(RNS) The Rev. Robert H. Schuller, the “Hour of Power” religious broadcaster, once raised $18 million to build his landmark Crystal Cathedral in Southern California’s Orange County.
Yet when he was laid to rest Monday (April 20) on the grounds of the cathedral he no longer controlled, his fractured family resorted to crowdfunding to cover the costs.
“Dr. and Mrs. Schuller were left financially crippled by the loss of their retirement income previously promised by the organization,” Carol Schuller Milner, Schuller’s daughter, wrote on the site GoFundMe. “Living on social security for the past years, they were not able to preserve a fund that would cover arrangements for funeral and memorial tributes.”
Christ Cathedral — the name the Catholic Diocese of Orange, Calif., gave the building after purchasing it in 2012 — and a private benefactor covered the funeral’s basic costs, Milner wrote.
The GoFundMe appeal seeks $30,000 to establish a website, an archive of Robert Schuller’s work and a broadcast of the funeral.
“The funds we seek will help to give Dr. Schuller a lovely, albeit modest, goodbye,” the appeal said.
To date, a little over $6,100 has been raised from 44 donors. Individual donations have ranged from $25 to $1,000 since the campaign’s start April 11. Schuller died April 2 of esophageal cancer at the age of 88.
Donors have left many comments on the site, many of them typical of the upbeat, positive spirituality Schuller embraced.
“Can’t wait to see the service and the tributes to this great man that wasn’t ‘just’ a preacher,” a user named Steve Bonner wrote on the site. “Long live his memory and work.”
But others asked pointed questions about how the funds will be used by a family whose bankruptcy was the result, in part, of too many vanity projects. The Crystal Cathedral was $43 million in debt when it filed for bankruptcy in 2010.
“Christ Cathedral offers to host Dr. Schuller’s funeral but web sponsorship is needed for such basics as staging, seating and beverages; seriously?,” a user named Dina Praestant wrote on the site. “Some of the children seem to try to siphon every last drop before the spigot is shut forever. So sad and embarrassing that this mercenary mentality is how many people will ultimately remember Robert and Arvella, two legendary leaders.”
Schuller Milner, a trustee of her parents’ estate, said she was aware of the criticism — “it comes with the territory,” she said — and encouraged people who did not trust her to manage the funds to donate elsewhere.
“I would just say to people, ‘I totally get if you’re concerned. Then just don’t give,'” she said in a phone interview from Anaheim, Calif.
Schuller Milner said she started the online campaign at the suggestion of friends and that she helped care for her parents in their last years after Schuller left the ministry in what many characterized as a family feud. Schuller’s wife, Arvella, died in 2014.
Schuller Milner said the idea for the campaign came from her personal friends and most of the donations to date have come from them..
“I believe people have a wrong perception of clergy,” she continued. “But your pastor needs to eat, your pastor needs to have a life, so it is OK to earn some income. Sure you can be excessive, sure you can be lavish, but there are things my father created and it is OK that they can be an income generator. That my father and mother had to have their last years be the way they were is a travesty.”
The cathedral was already carrying a huge debt when Schuller retired. Two years later, Schuller’s only sonand appointed heir, Robert A. Schuller, was pushed out, largely by family members, before he ever really took the reins. Grandson Bobby Schuller now leads a remnant congregation from the Crystal Cathedral inside a former Roman Catholic Church, broadcasting the newest incarnation of the “Hour of Power” online.
At the height of his ministry, Robert H. Schuller’s church attracted upward of 10,000 people each Sunday, while millions listened to his broadcasts worldwide. Crystal Cathedral’s 40-acre campus contained the world’s largest pipe organ and was the site of an annual Christmas pageant with live camels, horses and “flying” angels.
Raising money for Schuller projects is nothing new. Schuller’s “Hour of Power” broadcasts routinely included a call for donations, and many of the Crystal Cathedral’s projects — including the 10,000-glass-paned cathedral itself — were funded by donations. But the rise of younger religious broadcasters and the changing nature of religious programming contributed to Schuller’s decline.
According to press reports, his funeral was attended by a few hundred people.
KRE/MG END WINSTON