Catholic Church to Buy Orange County’s Crystal Cathedral

The Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, California

The Los Angeles Times reports that, after months of rumors and lots of battles in bankruptcy court, it has now been decided that the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange will purchase the Crystal Cathedral for a tidy sum of $57.5 million. This sale is the result of the financial failure of the Crystal Cathedral and Robert Schuller’s Hour of Power television program. Just over a year ago, the Crystal Cathedral filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, acknowledging that it was more than $50 million in debt.

After it became clear that the Crystal Cathedral itself had to be sold, there was a bidding war between the Diocese of Orange and Chapman College in nearby Orange, California. Chapman wanted to turn the Crystal Cathedral into a satellite campus. The diocese will preserve the cathedral for religious purposes. According to the Times, Robert Schuller himself blessed the sale to the diocese because he could not endorse a secular use for cathedral property.

Members of the Crystal Cathedral congregation are devastated. The Times reports:

“I only have one word to say and that’s ‘devastated,’ ” said the Rev. James Richards, who has volunteered at the Crystal Cathedral for 10 years. He said congregants want to continue to worship in their church.

Congregant Bob Canfield said he felt “thrown under the bus.”

A Few Comments

I have many thoughts and feelings in response to the sale of the Crystal Cathedral. I’ll briefly mention a few:

• Although I am a fan of Chapman University, I am glad that the cathedral will still be devoted to the worship of the triune God.

• I am stunned and saddened that a church, even a church with a television ministry, could become $50 million in debt. This speaks of extraordinary carelessness on the part of church leaders and a virtual absence of accountability. I’m afraid it bears witness to the sinful hubris of the Schuller family, who ran the Crystal Cathedral with little oversight. It also points to the folly of allowing charismatic, powerful pastors and their families run churches without spiritual and financial accountability.

• Though Schuller’s “Hour of Power” was never my cup of tea, it did mean a great deal to my grandparents when they were no longer able to go to their own church because of their physical limitations. I’m glad they’re not here to witness what has happened with this ministry, which they supported with their modest donations.

• The demise of what was once a thriving television ministry serves as a parable and a warning for churches that are unwilling to deal with cultural change.

• Before I look down my long nose at Robert Schuller, may I take a long, hard look at myself and the pride that might very well go before my own fall.

• The response of the congregation to the loss of the Crystal Cathedral property reminds us of the danger of associating church with buildings. Back when that church was called “Garden Grove Community Church,” it had an identity beyond that of its property or pastor. If you name your church after your building, you’re making a major theological error and asking for trouble. Perhaps what is happening to this congregation is actually painful but necessary pruning. Lord willing, the members of this church will come to see themselves, not in terms of their building or their pastor, but as a gathering of God’s people whose identity is in Christ and whose mission is in Garden Grove. Perhaps, the end of the Crystal Cathedral will lead to the resurrection of Garden Grove Community Church. I hope and pray this is true.

  • Ryan Nielsen

    Wow!!! Crazy

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Donald-Callahan-Bryan/1547635868 Donald Callahan Bryan

    Very good observations, esp the last one.

  • http://godspotting.net Sheila Seiler Lagrand

    It’s been a sad ordeal to watch…and living where I do, I practically have had a ringside seat. My heart breaks for lots of hurting people there.

    Thank you for some reasoned commentary on the situation, Mark.

  • Anonymous

    Hi, Ryan!

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Don.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Sheila, for your comment.

  • Rebecca Stigge

    I like your last comment–I’ve belonged to three different congregations that were more than 100 years old, and none of them are currently in their original buildings.  Certainly the church is more than its buildings.  At the same time, though, it seemed as if Irvine Presbyterian’s facilities were an important part of initially drawing people in the door (even if it was the message and the connections with people that kept them there).  Churches fulfill spiritual needs in a number of different ways, and there’s a long tradition of creating beautiful spaces for congregations to meet in (just as there’s a long tradition of beautiful music to listen to and sing along with).  While it would be a terrible fallacy to worship the building rather than God, the experience of worship is certainly extremely different in different spaces.  

  • Kmoorlach

    Not too sure about the “cultural change” comment.  Schuller pushed every boundary possible to become the national voice of “Possibility Thinking.”  It became a family operation that had long abandoned their local congregation for distant viewers in order to  sustain a program that was not a church.  Now, they say, “The church is not a building, but the people.” But when did their people ever vote for any major decision made in that place?  They seem ready for the new owners!

    Seems to me they had an unhealthy co-dependent relationship: HOP, Board, Family, Congregation.

    Appreciate your thoughts,

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Rebecca, for the comment!

  • Pastor James

    The issue for the congregation is that they see the Crystal Cathedral campus as something THEY paid for and they wanted to be able to continue to worship there – many also have loved ones buried in the Memorial Gardens. They felt that the Schuller family had no right to sell their Church to the Catholics. I can tell you for sure that Chapman University were committed to keeping it a protestant Church for decades to come and were prepared to help the congregation to rebuild a stong, viable church that brings glory to God and preaches the true Gospel to the lost. I am helping many of the members to deal with the pain in their hearts. I know its only a building but look at it this way – if you had poured all of your money into a nice house and spent thousands of hours working in it to improve it – you expected to retire in that home, but one day someone else sells the house, pays the mortgage and keeps the $9 million “change”, and then serves an eviction notice on you – how would you feel? Perhaps you might feel rather upset? I am sure you would be outraged. But we feel comforted by God and know “He is very close to the broken-hearted”.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, that’s the main problem. But it does seem that Schuller got stuck in the 70s and 80s, when television was king. If a church tries to be “relevant” by making technology such an important part of its mission (which I’m not convinced is the best idea, by the way), then it runs the risk of obsolesence.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for your comment. You’re right, I would be upset and sad. And it would be a chance that I had never sought to rethink what really matters about church. It should not be about a building, but about the community of God’s people gathering for worship and mission. Still, I would feel angry at and betrayed by the Schuller family. And I would feel angry at myself for trusting them when there was so little accountability.

  • William Lee Goff

    There is an old Spanish rancho in San Juan Capistrano in southern California.  It was formerly owned by the Chrystal Cathedral and Rev. Robert Schuller, Jr. was the pastor there.  A few years ago the Chrystal Cathedral had to give up the property.  It was purchased by a Christian man who later decided to lease it to Saddleback Church for $12 a year.  Subsequently he gave it to the church which began holding worship services there last December.  After about twenty minutes of live music, Pastor Rick Warren’s sermon is shown on a big screen. 
    A few months before the worship services began at the Rancho Capistrano campus, there was an open house which I attended.  At the open house my wife and I sat down in a dinning room next to an older couple.  With no prompting the elderly lady told us that her late husband had been a pastor at the Chrystal Cathedral and that she and her husband knew Robert Schuller from seminary days.  She even confided that she had dated Robert before he married.  She talked freely about the demise of the Chrystal Cathedral, the work of Robert Schuller’s daughter and was especially enthusiastic about the ministry of a grandson of Schuller who is pastor of a little church in Orange California.  This amazing lady expressed a little sadness that the beautiful Rancho Capistrano had become run down, but was happy that it was going to continue to be used as a church.
    The Saddleback – Rancho Capistrano is now a thriving congregation that now includes a Saturday night worship service as well as two services on Sunday morning. 

  • Anonymous

    Fascinating! Thanks for sharing this, Bill. I’ve been to retreats and conferences at Rancho Capistrano several times. It was a delightful facility. I’m glad it is still being put to good use.

  • Paul

    Mark, I agree with most of your comments, however, I would like to see the CC become a secular facility.  My thought is that it was built in pride and vanity and should not be used as a place of worship.  God will deal with the Shuller family in what ever way he choses, just as he does with all of us.  As for the congregants, they are an example of how one man or family, can devastate the lives of so many.  Robert Schuller is a sinner saved by grace as are we all.  He deserves our prayers no matter what we think of his actions.

  • Dennissloan57

    This sounds like just exactly the kind of church I would love to be part of but alas I live in Dover England.  Hey I don’t mean that I do not like living in Dover England I just mean that I would like to be part of a church like The Saddle Back -Rancho Capistrano.

    Many years ago I visited Chrystal Cathedral having often been blessed by Dr Robert Schuller’s preaching but was disappointed to see it’s materialistiic extravegance. 

  • Jeanine

    Before I read your article I was having exactly the same thoughts. The facility was a monument to a man, not to God.  May we pray for the aching hearts of the many long time members of CC, and also pray that this may be a lesson for others who are engaging in building such monuments.  Possibly one in Houston, Texas should give careful consideration to this example.
    However, we must constantly remember that only God knows what is in the hearts of others.    Jeanine

  • Anonymous

    Paul: That’s an interesting opinion. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, it was a mix of very good things and not so good things. Of course, that’s true of just about every church.

  • Anonymous

    Indeed. Thanks, Jeanine.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1260065967 David Stevens

    Sad. I wrote a paper my senior year at Biola questioning the costs of the structure, the dimise of the local church and how a little man serving a big God had morphed into just the opposite. Local news have shown a building with only about 20% capacity during a recent service. Certainly another reason to question organized religion. I wonder where the elders and the RCA were in this meltdown…

  • Anonymous

    Yes, I also wonder. Too bad you didn’t put your Biola paper up on the Internet where it could have some impact . . . . Oh, yeah, no Internet way back then. We did have ditto machines, though.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1260065967 David Stevens

    just a lil Brother manual with erasable paper.  Course, I had all the answers 30 years ago! ;^)Miss you!

  • Jeanine Clough

    David, remember:  Do not waste time mourning the past, but move on to use the benefit of what was learned in the past to serve the future.  Move on!
    Jeanine Clough

  • Anonymous

    Erasable paper! I remember that. Yikes! David, I’m thankful for our friendship and for the fact that you are very much alive and well.

  • RELTEACH

    RE: David;  Just what kind of religion is not organized?

  • Radar9854

    Robert Schuller should be prayed for.  How sad to see his life’s work crumbling around him because his children haven’t known how to manage it.  He must be devastated.  I don’t think the Crystal Cathedral was ever a “monument to man”; it was always a monument to God and His Power and that is why Schuller doesn’t want it to become a secular institution.  Precisely because it was a monument to God, Dr. Schuller was able to minister to millions of people and help so many of us, myself included.  I’ll be eternally grateful to Dr. Schuller and the Crystal Cathedral, but ever since the children took over it has gone downhill, and so now we must all move on. 

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for reminding us to pray for Robert Schuller. We should pray for his family also.


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