly “Hour of Power” program, which is broadcast to millions around the world, early in November. Later that month, he resigned from his post as senior pastor.

During Saturday’s meeting, several family members, including Robert H. Schuller’s daughters and sons-in-law, outlined a new direction and vision for the church, which they said was aimed at growth.

Ortiz explained that the church is deep in debt and the only way out of this crisis is to make some radical changes. Last week, the church laid off several employees, including Executive Pastor Jim Poit and his wife, Linda, who was in charge of children’s ministries. The Poits were brought into the ministry by Robert A. Schuller.

“This is a crisis that is either going to crush us or force us into a new path,” Ortiz told the gathering of more than 100 church elders. “We have chosen the new path.”

Schuller’s daughters and sons-in-law would still be very involved in the administration and “Hour of Power” program, Ortiz said.

“But now they will be a part of us,” he said. “It’s no longer us against them.”

The church is in the process of selling off two pieces of prime real estate — 150 acres in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., and an office building in Garden Grove. The office building is now in escrow with Panattoni Development Company for $30.5 million, said Jim Penner, CEO of Crystal Cathedral Ministries and husband of Gretchen Schuller Penner, one of Robert H. Schuller’s four daughters. The San Juan Capistrano land is being bought for $35 million, Penner said.

The sale of these two properties will help them get debt-free within one year, Ortiz said. He said the congregation can expect to have a new leader in one or two years.

The family is sorry for thrusting its problems on the rest of the congregation, an emotional Sheila Schuller Coleman told church elders during the meeting at which Robert H. Schuller was not present.

“This is one of the most difficult times we’ve walked through as a family,” she said, choking up. “I’m so sorry that the conflict in my family has meant so much hurt to all of you. . . . We’re still trying to understand what happened to our family.”

She explained that a rift between her father and brother had deepened over time and was “exacerbated by external influences.”

They even had family interventions, but nothing worked, Coleman said. The joint appointment of her husband, Jim Coleman; Jim Penner; and Chief Financial Officer Fred Southard to the newly created Office of the President in July, started a chain of “horrendous events,” she said.

“We were naive enough to believe then that it would make things better between my brother and my father,” she said. “But it made everything worse.”

Robert H. Schuller has remained silent on the issue and could not be reached for comment.

Jim Penner said Robert A. Schuller left the ministry because “he wanted it all.” The son wanted full control of the ministries including the post of president that Robert H. Schuller has held since he founded the ministry.

“But the board was not for it because they did not believe Robert A. was ready for that,” Penner said.

When the Office of the President was created, Robert A. Schuller got more upset, he said.

“It didn’t change his ability to lead the church because he was still the senior pastor,” Penner said. “But he was upset and never got past it.”

Robert A. Schuller and Poit had “tremendous freedom to make any changes they wanted,” Penner said.

“No one stood in their way,” he said. “As Robert H. Schuller is growing older, we need someone to take his place that can grow the church.”

Donna Schuller declined to comment further.

Penner’s wife, Gretchen, who is program director for the “Hour of Power,” said she would like to see unity and solidarity in the church, something she “hasn’t seen here in a long time.”

Her sister, Carol Schuller Miller, said she and her siblings had a tough time growing up as the “Schuller children.”

“I felt like a celebrity kid than a pastor kid,” she said. They were constantly under scrutiny and she remembers defending her dad to people she didn’t even know at age 8, Miller said.

If her brother hadn’t left, the church would have had “two pastors in the pulpit not talking to each other,” she said.

Ortiz told members of the congregation that he agrees with many that Robert A. Schuller’s departure was handled poorly by the church.

Elders said after the meeting that they are optimistic about where the church is going.

“I came prepared today to throw my church elder’s stole away,” said Dusty Funderbunk. “But now, I’m going to wait and watch what happens.”