NPR Story
3:00 pm
Fri November 18, 2011

Future Of Ministry Uncertain After Cathedral's Sale

Originally published on Fri November 18, 2011 8:02 pm

The Roman Catholic Church is about to buy a beacon of Protestant televangelism.

The Crystal Cathedral, a temple of glass in Garden Grove, Calif., will be sold to the Catholic Church for $57 million — a decision that left some congregants furious and their future up in the air.

When the Crystal Cathedral declared bankruptcy last year, it soon became clear that the legendary building would have to be sold. There were several offers, but in the end, the church's board favored the Catholic diocese in Orange County.

Sheila Schuller Coleman, the cathedral's pastor, said in a videotaped message that it was the best way to save the church.

"The Catholic plan affords us the possibility of continuing all of our wonderful, beautiful ministries," she says. "And we all know that a church is not a building."

Of course, if any church is associated with its building, it's Crystal Cathedral, which was built by the architect Philip Johnson and became famous for its televised Hour of Power services, led by Coleman's charismatic father, Robert Schuller.

The cathedral shunned a bid by nearby Chapman University, which actually offered $2 million more than the diocese.

For his part, the Catholic bishop of Orange, Tod Brown, is thrilled. The diocese needed a cathedral. It didn't occur to him to try for the Crystal Cathedral, until some of his advisers pulled him aside and said, as he recalls, "Look, this is an incredible location and the iconic cathedral, and it will really serve our needs so well. And it would be much less expensive to acquire this property than it will be for us to build out a new cathedral."

About one-fourth of the cost, in fact.

The rise and fall of the Crystal Cathedral has many twists — from Schuller's message of positive thinking to his booming television ministry to the power struggle among his children when he retired. "But in the end, it's about living beyond your means," says Richard Flory, who teaches at the University of Southern California.

Flory says the church had enormous costs in maintaining the building and the services, which included professional musicians and a yearly Christmas pageant that cost $2 million. At the same time, Flory says, the Crystal Cathedral did not adapt to the times.

"They stuck with a particular model of what church was supposed to be and sound and feel like, and I think generationally people started to look for other things," he says.

In short, it lost market share — and the loyalty of congregants like Bob Canfield.

Canfield is angry that the board shunned Chapman University's offer. But he's furious about the Schuller family.

"It's a slap in the face," he says. "They've been taking exorbitant salaries, knowing for the last eight, 10 years that they were going down the tubes slowly but surely."

The family alienated many. For example, when they asked for food donations for Schuller's ailing wife, they announced that the donations would be delivered in a limousine.

It's not clear what happens to Crystal Cathedral's congregation. Coleman, the pastor, said they can stay in the building for up to three years, and she held out hope for a miracle.

"There is still time for God to step in and rescue Crystal Cathedral Ministries," she says.

But in all likelihood, they'll have to find a new place to rent, and hope that their congregants follow, even without the spectacular cathedral.

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

A Roman Catholic diocese is about to buy a beacon of protestant televangelism. The Crystal Cathedral, that temple of glass in Garden Grove, California, will go for more than $57 million. The decision leaves some congregants furious and the future of the church up in the air.

NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty reports.

BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: When the Crystal Cathedral declared bankruptcy last year, it soon became clear the legendary building would have to be sold. There were several offers, but in the end, the church's board favored the Catholic diocese in Orange County, California.

Sheila Schuller Coleman, the cathedral's pastor, said in a videotaped message, it was the best way to save the church.

SHEILA SCHULLER COLEMAN: The Catholic plan affords us the possibility of continuing all of our wonderful, beautiful ministries and we all know that a church is not a building.

HAGERTY: Of course, if any church is associated with its building, it's Crystal Cathedral, which was built by the architect Philip Johnson, and became famous for its televised "Hour of Power" services led by Coleman's charismatic father, Robert Schuller.

The cathedral shunned a bid by nearby Chapman University, which actually offered $2 million more than the diocese. For his part, Tod Brown, the Catholic bishop of Orange, is thrilled. The diocese needed a cathedral. It didn't occur to him to try for the Crystal Cathedral until some of his advisors pulled him aside and said...

TOD BROWN: Look, this is an incredible location and the iconic cathedral and it will really serve our needs so well and it would be much less expensive to acquire this property than it will be for us to build out a new cathedral.

HAGERTY: About one-fourth of the cost. The rise and fall of the Crystal Cathedral has many twists, from Robert Schuller's message of positive thinking, to his booming television ministry, to the power struggle among his children when he retired.

RICHARD FLORY: But, in the end, it's about living beyond your means.

HAGERTY: Richard Flory teaches at the University of Southern California. He says the church had enormous costs maintaining the building and the services, which included professional musicians and a yearly Christmas pageant that cost $2 million. At the same time, Flory says, the Crystal Cathedral did not adapt to the times.

FLORY: They stuck with a particular model of what church was supposed to be and sound and feel like and I think, generationally, people started to look for other things.

HAGERTY: In short, it lost market share and it lost the loyalty of congregants like Bob Canfield.

BOB CANFIELD: It's a slap in the face.

HAGERTY: Canfield is angry that the board shunned Chapman University's offer, but he's furious about the Schuller family.

CANFIELD: They've been taking exorbitant salaries, knowing for the last eight, ten years that they were going down the tubes slowly but surely.

HAGERTY: The family alienated many. For example, when it asked for food donations for Robert Schuller's ailing wife, it announced the donations would be delivered in a limousine.

It's not clear what happens to Crystal Cathedral's congregation. Sheila Schuller Coleman said they can stay in the building for up to three years and she held out hope for a miracle.

COLEMAN: There is still time for God to step in and rescue Crystal Cathedral Ministries.

HAGERTY: But in all likelihood, they'll have to find a new place to rent and hope that their congregants follow, even without the spectacular cathedral.

Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.

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