Crystal Cathedral Makes Deep Cuts

Friday, 29 Jan 2010 10:23 PM

 

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GARDEN GROVE, Calif. – The Southern California megachurch founded by televangelist Robert H. Schuller Sr. is selling property, laying off workers and pulling its signature TV program "Hour of Power" from some markets to offset a nearly $8 million drop in revenue.

The church saw revenue drop 27 percent from roughly $30 million in 2008 to $22 million in 2009, church spokesman Mike Nason told The Associated Press. The church had projected an 18 percent revenue drop.

Church leaders blamed the decline on the struggling U.S. economy. They intend to save $4.9 million and stave off further financial collapse by selling 170 acres in southern Orange County, including a retreat and wedding center, laying off 50 employees and cutting "Hour of Power" from eight of the 45 domestic broadcast TV stations that air it.

Church officials declined to name the cities where the program would be cut because station managers have not yet been notified.

The 10,000-member church will also cancel this year's "Glory of Easter" pageant, which attracts thousands of visitors and is a regional holiday staple along with the church's "Glory of Christmas" show.

"Hour of Power," which has aired for 40 years, will continue to appear on cable networks such as Lifetime and TBN, and on broadcast TV in markets including California, Colorado, Florida and Ohio, said John Charles, director of development and public relations.

"If we can just hang in there and be smart about surviving the downturn in the economy, this storm will pass and we will be OK and we can begin to grow again as a ministry," Sheila Schuller Coleman, Schuller's daughter and the church's recently appointed leader, said in a prepared statement.

The disclosure mirrors the troubles in recent months at other megachurches that have suffered from the downturn and reduced charitable giving.

Rick Warren, best-selling author and founder of Saddleback Church, made an appeal on New Year's Eve for urgent donations after finding his organization was nearly $1 million in the red. Parishioners raised $2.4 million for Saddleback and its ministries within days.

The Crystal Cathedral doesn't expect a similar outpouring from its members or viewers of "Hour of Power."

"It would be nice, but we understand the economy and people are hurting and our audience are not rich people," Charles said. "There's a lot of people on fixed incomes and they're giving what they can."

That aging membership base, along with the bad economy, could be a big part of the Crystal Cathedral's problem, said Richard Flory, a senior research associate for the Center for Religion & Civic Culture at the University of Southern California.

The era of blockbuster televangelists is fading and viewership is declining even as the age of the average viewer creeps upward, he said.

"I can't imagine anybody younger than 40 watching some sort of televangelist," he said. "Younger people are worshipping in smaller venues. I think the megachurch is always going to appeal to groups of people, but the television piece of it, I just don't see that as a growth market anymore."

The church, founded more than 50 years ago, and its internationally known telecast have been bleeding dollars and members for years — a trend that accelerated when Schuller Sr. stepped down and passed his senior pastor role to his son, Robert A. Schuller Jr.

Schuller Jr. became engaged in a bitter family feud, disappeared from "Hour of Power" broadcasts and abruptly left the church in 2008, less than three years after he took over for his father.

Schuller Jr. announced his own weekly show on AmericanLife TV Network last summer. Coleman, his sister, was appointed as the ministry's top administrator.

"Hour of Power" changed formats, with Coleman and her father appearing on the show with a stable of up to six guest pastors. Last year, Schuller Sr. pleaded for donations in an open letter posted on the church's Web site, saying the final months of 2008 were devastating.

Nason rejected the idea that the losses were the result of turbulence among leadership. A random survey last fall of nearly 700 members showed the departure of Schuller Jr. was not a factor in reduced giving, he said.

"What was significant was the economic downturn, and they were giving 30 to 40 percent less dollars to the ministry in 2009 than they did in 2008," he said.

Flory, the professor, said the economy undoubtedly plays a large role in the church's troubles — but the leadership changes at the top don't help keep viewers tuned in.

"The turbulence at the top blows up and nobody's ever heard of the daughter," he said. "I think since the beginning it's been pretty much an entertainment, feel-good place and it probably doesn't feel very good right now."

The Crystal Cathedral has a storied history.

Schuller Sr., now 83, first formulated his outreach to the unchurched in the mid-1950s when he opened a ministry at a drive-in theater in the suburbs of Orange County that catered to Southern California's emerging car culture. He pulled people in with his sermons on the power of positive thinking.

The little church later grew into the Crystal Cathedral, a worship hall with a soaring glass spire that opened in 1970 and remains an architectural wonder and tourist destination.

The "Hour of Power" telecast, filmed in the cathedral's main sanctuary, at one point attracted 1.3 million viewers in 156 countries. Charles said he didn't know what viewership is now but suspected it's lower.

Nason said the property to be sold is a church campus in southern Orange County known as Rancho Capistrano.

About 150 acres of the property — including 80 acres of open space — are already in escrow, he said.

The remaining 20 acres, which contain a spiritual retreat center with hotel rooms, a church building, acres of gardens and a Spanish mission-style hacienda popular for weddings, will also go on sale.

The Family Life Center on Crystal Cathedral's main property in Garden Grove, has been on the market for a year with no buyers, Charles said.

Employees who will be laid off received pink slips Friday and were given 60 days notice, he said.

© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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