Monday, October 25, 2010

A Personal Reflection on the Crystal Cathedral Bankruptcy

Many people heard last week that the famed Crystal Cathedral, home of Hour of Powerfiled for bankruptcy last week. There was also an interesting article in the New York Times about it this weekend.

Many readers of this blog and most of my friends know I was intimately involved with the Cathedral for a few years until about 1.5-2 years ago. When I moved back to Southern California from Berkeley, I visited the Cathedral, a few weeks before a new service, aimed at my age group, was about to start. I remember conversations we had about what to name the new service (later being called The Gathering).

At the beginning, we were a small blip on the radar of a major ministry, getting less than 20 people per week, mostly in their 20s. By the time we left the Cathedral campus, we were getting 150-200 people per week, literally of all races and ages. As an elder for The Gathering and later as a formal staff member, hired through the Cathedral, I saw support from the larger ministry wax and wane. Some supported us, some not so much.

Never the less, The Gathering and the Cathedral were close and dear to my heart. I was the third generation in my family to be touched by the message. I began receiving the daily email devotionals my first semester at Berkeley, which helped get me through some very difficult times before I found a church community. When my grandma died, she was cremated, and my grandpa bought a brick in the new building in her memory, so essentially her memorial site is there. My wife and I had our first kiss and got engaged in the prayer chapel on campus. We got married in one of the gardens and had our reception in the building where my grandma's memorial is.

I build deep, long-lasting friendships, not the least was Bobby (Robert V.) Schuller, grandson of Robert H., and son of Robert A., and founder/pastor of The Gathering. He married Laci and I, and I still consider him to be one of my best friends.

So 2.5 years ago, when everything started really falling apart, the failure of the Crystal Cathedral Ministries (CCM as it's known there) was not just some abstract, impersonal event. In fact, it was particularly difficult, as I knew about most of it months before it became public, requiring me to say nothing to anyone. This was hard because not only was I seeing one of my best friends and his family personally suffering, but I also felt betrayed. My family and I had invested years of time, prayer, effort, love, money, and service to this ministry to see it disregard the local congregation.

Let me backup here and fill in the gaps. CCM was formerly known as Garden Grove Community Church until the Cathedral building was built in the early 80s. The Hour of Power (known as HOP around the campus) began before the Cathedral was created and was an outgrowth of the local congregation. It was a unique, creative ministry of evangelism.

What I discovered in my time at the Cathedral is that CCM was not the priority. HOP was. Working with the internet department to simply create a website for The Gathering became a marketing nightmare. As we tried to emphasize different ministries, we were told they didn't think those should be given space on the page, as Bobby's sermons were more important (this was not Bobby's view at all).

When Robert became senior pastor of CCM/HOP, we at The Gathering had high hopes for re-orientation to emphasize mission and revitalization of an important message that desperately needed repackaging. Robert and his executive pastor, Jim Poit, were incredibly supportive of The Gathering. In fact, both frequently showed up quietly to enjoy The Gathering community without the pomp, circumstance, and attention they would receive at the Cathedral.

Robert attempted to make some significant, positive changes to the structure of CCM/HOP, and we at The Gathering did everything we could to support it. In fact, he took many of our ideas and applied them to the larger ministry (some bragging here--I started a podcast of messages from The Gathering. Robert told me he loved and idea and sought out how to do it for HOP).

The continued changes Robert proposed created increasing tension, particularly between CCM and HOP. CCM is technically the local congregation, part of the Reformed Church of America denomination. HOP is the television show. It's a separate, non-profit, non-denominational organization. My understanding is that the Cathedral grounds and buildings are actually owned by HOP. Robert was trying to build up the (literally) dying CCM congregation and help everyone feel more connected to one another and "owning" the church community.

However, the HOP machine was too strong. As a few people said, the tail was wagging the dog. The decision to oust Robert had nothing to do with him preaching from Scripture more (an oft-repeated rumor that is simply false). It had more to do with marketing and politics.

The PR machine went into full gear through the publicly-emerging tension within the CCM/HOP and Schuller family. As Robert says in the aforementioned NYT article, the financial problems began long before the economy went bad due to decisions for marketing rather than for the local congregation. Yes, the economy made it worse, but it has continually been blamed for the financial woes.

Anyone who spoke with actual members of CCM or read the public forums for CCM and HOP could easily see that emotional, spiritual, and financial support dropped because of the lack of support of the people in favor of the marketing for HOP.

It was around this time that The Gathering decided to separate from the Cathedral completely. It was not the only reason--we had been discussing it for a few years prior. However, by the time Robert was gone, there was no reason to stay.

I felt hurt and betrayed by people I had previously personally trusted. I honestly hoped for CCM to implode under the obesity of HOP. Over time, as I attempted to heal, some people who decided to still fight for CCM told me about changes they were trying to make there. Ironically, they were precisely the changes Robert attempted to implement.

I was hopeful that CCM could turn around and really get revitalized. I have an abundance of wonderful memories from there. However, hearing about the bankruptcy and the PR-based explanations with lack of any real responsibility, I have little hope again for those changes. The marketing machine still seems to rule. And that is tragic.

The tragedy of this transition over the past several years has severely clouded my perspective of and experience in church organizations. I'm very skeptical of churches that hold secrets, particularly related to finances and organizational hierarchy. I think the importance of committee governance is of utmost importance. I greatly dislike marketing (even though it's a useful thing). I'm also inclined to de-emphasize performance and large-scale elements of churches in favor of building community.

In fact, I have questioned whether any large church community can actually work in a healthy, God-honoring, spiritually-beneficial way.

In many ways, I think I've grown from the Cathedral's struggles. I do hope and pray that things can be fixed. Such a public tragedy does not just paint a negative picture of CCM/HOP-like ministries in a negative light impersonally, but it actually emotionally and spiritually injures people.

I believe what is needed is an honest acceptance of responsibility and humility. We all make mistakes. And the larger we are, the bigger those mistakes often are. The CCM/HOP problems are not unique and frankly not as bad as many. How they handle it makes all the difference, just as with individual people's conflicts.

Update 10/30/10: This is a very good video from Nightline addressing the bankruptcy.


  1. Thanks for sharing, I really appreciate your thoughts.

    I found todays video at encouraging: Robert speaking on his plans to bring Bobby on TV.

  2. Thanks so much for this insight. I'm a Jazz musician from Sacramento, have played at the CC 3-4 times as guest artist. Great friends of mine have been members there since the start (now attending Bobby's church in Orange).

    You said, "In fact, I have questioned whether any large church community can actually work in a healthy, God-honoring, spiritually-beneficial way. " We attend Bayside Church, where Lincoln Brewster is the Worship Leader and Pastor Ray Johnston leads a vibrant, healthy and challenging service. I've played and ministered at over 500 churches nationally and i've had the same thoughts about larger churches, myself. However, this is one that has surprised me and it is not a tickle-the-ears mega church, by any means. Just check out the website to see all the amazing things God is doing through His church:

    Blessings and thanks again!
    Jim Martinez

  3. Hey, Jim!

    Thanks so much for your comments. It's always good to hear about healthy churches!



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