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A spate of articles hit the media this week reporting that Dr. Robert H. Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral filed for bankruptcy protection. Church leaders blamed the economy, drops in attendance, and a large mortgage debt, some $30 million left over from building expansion. According to the church leaders, then, the church has problems and money is the culprit.

But money isn’t usually an organization’s primary problem. Money is more of a symptom than a cause. Sure, some organizations or corporations can truly be caught in the unpredictable vagaries of the marketplace, but imoney is generally a secondary issue.

It’s not unlike couples telling marriage counselors they’re having sex-related problems in their marriage. Again, could be, maybe; perhaps there are genuine, discrete problems rooted strictly in sex. But not usually. Experienced marriage counselors know there’s almost always something else, some other breakdown in the couple’s life or relationship, a primary problem that generates a secondary or contingent sex problem. Money problems in marriage and in organizations are like that too.

The real issue at the Crystal Cathedral is not money but leadership. I visited the Cathedral last winter and wrote about my impressions at the time. I think what I said then holds true today. Dr. Robert H. Schuller didn’t know when to let go. I doubt he was clueless on these mathers—he’s too gifted for that to be the case. No, he either didn’t want to or couldn’t let go.

Dr. Schuller, to give him credit, tried to leave in 2006 when he transferred leadership to his son, Robert A. Schuller. But it didn’t work. Son was gone less than three years later. Despite news coverage no one’s quite sure why. But whatever the surface issues the real problem was leadership again.

At the time, rather than conduct a national search for a pastor capable of leading the church, Dr. Schuller returned and stayed long past a time when he, because of age, could be effective in the pulpit and in leadership. He didn’t change, apparently didn’t let his son change things, and didn’t respond to cultural shifts in the Christian community.

None of this is intended as disrespect for Dr. Schuller. He’s a pastor who accomplished many good things, and whom he is and what he seemed to do in mishandling leadership are all quite human.

But the issue is still leadership. Great leaders know when to leave. Unless God removes them in some way, great leaders leave a legacy to build upon and they leave with their head up.

In football, Tony Dungy, formerly of the Indianapolis Colts, is an example of a great leader who knew when to leave and left gracefully. Bobby Bowden, formerly of the Florida State University Seminoles, is an example of a good leader who didn’t know when to leave, was eventually forced out, and left a legacy of public bitterness and ungraciousness in the process. It’s too bad, because in almost every other way Bobby Bowden is a good man of great achievements.

Dr. Robert A. Schuller is a good man of great achievements, but he didn’t handle well the leadership succession imperative that comes to every leader. Rev. Jerry Falwell planned well, and when God called him home, the plans worked perfectly for the good of the ministries Dr. Falwell led. Rev. Billy Graham planned well, and when advancing age began taking its toll, the planned transition to son Franklin worked admirably.

Money is the great equalizer, so if leaders misstep the mistakes sometimes show up in the bottom line. The Crystal Cathedral needs funds to continue operation, but what it needs more is a vibrant, visionary new leader. Here’s hoping those who care for the Crystal Cathedral ministry realize this and launch not a fundraising campaign but a leadership search.


© Rex M. Rogers – All Rights Reserved, 2010


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