Pushing ahead with his father’s brand of unfettered optimism, the Rev. Robert A. Schuller plans to attract more young people to the Crystal Cathedral and recruit a million new members around the globe.
The handsome pastor assumes the post of his father, the Rev. Robert H. Schuller, a charismatic figure who built the nation’s first megachurch and influenced religious leaders worldwide.
Groomed for decades to head Crystal Cathedral Ministries, the younger Schuller has experienced firsthand the ideas and leadership style of his father.
It was announced Sunday that he will become head pastor of the church Jan. 22.
“From the time I was born, God has equipped me and allowed me to take on this incredible challenge,” Schuller said Sunday. “Together as a team we will succeed and take this ministry to the next level in the next 50 years.”
But some religion experts say Schuller, 51, is not a visionary like his father and faces substantial challenges to maintain the broad influence of the Crystal Cathedral in the religious life of the country.
The father “has had a significant impact on the American church and megachurch pastors,” said Scott L. Thumma, a sociology professor at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, who studies the nation’s largest churches.
“Trying to assume that role in the larger religious community will be a difficult, if not impossible, task for the son�. It is hard to fill the shoes of a prophet.”
The younger Schuller, known as Robert II at the church, said he already handles about 80% of the responsibilities at the Crystal Cathedral and harbors no doubts about his ability to lead the congregation.
His role in the church has steadily grown since April 1996, when his father and high-ranking church officials announced the line of succession.
“It’s just about taking another step,” the younger Schuller said in an interview Friday. “I don’t have any fears. I have a lot of hopes and expectations, and I do have some challenges.”
Schuller’s son earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts at Hope College in Holland, Mich., the same school his father attended, and a master’s of divinity degree at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.
Though he worked briefly at the Crystal Cathedral as a minister of evangelism, the younger Schuller branched out on his own in 1981, founding Rancho Capistrano Community Church, a complex that includes a school and a nondenominational retreat.
The younger Schuller directed Rancho Capistrano for nearly 20 years, until he returned five years ago to work full time at the Crystal Cathedral’s Garden Grove campus for the last stage of his apprenticeship. Like his father, he also writes religious books.
Unlike his father, he says, he is a hands-off manager who gives people more leeway in their jobs, empowering them to use their talents and allowing them the freedom to make mistakes.
One of his top priorities will be to attract younger people to the church, which has aged along with his father, now 79. He says he will call on the help of his son, Robert V. Schuller, who is attending Fuller Theological Seminary.
The other main goal of the new senior pastor is to recruit as church members a million people around the world who watch the “Hour of Power” broadcasts or view church programs on the Internet.
He is looking for ways to minister to those people, including organizing small prayer groups at homes, meeting houses or safe houses in countries where totalitarian regimes persecute Christians.
The Rev. Billy Graham said in a statement that the younger Schuller “is a great communicator and will more than fill his father’s shoes.”
John Vaughn, director of the Megachurch Research Center in Bolivar, Mo., agreed. He said Schuller’s son was well-suited for the job and perhaps better prepared than other megachurch heirs. Vaughn noted that the younger Schuller is seminary trained, has been his father’s understudy for years, and benefits from a network of megachurch pastors who share information and discuss their failures and successes.
The son also has been exposed repeatedly to his father’s ideas about building church membership. The elder Schuller wrote “Your Church Has Real Possibilities,” which Vaughn described as the “premier book” for pastors interested in expanding their congregations.
“There is a saying: When you put a poker in the fire, the fire gets in the poker. Ten years ago, when the succession was announced, there wasn’t that much fire in the poker. Now there is a whole lot more,” Vaughn said. “This is not a silver spoon for the son. He has developed as a leader.”
Professor Donald E. Miller, director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at USC, cautioned that it is unusual for the charisma of great political or religious leaders to be passed down to their children.
The job of the younger Schuller, Miller said, will be especially tough in the 21st century world of religion, where loyalties can quickly change as churches engage in modern marketing and compete for followers.
“The Crystal Cathedral has been very much based and rooted in a personality,” Miller said. “The congregation will see the father in the son. But in the long term, as the father’s influence and memory fades, he’s going to have to make it on his own.”
Yet, it is possible for the sons of great ministers to continue the work of their fathers, and even flourish. At Lakewood Church in Houston, Pastor Joel Osteen expanded the congregation from 6,000 to 30,000, making it the largest church in the nation, after his father died in 1999.
Given all his advantages, the younger Schuller has the ability to continue the Crystal Cathedral ministry, Thumma said, but he clearly is not his father.
The elder Schuller “was such a strong figure and a distinctive personality. His history brought so much credibility and influence,” Thumma said. “His son just inherited the ministry. He did not establish it. He does not have the same rich background to draw upon.”
Jan. 2, 2005
By Dan Weikel and William Lobdell, Times Staff Writers