Focus’s family squabbles (continued)

You can learn a lot about a family by observing how it handles fights. And Laurie Goodstein’s Sunday New York Times story shows that as the breach between James Dobson and Focus on the Family grows, all parties are keeping quiet and pretending everything is OK.

Earlier this year I wrote on coverage by media outlets in Colorado Springs (where Focus and many other evangelical parachurch organizations are headquartered) about the decision by Dobson to launch a competing organization and radio program called “James Dobson on the Family.”

Given the prominence of both Dobson and Focus, I was shocked at how few media outlets covered this extraordinary story about a major parachurch founder leaving his organization to start a new organization that does basically the same thing. (The silence may be partially due to the shrinking of religion pages and reporting staffs at many news outlets. And I just know the AP’s Eric Gorski would have been all over this story if he hadn’t recently been transitioned off the religion beat).

Goodstein did the best she could when principals aren’t talking: She tracked down other folks for her story, including a former Focus executive and an unnamed Focus board member who commented on Dobson’s potential motives for launching a new radio show with his son, 39-year-old Ryan:

The real reason for Dr. Dobson’s new venture may have been his son. A Focus board member who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that because Ryan Dobson has been divorced, it would be against the board’s policy for him to serve as the voice for Focus, which counsels people on marriage and child-rearing. (Ryan Dobson has since remarried and has a son of his own.)

Goodstein also grasped the uniqueness and singularity of this split in parachurch circles:

Experts who study Christian ministries said that whatever the reason for it, Dr. Dobson’s decision was extraordinary.

“I can’t think of another example where the leader of a major ministry organization founded it, built it up, then moved on and did something so visibly competitive,” said Stewart M. Hoover, director of the Center for Media, Religion and Culture at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Goodstein also shows that in an era of media- and celebrity-driven religion, Focus’s efforts to transition to new leadership (and potentially a new generation of supporters) may have been half-baked:

Dr. Dobson did cultivate a successor as leader of Focus, but he never cultivated anyone to succeed him as its media personality. Focus will continue broadcasting its radio show with a variety of hosts, including Jim Daly, whom Dr. Dobson handpicked as the new president for Focus in 2005.

Focus is talking about one topic that was formerly off limits: its plans to air a Super Bowl commercial featuring Tim Tebow and his mother, Pam. A focus spokesperson told Electa Draper of The Denver Post that it taped a “life- and family affirming” 30-second spot. Pam Tebow faced a problematic pregnancy with Tim while she served with her husband as a missionary in the Philippines, but decided to carry Tim to term nonetheless.

Meanwhile, I’m still waiting to hear Focus and Dobson reveal the truth about their split.

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  • Jonathan S.

    One problem with the story – Stewart Hoover (or Goodstein) apparently forgot about Millard Fuller, who split with the organization he founded, Habitat for Humanity, and then started a new competing organization. When I read the article, his name immediately came to mind, so I don’t know how Hoover couldn’t come up with him as an example. (Especially since he died in 2009.)

    So, although it may still be extraordinary, Dobson is not the first to go down this path in recent history.

  • ralphg

    I’m under the impression that Ted Gardner Armstrong (or son or father) left the “church” he ran to start a similar one, but one based on Biblical theology.

  • Jerry

    era of media- and celebrity-driven religion

    That is certainly apparently true. But is it really true or is the media just ignoring the vast majority who quietly live faith-filled lives?

  • tipi tim

    the difference with millard fuller is that the board of habitat more or less drove him away, he didn’t go out on his own because he really wanted to but because the board was charting a new course that he felt was wrong.

  • Mike Hickerson


    Are you thinking of the Worldwide Church of God (now called Grace Communion International)? I think the son’s departure and the change of the WWCG’s theology were two unrelated events. Here are the Wikipedia versions of the story:

  • Jonathan S.

    tipi tim,
    It seems the two cases are more closely related than you suggest – from the anonymous board member, it doesn’t sound like Dobson wanted to go out on his own but had to because he wanted his son to be involved and the board said no. So, it sounds like conflicts with boards in both cases caused a break with the organizations these men founded.

  • Fuller Center for Housing

    When Habitat for Humanity International’s founder and extraordinary leader left after 29 years, Millard Fuller founded a similar organization which he named The Fuller Center for Housing. He left because he disagreed with his board on several issues such as transforming the organization from a cost-conscious ministry to a corporation greatly increasing salaries for executives. Fuller had no intentions to compete with Habitat. He was interested in continue God’s calling on his life and return his focus and efforts to a grassroots ministry based on Biblical principals. As Millard said, “The only way The Fuller Center will compete with Habitat is when there is only one substand houses left in the world.” Likewise with Dobson…thousands of people are not tuning into Focus on the Family. The more prominent Christian radio stations the better. BTW – I don’t believe in divorce either but how can an organization judge and reject someone who made a mistake in their life. Don’t they believe their on “preaching about forgiveness?” A person redeemed and transformed makes a positive statement and would give people hope. I hope Focus on the Family finds ways to celebrate and honor their founder whether there is a split or not.