The reports out of Orange County, California have not been encouraging for the once mighty Crystal Cathedral. Robert Schuller founded the church and recently retired as the church’s senior pastor. In turn, the church never fully recovered from Schuller’s pastoral departure. Though he stayed on the church’s governing board, two of his children took a shot at pastoring the large church. Schuller’s son, Robert became the senior pastor and two years later resigned. Then, Sheila, daughter of the elder Schuller, became senior pastor. The church then filed for bankruptcy last year with $50 million in debt.
If this was not enough, reports of the the founder, Robert Schuller’s departure from the church’s governing board surfaced last week. However, his position on the board was moved from voting member to “honorary Chairman of the Board Emeritus” in order to free him up for more speaking engagements. Ah huh.
Membership and attendance have fallen since the founding pastor’s departure. Now with the debt issue over the church’s head, a few organizations have considering buying the church. The Catholic Diocese of Orange said it was considering buying the bankrupt church and converting it to a Catholic cathedral. Chapman University bid $46 million and would allow the church to lease back its core buildings.
With all of these issues surrounding the Crystal Cathedral, the question rolls around in many minds: Can “newly” planted mega churches survive when the founding pastor leaves?
This question comes to mind because the Crystal Cathedral is/was, in many ways, the first true modern mega church. The church was designed to be welcoming and to be friendly without the traditional “look” of a church. Mega churches, once few and far between in the 1970’s with about 100-200 churches, now number in the thousands.
Many mega churches are founded by a dynamic pastoral individual. That individual is able to grow the church and becomes the figure head of the ministry. Some mega churches send around mailings and have websites that read, “Pastor Joe and the Anytown Church”. As if the pastor is a celebrity. Few mega churches have more down to earth pastors that instead let the church exist without the constant presence of the founding pastor.
With Crystal Cathedral trying to keep its head above water despite pastoral transition, debt woes, and policies against homosexual choir members, Crystal Cathedral will have to pull back its staff or move to smaller location. It is unfortunate that this ministry that introduced so many to Christ is dealing with these issues. But, didn’t these issue arise with the departure of the founder? Did the leadership and membership lose faith in the church when the founder left?
When churches affix the identity of the church with the founding pastor, it becomes much harder for the church to transition to new leadership. A celebrity pastor is often a formula for explosive growth, but ultimately is that a formula for disaster? With numerous mega churches planted and grown in the last 20-30 years, many mega churches have or are in the process of transitioning from their founding pastor. Can these first generation mega churches survive?
If the great Crystal Cathedral cannot transition successfully from its founding pastor to the next pastor, what hope does that give other mega churches? What is the sustainability of the “mega church” movement? Most likely, you will see mega churches continue and others size down. Eventually, we very well may see the era of the consumerist mega church fall and another type of church rise. We will always have large churches, but will we continue to see other mega churches struggle to hand over to a new leader? Time will tell.