Christian author Carole Lewis stands at the front of the church sharing her tale of woe: bankruptcy, a daughter’s death, a husband’s prostate cancer, a home destroyed by a hurricane. Pastor Sheila Schuller Coleman stands nearby, listening attentively.
Neither Coleman nor the congregation seems particularly fazed by Lewis’ litany of tragedies. Instead, they wait for what everyone seems to know is coming: a positive message.
And then, as if on cue, Lewis delivers.
“God has been so faithful to our family,” Lewis says, as Coleman and others nod in agreement.
It’s an ordinary Sunday at the Crystal Cathedral, the gleaming Orange County megachurch built on a message of transforming misfortune into blessings. The hundreds of parishioners seem to crave the optimism, with some murmuring “make it a great week” as they stream out.
It’s also a philosophy the Crystal Cathedral has needed now more than ever.
Coleman, 59, who was formally installed as pastor on July 11 after nearly a year as interim pastor, is the latest member of the Schuller clan to take the helm of the landmark church after a bitter and public family feud.
Her father, the Rev. Robert H. Schuller, 83, founded the church in the 1950s in his three-bedroom house where the choir rehearsed in the living room.
“I was the first receptionist for the church at the age of 4,” Coleman recalled, laughing.
Coleman said growing up in and around the congregation made her feel loved and inspired to help people. But church leadership wasn’t always in the cards. Her parents explained that women could not be ordained. Her younger brother, the Rev. Robert A. Schuller, was always the heir apparent.
The younger Schuller took over as pastor in 2006, just as expected. But the new arrangement didn’t last long, as reports surfaced of a father-and-son rivalry that simmered behind the church’s silver-colored glass.
The family at the heart of one of America’s best-known evangelical megachurches, who had reached millions of viewers worldwide through the weekly “Hour of Power” program, wasn’t perfect after all.
“I’m just glad I didn’t grow up feeling that pressure,” she said, referring to the father-and-son tensions at the heart of the Schuller soap opera. “People don’t expect me to be just like Dad.”
Coleman, like her father and brother, attended Michigan’s Hope College, earning a bachelor’s degree in organic chemistry. When she wasn’t accepted into medical school, she settled into a life as a writer and educator.
She married and became the mother of four, helped edit her father’s books and wrote some of her own, including the recent Mommy Grace: Erasing Your Mommy Guilt. She taught in public schools and served as principal at the Crystal Cathedral’s primary and secondary schools for 15 years, and recently finished her doctorate in administrative leadership at the University of California, Irvine.
“My passion is for children,” she said. “I feel my calling is to reach, teach.”
Despite her focus on education, Coleman says she couldn’t help but say yes to her father. After what she described as a middle-of-the-night vision, he came to her and said: “Sheila, if I ask you to do this, would you say yes?”
She did, but the move did little to dampen the tensions between father and son.
“All I can say about Sheila Coleman is that I thought she made a decent teacher and school principal,” said Donna Schuller, Robert A. Schuller’s wife, about her sister-in-law.
For her part, Coleman said she and her brother were never terribly close, given their four-year age difference. But she added that there has never been any animosity between them; she said she has always loved him.
“We are as in touch as we ever have been,” she said.
In a 2009 interview with Christianity Today, Coleman’s brother said he was squeezed out of the “Hour of Power” broadcast when church leaders “decided to no longer air my messages.”
“I was disappointed, sad, hurt, and angry,” he continued. “It was a very difficult time, and quite frankly remains a difficult time.”
Others, however, blame a difference in preaching styles for the rift. Longtime member Augustine Remlinger, 83, says the younger Schuller relied on the Bible for his sermons, compared to his father’s gospel of positive thinking.
Under Coleman, she said, people are slowly drifting back to the church. “She knows what she’s doing now,” Remlinger said.
Remlinger’s daughter, Susie Stewart, 50, a homemaker, agreed.
“I think it was very hard for the church and for all of us as parishioners,” Stewart said. “I think they’ve done the best they can.”
Coleman's father attributes her success at the church to a shared vision: “Sheila will be doing what I would be doing if I were in her shoes,” Schuller said in a recent phone interview. “Focus on the positives.”
That’s not been an easy task lately as the church faces a crippling economic forecast. In May, the Crystal Cathedral sold its Rancho Capistrano property to Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, which plans to use it as a retreat center. The sale reduced Crystal Cathedral’s mortgage to $35.5 million, Coleman said, but recent reports still indicate a $55 million budget deficit and a 27 percent drop in revenue.
Coleman says the church has done what they can, given the current economic climate and a diminished congregation, though she says the cathedral’s Hispanic ministry has seen a huge boost in numbers.
“Things are turning around slowly,” she said. “I’ve had a huge, huge mess to clean up.”
Others are more skeptical about the church’s finances, particularly vendors and former employees who are still waiting to get paid.
“The Schullers aren’t hurting,” said Larry Grossman, a trumpeter in the church’s “Glory of Christmas” mega-pageant for nearly 30 years. “I’m sure they haven’t missed a check.”
Coleman says she and her father receive modest salaries, and that she could have earned more if she had stayed in the public school system. She does admit, however, that she craves to be liked by others.
And it is, perhaps, her father’s approval she wants most. A visit to Crystal Cathedral suggests he is still the heart of the ministry for many visitors.
Maxine Fahr, 45, a hospice nurse from San Diego, recently fulfilled “a life-long dream” by visiting Crystal Cathedral. When she was 6, doctors diagnosed her father with Hodgkin’s disease. Instead of going to church, she would sit in front of the television, watching Schuller preach.
She credits Schuller with influencing her way of thinking.
“I think no matter what happens in life that you get to have a choice in how you react,” Fahr said. “I wish I could have shaken (Schuller’s) hand.”
Coleman seems unfazed by the expectation that she’s supposed to save the church without wandering too far from her father’s shadow.
“That’s the bottom line with people,” Coleman said, when asked about the congregation’s acceptance of her as pastor. “They want someone who will honor and love Dad, and honor and love them.”