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“Like father, like son?”

Until the Crystal Cathedral situation started coming unwound I would have sworn that church bankruptcies happened for exactly two reasons:

  1. A debt load per donor that is too high
  2. Leadership malfeasance

The first one is an easy rug to sweep a bunch of unlike bankruptcies under, because it includes cases where a church takes on a new unsustainable debt, or where a previously sustainable debt becomes too large because the number of donors drops. Examples of both are cites in this article from this Suzanne Sataline/Wall Street Journal article from December 2008 [link], when it really seemed likely that the credit crunch and associated economic recession would produce a wave of church bankruptcies.

So far as I can tell that hasn’t happened; church bankruptcies are still rare events and are more sensibly blamed on events within the church rather than trouble in the broader economy. Economic times are tough all over, but multiple church bankruptcies in the same metropolitan area are still very rare.

Leadership malfeasance can cause a church to fail; there’s a whole gamut here, from a pastoral divorce and scandal (see e.g. Randy and Paula White’s Church Without Walls) to losses due to lawsuits (see various Catholic dioceses) to outright embezzlement.

But now in the wake of the Crystal Cathedral bankruptcy I’d have to add a third:

  • Unpopular leadership succession

For the benefit of anyone who hasn’t been paying attention to the Crystal Cathedral situation, it went a little like this: founding pastor Robert Schuller retired in 2006 and passed the pulpit to his son Robert A. Schuller [link]. The younger Schuller preached differently (I’m under the impression that he is more charismatic/pentecostal than his father, but can’t seem to find a good summary of the differences online) and contributions dropped off until the elder Schuller took the pulpit back and after sharing it with his daughter Sheila Schuller Coleman retired again and passed the pulpit to Coleman full time earlier this year [link]. Revenue declined further, the ministry canceled a couple of marquee shows and stiffed some creditors, and finally filed for bankruptcy a few weeks ago. I might be inclined to suggest here that Crystal Cathedral was afflicted by not one but two unpopular successors to founder Schuller.

Which brings me to this recent column from the Salt Lake Tribune by Corey Hodges, pastor of New Pilgrim Baptist Church in Salt Lake City, titled “Like father like son? It doesn’t always work out in the ministry” [link]. It’s mostly a compare-and-contrast, suggesting that the Billy Graham succession has succeeded while the Schuller transition failed. It also name-checks the Osteens and the Falwells as successful transitions, with caveats. Hodges makes the transition from successful transitions back to the Crystal Cathedral situation this way (emphasis mine):

Preachers’ children often are exposed to the challenges of the ministry and can receive invaluable insight from being around their parents. They thus tend to be suitable candidates for succession.

Family-line succession also is biblical. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the high priest of Israel was to be a descendant of Aaron, the brother of the prophet Moses. Aaron was succeeded by a son, Eleazar, and the trend continued for several generations.

Celebrity ministries often benefit from family succession because they tend to be personality-driven. Having a person familiar with the organization’s leadership style, who has similar personality traits, can provide stability for continued success.

The main problem with family-line succession is descendants often are expected to continue their parents’ vision rather than develop their own.

This is a fascinating piece of theology; as best I can tell Hodges is suggesting that the pattern for succession in the modern church is the Aaronic priesthood, rather than say the master-disciple relationship of Paul and Timothy. Or Jesus and The Twelve. He also suggests that the problem with unsuccessful successors is in expectations (of donors, I guess) rather than in the leadership. I might gently suggest that if a man spends 55 years in the pulpit, as the elder Schuller did, and he doesn’t have a workable succession plan, the problem is his, not the congregation’s.

And finally, I might gently suggest that a preacher speaking this way is a warning sign regarding how he sees his relationship to the rest of the church. There’s not a lot about Aaron in Scripture to serve as a model for behavior; there’s the Golden Calf episode, the Nadab and Abihu episode, and not a whole lot else (and I’m hoping neither is instructive in a positive sense), so chances are good the preacher in question is filling this empty symbol with his own meaning.

Update: Mark Byron takes another tack on this, asking rhetorical questions about megachurch bankruptcies [link]. Big church bankruptcies are so rare I’m not sure there’s a special way they get reorganized, as opposed to say a shopping mall.

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