A chunky silver bracelet flopped around the Ichthus tattoo on Yvette Maher's wrist as she told me about her work at Focus on the Family.
Initially, the senior communications specialist said, she covered up the tattoo, inked right after a change in the company's dress code. The shift meant that men could go without a tie, women didn't have to wear dresses or skirts and pantyhose, and employees could display tattoos. Eventually, the tattoo came out, as did her story: She and her two daughters had gotten the tattoos to show solidarity before an intervention for her two nephews, who were addicted to black tar heroin.
At the time, founder James Dobson was slowly moving out of his leadership role. Less than two weeks after Focus's board meeting where Dobson was asked to resign, his new radio program, Family Talk, was incorporated in California. This raised questions about whether constituents would remain more loyal to Focus on the Family or its dynamic founder.
Even though Jim Daly had taken the reins as president of Focus in 2005, employees said that the new dress code in 2009 was one of the first internal signs that Focus would have a new atmosphere.
"It may not seem like a big deal to a lot of people, but to a lot of the employees, it was like, 'Wow that's new,'" says Maher, who sported a choppy, gelled haircut and dress pants. "God bless Jim Daly. He has launched us into the 21st century." She pauses to reconsider. "Or the 19th."
Daly, the youngest of five children born to alcoholic parents, entered the foster care system after his stepfather walked out during his mother's funeral, a story Daly tells in his 2007 book, Finding Home: An Imperfect Path to Faith and Family. After he and three of his siblings moved into a foster home of 10, his foster father accused Daly of trying to kill him. His biological father, who had left the family when Daly was 5, returned to take the boy from his increasingly mentally ill foster father. After a year of living together, Daly's father fell back into alcohol abuse and committed suicide.
"I come from a broken childhood. That's what gives me the energy. I don't have a Ph.D. in it, but I guess it's the school of hard knocks," Daly says, wearing a striped blue shirt and grey suit but no tie. "I have a driving passion to try to get every child a better home and to be an advocate for that child who has no home."
At 17, after living with his brothers, Daly found his own place—a trailer. He began pursuing his bachelor's degree and an MBA. He married at 25, and he and his wife, Jean, now have two boys, Troy, 10, and Trent, 8. They attend Red Rock Church, which is connected to Andy Stanley's Atlanta-based North Point Community Church. Daly was working at International Paper when he joined Focus in 1989 at one-third his previous six-figure salary at the Fortune 500 company.
Focus has made cuts of its own in the years since Daly became its president and chief executive officer. Last August, Focus slashed its staff to about 700, about half of its peak of 1,400 in 2002. It also reduced its 2010-2011 budget to $105 million after missing the previous year's $137 million income budget by $23 million. And that 2009-2010 budget was already more than 14 percent lower than its 2008-2009 budget of $160 million. (Income actually increased during Daly's first years as president, from about $149 million in 2006 to $152 million in 2008.) Listenership of Focus on the Family's flagship radio program dropped about 5 percent between winter and the following spring in 2010, according to the latest numbers from the Arbitron research firm.
Exactly how much of the financial decline was due to changes at Focus, and how much was due to the recession and other changes in the broader culture, is hard to determine. But there's little doubt that the loss of the symbiotic relationship between Focus on the Family and Dobson had an effect. Focus benefited from having Dobson at the helm, while the popular author and radio host promoted his materials on his radio show and to the ministry's constituents. For instance, Bringing Up Boys brought more than $3 million to the ministry, according to Dobson's 2005 authorized biography, Family Man.
Dobson never quite rose to the level of name recognition achieved by Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell. Surveys from different polling groups regularly showed that only about 1 in 3 Americans could identify him (half the percentage that could identify Robertson and Falwell). But Dobson vastly outpolled every other Christian figure, both in name recognition and favorability. Americans who could identify him liked him by a 2-to-1 margin (or nearly 4-to-1, according to Barna Research).
At work, Dobson was more than a celebrity. On his final day at Focus in February 2010, many employees stood in line for four hours to speak with Dobson and his wife. And while most of them carry business cards with a new logo, some still hand out cards that proudly proclaim, "Founded by James C. Dobson, Ph.D."
A Cultural—Not Political—Moment
America is still a celebrity culture, especially in its media. And Focus on the Family is still celebrity-friendly. But the Washington Post and USA Today articles framed in the main lobby are not about a Focus executive. They're all about a quarterback.
Just before Dobson's departure, Daly made one of his first media splashes by buying time for a widely discussed 2010 Super Bowl commercial featuring Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow.
For many employees, the move was indicative of the new tone Daly is working to create. Dobson had made headlines mostly for his political involvement. For example, during the 2008 presidential campaign, he said he would not vote for John McCain "under any circumstances," then changed his mind after McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate.
Daly, however, was bringing attention to Focus during a national sporting event, highlighting someone with no direct ties to the ministry, with a fairly noncontroversial message to "celebrate family, celebrate life."
The money for the ad came from an external donation and grew Focus's website traffic by a reported 41 percent in January and February 2010.
The Facebook Factor
Many evangelical organizations founded in the past half-century have wrestled with defining themselves after the tenure of their famous entrepreneurial founders: the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Oral Roberts University, Bill Bright's Campus Crusade for Christ, and Falwell's Liberty University, to name a few.
But Focus is not just another famous parachurch ministry experiencing leadership change. It's also an advice-driven, media-driven ministry in an industry that has seen massive upheaval, with an audience undergoing tremendous cultural shifts.
"People have only so much time and money and hours in a day to listen to the radio," says Dean Merrill, a former publishing executive who worked at Focus from 1989 to 1996. And today's parents "are not nearly as attuned to expert advice from an authority" as parents in previous generations. "They're more likely to jump on Facebook and see, 'What do my friends think?' That's a cultural shift that's not working in [Focus's] favor. Focus has hit a perfect storm here. You walk through the building, and there are whole sections that are ghost towns."
The struggling economy forced the organization to cut programs. Daly has repeatedly stated that Focus cannot tackle every social problem that needs attention or take a stance on every issue. In 2009, the organization sold its Love Won Out conferences on homosexuality to Exodus Ministries. It also stopped publishing three teen magazines, Brio, Brio and Beyond, and Breakaway (which had a combined circulation of 200,000). Focus gave the magazine licenses to Ryan Dobson, saying he outbid the competition because he did not request the subscription fees. But in the year since Ryan joined his father in creating Family Talk, the small footprint that remained of the magazines faded. In April, the websites disappeared altogether.
After moving on from niches like teen magazines, Focus will have to take stock of what it is and what it's trying to accomplish, says Larry Eskridge, associate director of the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College. The more connected the generation, the more likely it is to find advice from a mishmash of outlets.
"It raises the question of whether you can ever again build entities this large in such a culture that's so segmented and so individualized for communication and connecting," he says. "I don't think there's any shortage of angst about marriage and child-raising. It'll be interesting to see how they refocus—no pun intended—or how they re-conceive their mission."
All in the Family
Daly, who turns 50 this month, seems to be responding to the increasingly networked world by making the organization itself more cooperative.
Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), says he and Dobson would often speak at the same events, but they never met. Now, he says, there are informal conversations between Focus and the NAE more often than before. Anderson says he has seen a similar shift in interest from other evangelical leaders in partnering with Focus.
"What I'm most hearing now is friendship and a sense of collegiality, that we're on the same page and going the same direction," Anderson says. "There's a sense of transparency, that organizations can relate to Focus, introduce their agenda, and not just adopt an agenda that's already been established."
Samuel Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, agrees. He notes that Focus on the Family has long had a Hispanic ministry, but has significantly stepped up its efforts to network with leaders in the evangelical Hispanic community.
"The focus of its previous endeavor was translating and disseminating Focus materials in Spanish," says Rodriguez, who has discussed partnerships with Daly. "There was no engagement component."
Still, Focus has not taken a stance on an issue near and dear to many Hispanic evangelicals: immigration. Daly says that the issue is a family issue because families could be separated, but emphasizes that Focus is not an expert on the topic.
Rodriguez admits that's a reality for many evangelical organizations.
"My speculation would be that any evangelical organization that has a predominantly white evangelical donor base risks losing a revenue stream if these organizations take a definitive stance on an issue as polarizing as immigration reform."
Dobson himself was not known for shying away from polarizing political issues. He participated in networks like the Arlington Group (a coalition of politically conservative Christian groups that, notably, he did not found but for which he served as national chairman), and clashed with many evangelical leaders on policy, hiring decisions, and other issues. Famously among them was Wayne Pederson, who resigned as president of the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) under pressure in 2002 when Dobson took personally comments Pederson made that Christian broadcasters should focus more on preaching the gospel than on political matters.
"Certainly it hurt deeply to be maligned so publicly," Pederson says. "That was interesting and that was nasty, but you move on." After Pederson became president of the media and health-care ministry HCJB Global in Colorado Springs in 2008, Dobson invited Pederson to lunch, though he did not mention the NRB events. (Through an assistant, Dobson repeatedly declined interview requests for this article.)
Pederson has met with Daly a few times since the transition.
"He wants to take Focus back to the original mission of helping marriages and family, distancing themselves from the more political emphasis that they had under Dr. Dobson," says Pederson, who has spoken with Daly several times. "The stations that carry Focus have noticed that and appreciate the change."
A Political De-Emphasis
Daly does not address politics nearly as much as his predecessor, reflecting a return to the organization's original priorities of marriage and family advice. Of the 121 new radio programs in 2010, 55 percent of the programs were on marriage, family, and parenting, 24 percent were on spiritual growth, and 7 percent were on public policy, according to a 2010 internal survey. (Daly began hosting the daily program in March 2010 with Dobson's former co-host, John Fuller, and Juli Slattery, who replaces Dobson as the expert with a Ph.D.)
"We tend to shut down the ears of people to hear the gospel because they only see you in a political context or as a conservative," Daly says. "Christianity must transcend politics in order to change culture and politics."
Many Focus employees acknowledge the organization's shift in tone but not in policy.
For instance, earlier this year, Daly announced on Focus's show that it would sit down with pro-choice organizations to discuss how to decrease the number of abortions. A spokesman declined to say which organizations Focus is talking to, and said Focus would likely use the conversations to encourage the use of ultrasounds.
"The media is having a tough time figuring us out," says Tom Minnery, senior vice president of public policy for CitizenLink, Focus's legally independent political arm. "They say we're changing in tone and say, 'Aha! They're in a Rick Warren or Joel Hunter cubbyhole.' Then we are active in the defense of traditional marriage, which is seen by the media as hateful and homophobic, so they scratch their heads and say, 'Wait, I thought they were changing their tone.'"
In May 2010, the organization rebranded Focus on the Family Action to CitizenLink to downplay the parent organization's political emphasis. And the editorial tone of CitizenLink has shifted in the past few years. For instance, Focus Action published an article just before the 2008 election that suggested that under an Obama administration, terrorists would strike four American cities, a nuclear bomb would hit Israel, and gay marriage would be legal in every state.
CitizenLink clearly displays antipathy for President Obama, but such dire prognostications are rare at Focus now, while Dobson continues to make them. "At stake are policies that should concern millions of Americans, including federal funding for abortions, amnesty for illegal aliens, open homosexuality in the military, further assaults on religious liberty, and universal health care legislation amounting to rationing and the denial of medical services for older Americans," Dobson wrote in a Family Talk newsletter. "The possibility of 'death panels' looms before us."
The distinction may be lost on the public, however. Even though Dobson has left Focus, his name remains attached in many ways. For instance, as he endorsed candidates and made predictions about the 2010 midterm elections, media outlets regularly referred to him as founder of Focus on the Family, with no reference to Family Talk.
Meanwhile, Focus could pay a price for its shift in tone, says Nathaniel Klemp, who wrote his Princeton University dissertation, "The Morality of Spin," on the rhetoric of conservative Christian activists and organizations like Focus on the Family.
"As they're making a turn towards a less contentious, less polarizing rhetoric, they may not be able to create the same kind of outrage and passion," says Klemp, now professor of political theory at Pepperdine University. "They'll still be around, but I don't know if being a political player will continue."
The shift may have economic consequences as well. The independent political arm of Focus has encouraged people to donate to the organization. For instance, in his editorial position at Citizen magazine, Tom Hess produced a $300,000 surplus in 2008-2009. (Hess left the organization in 2009 before he filed for divorce. He declined to interview with CT due to the terms of his severance.) But CitizenLink's July webcast included a plea for funds, with hosts noting that they had not previously needed to use the platform for fundraising.
Even non-Christians have noted a shift at Focus. "Friendly atheist" blogger Hemant Mehta wrote about how surprised he was when he attended a Wheaton College event where Daly spoke and did not mention gay marriage. A Focus spokesperson e-mailed Mehta and said he appreciated the feedback. "I wasn't expecting that type of outreach." Still, Mehta says, he and his friends see Focus on the Family as an obstacle when it comes to issues like same-sex marriage.
"I assure you no gay people are saying, 'Focus on the Family is a great organization now that James Dobson has left!'" Mehta says. "The group may have a more affable public face in Jim Daly, but its positions haven't changed, so Daly has a very uphill battle ahead of him if he wants to build bridges to the non-Christian community."
Daly believes the tension between gay rights and religious freedom is one of the biggest cultural issues facing Christians.
"The collision course between religious liberties and same-sex rights is right in front of us," says Daly, who will publish a book next year with Zondervan on Christian engagement in the public square. "The challenge will be, how do we respond, and can we respond in a way that always keeps the souls of those who oppose us at the forefront?"
Focus maintains a presence in Washington, D.C., but it is significantly quieter than other politically active organizations like Family Research Council (which Dobson and Focus launched and, for a time, operated). Focus hired Tim Goeglein, a White House aide under President George W. Bush charged with connecting with conservative leaders. But he gained the most attention by resigning in 2008 after admitting to writing columns that contained plagiarized passages.
"Tim is repentant, he's asked for forgiveness, and he's moved on," says Stuart Shepard, senior director of CitizenLink media. He noted that Focus's employee group includes recovering alcoholics and former prostitutes. "This is not a building of people who have never sinned. We're in the redemption business."
Goeglein's job is not to make headlines, but he meets with movers and shakers in Washington. Few people realize, Shepard says, that Focus's political wing receives only about 5 percent of the overall budget.
Not your Mother's Focus
Daly is also expanding into new areas. Between layoffs in 2009, the ministry hired Esther Fleece, an energetic 28-year-old, to spearhead engaging the millennial generation. She reports directly to Daly. CitizenLink, meanwhile, launched Rising Voice at the 2010 Conservative Political Action Conference as an effort to reach young adults on issues related to sex trafficking, poverty, and the environment.
In the past, Focus has engaged in what some call "Christmas Wars," asking consumers to consider whether stores use phrases like "Happy Holidays." Last year, however, Rising Voice asked consumers to consider organic or eco-friendly clothing and fair-trade products.
As this issue of Christianity Today goes to press, the ministry is scheduled to highlight the work of Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS, a company that donates shoes to an impoverished child for every pair sold.
"A year ago, they were like, 'Who's that?'," Fleece laughs. Now the company is working to become a TOMS international distributor in Africa. "We're making slow strides here."
In many ways, Focus represents a larger struggle in evangelicalism over political and cultural engagement and the issues it prioritizes.
"Many traditional evangelicals are struggling with, What does evangelicalism mean?" says Dale Buss, author of Dobson's biography. "They still care about the same issues and they still agitate politically. But do we keep going back to abortion and gay marriage or be more responsive on issues the millennial generation is interested in, like sex trafficking and other social justice issues?"
Apart from its public policy work, Focus emphasizes the 500 ultrasound machines it's placed in pregnancy centers and the 1,500 families in its adoption program. In June, Greg Smalley, son of marriage author and speaker Gary Smalley, became Focus's executive director of marriage. Marriage and family, Daly says, are what the organization was built to focus on.
Back in his office, Daly and I spoke about the souvenirs from trips to Africa that sit on his office shelves after we talked about other ministries that found success with personality-driven branding, such as Joyce Meyer Ministries and Oral Roberts University.
"Except organizations like World Vision or Compassion," Daly jumped in. "It's interesting—the more orthopraxy, the less personality. The more orthodoxy, the more personality: 'This is what I believe the Bible says.' It is kind of interesting that they tend to fall into those camps."
A plaque with the definition of orthopraxis sits on one of Daly's shelves: " 'Right doing,' the complement of orthodoxy." Daly sets the tone and the pace. Focus may have become successful under Dobson, but Daly does not see himself as the driving force behind the ministry.
"I don't think Focus on the Family needs to be personality-driven by anybody," Daly says. "Mission-driven organizations, I think, have greater staying power."
Sarah Pulliam Bailey is online editor for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2011 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
The ministry maintains a profile page for Jim Daly with a detailed testimony, messages, and other media.
Previous Christianity Today coverage of Focus on the Family, Jim Daly, and James Dobson includes:
Dobson Says Goodbye (for Now) | Today is his last broadcast of Focus on the Family. But he'll be back on the air soon. (February 26, 2010)
James Dobson Resigns from focus on the Family | Dobson will still host the radio show, write a monthly newsletter, and speak on moral issues. (February 27, 2009)
Focus on the Family Action Taps Former Bush Aide who Resigned for Plagiarism | (January 28, 2009)
Focus on the Family Eliminates 202 Jobs | The organization's budget will drop to $138 million. (November 17, 2008)
An Obama Administration in the Eyes of Focus on the Family Action | (October 24, 2008)
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