Should Churches Hire Family Members?
The decline of the Crystal Cathedral cannot be separated from the Schuller family saga.

The post mortem on the Crystal Cathedral continues. The iconic southern California megachurch pastored by Robert H. Schuller once represented the innovative and market-savvy dexterity of American Christianity. Schuller started his church at a drive-in movie theater, allowing visitors to stay comfortably inside their cars. Then he utilized television with the "Hour of Power" ministry broadcast. Its success allowed him to build one of the largest churches in the country.

But last year the church filed for bankruptcy, the soaring glass building was sold to the Roman Catholic diocese, and the ministry is in shambles. What happened?

Some view Schuller's ministry as the canary in the megachurch mine. It was one of the first megachurches in the country, and does its demise forecast the fate of others? Others point to demographic shifts. When built, the Crystal Cathedral was in a young and affluent community. But today the area is more economically and racially diverse.

But there is another aspect to the Crystal Cathedral's story worth exploring: family.

Robert Schuller's children were deeply involved in the church and television program. When the senior Schuller stepped down as senior pastor in 2006, his son, Robert A. Schuller, took over both the church and "Hour of Power." Eventually he also resigned amid disagreements over the direction of the ministry.

Then Schuller's daughter, Sheila Schuller Coleman, was installed as the pastor. The decline continued. Staff has dropped by 150, the building has been sold, and conflict on the board has resulted in Robert H. Schuller and his wife leaving the ministry they started over 50 years ago.

A former Crystal Cathedral board member believes family dynamics led, in part, to the decline of the ministry. "If you have a family ministry, the health of the relationships within the family is key to whether the governance of the ministry is going to work well or not," said Rev. Wes Granberg-Michaelson. He acknowledges there was a family dispute in 2006 over who would lead the church when Schuller stepped down.

"I think that Robert A. could have carried that ministry and could have continued it," said Granberg-Michaelson. "I also think that it would have been possible to find a person from the outside that would make that a mission-driven ministry and essentially a ministry that moved beyond the family. But neither one of those things happened."

There are many stories of fathers passing their ministries on to their children: Franklin Graham, Jonathan Falwell, and Joel Osteen all inherited their famous fathers' pulpits. Last month we even featured an interview with James and Jonathan Merritt, a father and son combo on the pastoral team at Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, Georgia, about the shifting generational values around outreach.

March 20, 2012

Displaying 1–9 of 9 comments


July 26, 2013  3:37pm

Having worked in a family business for 30 years, I experienced the tendency for making decisions based on what was good for the family and not necessarily what was good for the organization. Good family decisions may be lousy business decisions. The difficulty comes in making decisions based on what is good for the organization and are in fact actually detrimental to the family. Objectivity becomes clouded in decision-making.

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Matthew Smith

April 03, 2012  8:45pm

I'm not sure that you can use what happened with the Crystal Cathedral as an across the board example to determine whether or not churches should hire family members. I do believe however that individual gifts should always be given priority over family ties when considering who will fill a ministry position. If your family member happens to be gifted by God and equipped in such a way that they would fill the position well, then its probably a safe bet that God wants them there, but you should be careful about forcing a member of your family into a ministry role that they aren't intended for. There can also be an inherent danger to hiring family members in how it can alienate the rest of the staff or cause members of your congregation to feel that your decision was extremely biased, closing off an opportunity to others who may have been better equipped in favor of a family member. All in all I don't believe that there is a definitive right or wrong in hiring family members, but I would caution heavily concerning the issues that can come about if you do decide to hire family.

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April 03, 2012  12:36am

I'm just an Iowa farm boy myself... (who left the farm to fly for the USAF)... and then eventually into ordained ministry myself. I never asked Robert H directly, but I recall conversations with him in the days after Robert A was "moved up"... and I distinctly remember telling my wife that I didn't "see" it lasting... Robert H had been through the "ups & downs" of life – back on the farm and after – in ways that I was fairly certain his son had not. However, I'm also an optimist, soooo I "wished" Robert A the best when I saw him after the change... AND PRAYED the Holy Spirit was FULLY in both the decision itself and the ongoing ministry. Family can be both a plus... and a hindrance – whether directly or indirectly, especially when folks begin to perceive something might not be healthy or in the best interest of the community of faith's ministry. I've witnessed this in other ministries – when family members are given "special privileges" – whether real or perceived; and in fact I'm aware of a church community right now that I "worry" may be going down a similar path of "destruction"... or at least a weakened leadership due to "family" involvement. I've always wished that people – the "TV church" – could "see" what, at least some of, the day to day family do. Yes, some are indeed a part of the "TV show", but I also know there were those who were just as involved in outreach and helping others in and around the community as any other church... but then that didn't "pay the TV bills"... I certainly believe that at least a portion of the CC downfall is due to the radically changing culture in the U.S., as well as the economy. Indeed, if God is not a part of the leadership's decision process... then absolutely no amount of shifting chairs around on the deck will help. Again, prayers are in order for both the Crystal Cathedral community itself, AS WELL AS for those who continue to look for guidance in their lives... that may be left adrift in the midst of this storm.

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March 21, 2012  9:48pm

One thing I learned from my wife who worked in a family-owned business: hiring family is okay, but only if those hired have outside experience first. The requirement was for the family members to go to college, get their own job for at least five years, and then they could be brought into the family business. This accomplished multiple things: it gave the family members experience in another business or industry. It widened their scope. And it told the non-family member employees that it wasn't just because of their family name that they were given positions; this encouraged non-family to strive for higher positions, as they were not guaranteed to the family. I expect that hiring family in the ministry would be valuable with a similar outside experience requirement, experience either with a ministry or in an alternative business.

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March 21, 2012  1:14pm

Well, in the OT the Aaronic Priesthood was all in the family, but that model is obviously not required today. And God raised up prophets when the people and the priests ran amok (e.g., Samuel during the period of Eli and his sons). We have Priscilla and husband Aquila co-working with the Apostle Paul in the NT and also at least two sets of brothers among the Apostles, as well as wives, mothers, cousins, and siblings in the wings supporting Jesus' ministry. Family relationships, like all relationships, can be very good or go sour. It seems to me the real key is what kind of relationship individuals have with the Lord and what their spiritual integrity/maturity is like and, even more critically, whether what is being modeled and taught from the pulpit really conforms to the gospel of Christ. I've never gotten the impression that latter issue was crystal clear at the Crystal Cathedral–it seems like what came out of that "hour of power" had too much of pop feel-good psychology in it to be the fullness of the biblical gospel. On the other hand, I have always been a fan of Guideposts, another Norman Vincent Peale legacy, though it could never substitute for full engagement in the Church, and I would spiritually starve if that's all I was subsisting on.

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Michelle Van Loon

March 21, 2012  7:09am

I served on the staff of a church that was run by two interconnected, intermarried families. Several of the family members were on the paid staff, and others were in various leadership positions. They seemed to have their own staff meetings and conversations at Thanksgiving and their other family gatherings - it was a nightmare to try to do my job when they'd already had their own "off site" conversations about church business and come to consensus decisions.

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March 20, 2012  3:41pm

"Would you want your children on staff with you?" No, absolutely not. Would I want my children involved in ministry with me. Yes!! I merely reject the "staff" element. The staff concept involves consuming and controlling money and direction. We are keeping saints hostage or dependent upon our technical or charismatic savvy. We are no longer spiritual leaders "fully training others to be like us" Luke 6:40 We are merely maintaining a basis for our job and pay check. It doesn't matter whether it gets to looking ugly like Crystal or whether it continues to look shiny - holding the saints as dumbed down consumers generation after generation. Both are a shame to building the kingdom of God - helping saints to shine as lights in a dark and perverse world. I know for many it is sacrilege to question the clergy-ized version of church. Please just show me one verse that teaches perpetual dependency in leadership and I'll accept it. Would you want to be part of a church led by a single family? Yes, as long as the single family is seeking to reproduce, not control and gain followers of itself. Crystal is a canary of perpetual dependency leadership, not family connections in ministry.

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March 20, 2012  11:21am

This article raises some interesting questions. I was raised in a pastor's family and I am against pastor's hiring multiple family members or for one family (whether senior pastor or not) to have multiple staff positions. I have seen this done a lot in the South and I do not know if it is done equally as often in other parts of the country, but I have never seen it done well or to the benefit and health of the whole Body. Too much inbreeding causes weakness and perhaps an inability to see things from a broad perspective.

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March 20, 2012  10:47am

"But is mixing family and ministry a good idea?" I would say the situation that occurred at Crystal Cathedral would be very familiar to early medieval churches where "off-spring" would inherit the parishes and bishopric's from the father. In fact, I think this went on in later Italian Papal courts as well. Unfortunately, my memory of anything 14th up to present century of the Papal court is really bad...I don't have my notes...yeah, anyone else more familiar with Italian Papal courts could speak to this. As to whether this is good or not...I see both sides of good and bad for this, and it all depends on the individuals involved. Their motivations, their spiritual viewpoint on both the church, and G-d; but, most importantly, who they put first...immediate family, or the church family...and now that I've come to that point...hmm...perhaps it's not a good idea after all.

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