Crystal Cathedral vows to continue its ministry after remaining Schullers resign

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GARDEN GROVE, Calif. — Regular worship services were held March 18 at the beleaguered Crystal Cathedral but, for the first time since the congregation's founding 56 years ago, the ministry continued without a member of the founding Schuller family at the helm.

The church's lead pastor Sheila Schuller Coleman, daughter of founder Dr. Robert H. Schuller, announced during the late morning service on March 11 that it was her final service and that she would be starting another church in Orange County.

Her announcement came a day after her parents, still serving on the ministry board after her father's retirement from the pulpit, announced they had resigned their posts after filing a $5.5 million lawsuit against the church, alleging theft of intellectual property.

In a statement released March 13, the governing board of Crystal Cathedral Ministries announced services would be continuing at the church, although it made no mention about who would be delivering the message or shepherding the once mega church.

In the pulpit was guest preacher Lawrence Wilkes. Attendance was reported at 500 to 600 people up from the 400 or so believed to have been attending in recent weeks.

"We invite everyone to join us next Sunday for worship in the Crystal Cathedral," John Charles, chairman of Crystal Cathedral Ministries' Board of Directors said in the official statement. "Since sharing this news with our congregation, we have received an outpouring of assurance and encouragement from numerous members of the congregation about their excitement over the return to the traditional worship style on which the ministry was founded."

In addition to issues over the church's bankruptcy proceedings, which led to the sale of the landmark church earlier this year, many longtime members had expressed frustration over changes Coleman made in updating music and other issues.

Though not attributed directly to Charles, the statement also said that the "services will feature the traditional music and message which is synonymous with the ministries' legacy."

Operation of the "Hour of Power," the signature Christian television broadcast that has been produced and copyrighted by Crystal Cathedral Ministries since 1970, would also continue to be aired domestically and internationally, the statement read.

The statement referenced a breach of contract lawsuit filed by the elder Schullers and their daughter and son-in-law, Carol and Timothy Milner, claiming they are "seeking immediate cash payments in excess of $5.5 million, a claim to ownership of all of the ministry's intellectual property and for unspecified monetary damages for infringement."

The statement went on to say the creditor's committee overseeing the church's bankruptcy had already objected to the claims and paying such a claim would leave the church without sufficient funds to operate. In addition, creditors cannot be paid until the Schuller suit is settled, the statement read.

In an online video posted on the senior Schullers' Facebook page, Robert Schuller said the suit was brought to protect a 2005 contract he made with the board of directors that protected the couple financially for the remainder of their retirement. The ongoing bankruptcy could jeopardize that contract, he said.

He said many of the writings and materials he developed were created on his own personal time and that they never received royalties or revenue from the income generated for the church.

"Our financial future may be at risk within the context of the bankruptcy," the family patriarch said.


Surprise announcement
The day after the resignation of her father and mother, Arvella, from the church's governing board, Coleman preached during the first service before announcing during the second service that it was her last Sunday at the Crystal Cathedral.

Local news media reported that as few as 400 people were in attendance at the last Schuller-led service at the Crystal Cathedral, a long and public descent for the storied church, where attendance once topped 10,000.

By mid-week, a new website announced the formation of Hope Center OC (Of Christ). A video on the site featured Coleman as lead pastor and her brother-in-law Jim Penner, former producer for "Hour of Power," as its teaching pastor. Literally following in her father's footsteps, the new church held its first service at the AMC theater in the Outlets at Orange mall, drawing about 200 people.

The Crystal Cathedral was originally launched in 1955 at a drive-in theater. The following week services were slated for the Anaheim Marriott Suites.

"We are going to need a new home sooner than we thought and we are moving full speed ahead," Coleman said in the video.

A statement on the new church's Facebook page, described it as "the next chapter of Hope" implying it was still affiliated with the Garden Grove church.

"The Crystal Cathedral Congregation, founded in 1955 by Dr. Robert H Schuller, has been renamed the Hope Center OC (Of Christ). This is the third name for this church since being founded by Dr. Robert H. Schuller in 1955 as the Garden Grove Community Church. This would remain the name of the church until 1980, when it moved into the Crystal Cathedral and became the Crystal Cathedral Congregation," the Facebook post read.

The statement said a new name was necessary to coincide with the "transition out of the Crystal Cathedral building."

"Dr. Sheila Schuller Coleman, the commissioned senior pastor of the Crystal Cathedral Congregation will continue to lead the church under its new name in a new location," the Facebook statement read. "This move was done with the full support of founding pastor Dr. Robert H. Schuller and wife Arvella Schuller."

In a statement they released about the resignations, the elder Schullers offered support to their daughter but said they would not be worshiping at either the Crystal Cathedral or the Hope Center OC.


Family tensions
Coleman was named senior pastor in June 2009, seven months after her only brother, the Rev. Robert A. Schuller, resigned from the pulpit in a widely publicized family rift over the direction of the church. The younger Schuller, handpicked by his father, had served as senior pastor since 2006. A month before the son resigned from the pulpit, the elder Schuller removed him from his hosting duties with the "Hour of Power" broadcast, citing a difference over vision. The son later announced he was starting his own television enterprise.

After the unsuccessful transition with his son at the helm and dealing with mounting debt, the church placed an office building on its complex up for sale, consolidated its assets and laid off numerous pastors.

The financial troubles continued under Coleman's tenure leading the church to cancel its signature "Glory of Easter" and "Glory of Christmas" productions in 2010. That year it sold a 20-acre retreat center in San Juan Capistrano, but by October 2010, four months after founding pastor Schuller announced his retirement for the second time, the church filed for bankruptcy, listing $55 million in debts.

In February, as part of the bankruptcy plan, the church closed escrow on the 10,000-glass-paneled Crystal Cathedral campus, selling it to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange County for $57.5 million, although the church has an agreement to use the facility for up to three years.