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Passing the baton

"Passing the baton" Continued...

Issue: "The schools that Arne built," April 11, 2009

That wasn't the case with Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, who announced his retirement in late February. In recent years, Dobson held numerous meetings to plan a leadership transition. "Don't hold back," Focus CEO Jim Daly remembers Dobson telling staffers. "You can talk about my death." Dobson said it with a touch of humor, but staff members' eyes still brimmed with tears.

Thirty-two years ago last month, Dobson, then a California-based psychologist, aired the first Focus radio broadcast. The nonprofit group grew to employ hundreds of people operating offices in 10 countries. Meanwhile, it launched a publishing arm and Dobson's radio audience swelled to 220 million worldwide.

Daly remembers the day Dobson took his first practical step toward stepping down. At a Focus board meeting, he announced that he would like to hand over day-to-day operations to Focus board member Don Hodel. "The entire 20-member executive team busted out laughing," Daly said.

Dobson, who knew his own reputation for having a finger planted firmly in every operational pie, smiled and insisted, "No, no-I really want to do this well."

"We all laughed again," Daly said. "We thought, 'There's no way.'"

But Dobson proved true to his word, implementing a succession plan that was detailed in its milestones but more intuitive in its timeline. In 2003, Hodel became president of Focus, and Dobson chairman of the board. Twenty months later, Daly, who joined Focus' public affairs division in 1989, succeeded Hodel as president. This February, Dobson further streamlined his own duties: just the radio broadcast and a regular newsletter.

The transfer of leadership at Crystal Cathedral hasn't gone as smoothly. In January 2006, Robert A. Schuller was installed as the church's second-ever senior pastor and the new face of television's long-running Hour of Power. His father, Robert H. Schuller, founded both ministries, starting the church in 1955, preaching at a drive-in theater in Orange County, Calif. Adopting the "positive thinking" teachings of Norman Vincent Peale, the elder Schuller pioneered the "seeker sensitive" movement, which focuses on feel-good, self-help nostrums while skimming over doctrine and the problem of sin.

Familial succession is rare in the Reformed Church of America, the denomination the Schullers call home. And when Robert H. handed the Crystal Cathedral keys to Robert A., there were skeptics. Was the church and Hour of Power too much a cult of personality to survive the transfer? Would the younger Schuller's lower on-air charisma quotient hurt the television ministry?

The Schullers are keeping mum on those questions. But in October 2008, citing "a lack of shared vision," father removed son from the Hour of Power and invited a series of high-profile guests such as Bill Hybels and Yale divinity professor Miroslav Volf to anchor the show. Then in January, he installed Rev. Juan Carlos Ortiz as Crystal Cathedral's interim senior pastor.

Schuller would not comment for WORLD on the reasons for the rift, but multiple news reports reflect a church deep in debt and a battle for control between father and son.

No such battle occurred at Coral Ridge Presbyterian. When the church clerk emerged to report the congregation's March 15 vote on pastoral candidate Tullian Tchividjian, a whopping 91 percent had voted yes. Now, Tchividjian's 650-member New City Church will merge with the Coral Ridge congregation, meeting for worship at Coral Ridge's Fort Lauderdale campus.

For Tchividjian, it's like coming full circle. In 1974, when he was less than 2 years old, his grandfather, Billy Graham, preached at the dedication of Coral Ridge's current sanctuary. Thirty-five years later, Tchividjian will preach his first sermon as senior pastor this Easter Sunday, another day of new beginnings.

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