Dobson’s family squabble

Dr James DobsonIt was a busy New Year’s weekend for Mark Barna, religion reporter for the Colorado Springs Gazette, who covered the growing split between James Dobson and Focus on the Family, the powerful and prominent evangelical parachurch organization he has led for decades.

Focus, which has struggled with declining income and layoffs, has for years been concerned about its future and its transition to a new generation of leaders. Dobson resigned as chairman of Focus’s board in February 2009 and is scheduled to host his last Focus radio program on Feb. 28, 2010. He recently began spelling out his unexpected plans for what he will do after that.

Thursday’s Gazette story reported:

James Dobson may be leaving Focus on the Family in late February, but he’s not going away.

Dobson, who founded Focus in 1977, announced on his Facebook page that in March he will launch a nonprofit Christian group and host a new radio show with his son, Ryan.

Retiring is attractive, Dobson writes, but “the institution of the family continues to be in deplorable condition, and children are growing up in a culture that often twists and warps their young minds.”

Friday’s story reported that Dobson is now competing with Focus for the donor dollars needed to support his new venture, which is called James Dobson on the Family.

And in a post on his blog, “The Pulpit,” Barna raises questions about Dobson’s motivation:

On his Facebook page, Dobson estimates first-year operation costs to be $2 million. “Your participation will be greatly appreciated, especially during this time when startup costs will be very expensive,” he writes.

Dobson’s new ministry will have a similar agenda to that of Focus, which is to build up family values. The centerpiece of the ministry will be a daily radio show Dobson will co-host with 39-year-old Ryan.

Dobson’s departure from Focus only to start a similar ministry has some outside observers speculating that Dobson was forced out of Focus and that a bitter Dobson decided to create a competing organization. Dobson, they say, may also feel that Focus’ kinder and gentler approach under CEO and president Jim Daly is not doing the trick, motivating Dobson to start a family nonprofit where fiery rhetoric is the norm.

Both Focus and Dobson deny these reasons.

Barna quoted some of the usual suspects (Randall Balmer, John Green) who said Dobson’s actions were unusual, but he didn’t feature any parachurch experts or non-official Focus insiders, some of whom have told me that Dobson has long expressed frustration about the board forcing him to leave before he was ready. “He didn’t jump; he feels he was pushed,” one told me months ago.

On Sunday Gazette columnist Barry Noreen added to the intrigue with this speculation:

Dobson wants to pass the torch to his son, Ryan, and couldn’t do it at Focus because Ryan Dobson went through a divorce in 2001.

Meanwhile Rich Tosches, a columnist at the Colorado Springs Independent, wrote on Dec. 24 that Focus may–or may not be–spending millions to air an anti-abortion commercial featuring Tim Tebow’s mother during the Super Bowl.

A source says the new head of Focus, Jim Daly, spoke at an evangelical conference a few months ago and unveiled the Super Bowl ad plan. Then he begged for donations from like-minded organizations. According to the source, Daly was given about $3 million, and Focus dipped into its general fund for the other $1 million.

This, of course, will come as a surprise to the 150 or so Focus employees who were fired a few months ago, supposedly because of a steep decline in handouts from dwindling legions of followers. In 2008, some 200 workers were fired from the Christian organization just weeks before Christmas.

I’m looking for stories that go deeper into the mystery of why Dobson now seems to be competing with the organization he birthed and nurtured for so long, and will keep you posted if anyone brings this into clearer focus.

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  • Chris Bolinger

    Steve, is this getting any national play? If not, any thoughts as to why not?

  • Mike Hickerson

    I saw the story here in Cincinnati, so it’s getting some kind of national coverage, though I can’t remember if it was in a secular or Christian source.

    What do you think about the phrase “dwindling legions of followers”? The economy has hit all nonprofits hard. Aside from the rather slanted way of describing donors, is there evidence of fewer people listening to Focus’ message?

  • pudge

    Most of this is unsourced and most of the rest is uninteresting. Yeah, maybe Dobson got pushed out, and we don’t really know why; but speculation is boring, and why wouldn’t Dobson go forward with work he thinks is good and needed, given the opportunity? I see nothing here, frankly. Big yawn, IMO.

  • TSJ

    Not surprising. I lost interest in Dobson and Focus long ago, when they kept insisting that adulterers and divorcees were the politicians who best represented family values.

  • Ranee @ Arabian Knits

    The most interesting part to me is this:

    Dobson wants to pass the torch to his son, Ryan, and couldn’t do it at Focus because Ryan Dobson went through a divorce in 2001.

    It seems that one organization is actually holding the line when it comes to upholding the Christian standard of the family and another is not.

    Regardless, it is an odd sort of article with, it seems, no evidence to back up the assertions.

  • Dan Crawford

    There was a time when Focus actually focused on the Family. That began to change in the 1990s when Dobson began to believe that he was a power-broker and king-maker and was on a mission from God to have the rest of America believe that those whom TSJ refers to above were going to carry on the Dobson Messianic crusade to save American. TSJ doesn’t mention the liars like the retired Marine colonel from Virginia whom Dobson also placed among the saints.

    I’m sure Dobson’s new corporation will continue the political campaign. Meanwhile Focus can return to its original mission and provide the guidance and insight parents need in these times. I’m sad it came to this – Dobson did so much good – but when he took himself so seriously, it is no surprise it has ended so badly.

  • Herb Brasher

    Dan, you are right on. The problem with evangelicals in this country is not that they are losing clout. The problem is that they try to exercise any at all.

    And that under a Lord and Savior who said “I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves.”

    Sometimes I think we are trying to grow fangs instead of following the way of the Suffering Servant . . . .

  • Herb Brasher

    Sorry, I just realized that I didn’t comment on the coverage of the story. My apologies for succumbing to one of my perception of the events!

  • Chris Bolinger

    a steep decline in handouts from dwindling legions of followers

    “dwindling legions”? Not only is that slanted, as Mike noted, but it’s also poorly written.

    is there evidence of fewer people listening to Focus’ message?

    It would be easy to gather that evidence. For example, you could do an informal poll of radio stations that carry the daily Focus broadcast, or check with one of the conglomerates such as Moody Broadcasting or Salem Communications. That’s too much work for most journalists, though.

  • Jay

    This one looks pretty simple — I suspect Barry Noreen has it exactly right.

    There are plenty of cases in the corporate world where a founder/CEO wants to create a family dynasty rather than an independent company that’s accountable to its shareholders. Preferred voting stock, rigged succession contests, etc. are certainly the norm. Think Ford, Motorola, most large newspapers (NYT, LAT, Washington Post).

    If Dobson cares about the movement, he would either support the organization he created, or ally with another existing entity to build it up. Fracturing the donor base (during a deep recession) to give his son a job is about as self-centered (or self-indulgent) as they get.

  • Jim Jacobson

    What an odd story. Don’t any of the power players in the church know how to hand things over and trust the Lord? It’s impossible to know motives, but it all just looks wack from the outside. (big sigh)