When trust is betrayed

The first headline didn’t really surprise me.  A few weeks ago the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, declared bankruptcy.  The “Possibility Thinking” ministry that Robert H. Schuller began in 1955 by preaching from the roof of a concession stand at a drive-in movie theater developed into one of our country’s first megachurches.  In 1970 the Hour of Power debuted on national television and was followed in 1980 by the building of the $20 million Crystal Cathedral.  For decades the Hour of Power was the most popular religious broadcast inAmerica, and Schuller sold books by the millions.

A combination of factors led to the bankruptcy.  Clearly, the Crystal Cathedral overextended itself financially, expanding its facilities to the tune of a $30 million mortgage in addition to owing $48 million to 550 creditors.  “Budgets could not be cut fast enough to keep up with the unprecedented rapid decline in revenue due to the recession,” Senior Pastor Sheila Schuller Coleman said in a statement released by the church.

Blaming the recession, however, only scratches the surface of the church’s problems.  In reality, it was the perfect storm, with everything seeming to fall apart at once.  The Crystal Cathedral has not varied its traditional style of worship in 55 years, eschewing creativity, the latest technology, and an intentional desire to reach out to young adults.

Even more damaging has been bitter conflict in the Schuller family, which has eroded the credibility of the ministry.  In 2006 Robert A. Schuller took over leadership of the Crystal Cathedral from his father, but a family fight ensued, resulting in the younger Schuller abruptly leaving the ministry 2 years later.  Meanwhile, the elder Schuller’s daughter, Sheila Schuller Coleman, assumed the mantle and now presides over a messy ministry which has experienced a 10-15% drop in attendance, seen a 29% drop in contributions between 2008 and 2009, and laid off 250 of its approximately 450 employees.

The heart of the Schuller empire’s difficulties, however, may be theological as much as financial.  Robert Schuller’s ministry thrived in post World War 2America, which was “full of itself” and where optimism and a can-do attitude were pervasive.  We live in a different world today, where the glitz of the Crystal Cathedral, with its extravagant Christmas pageants, relentless pleas for money, and vacuous cheeriness, often repels rather than attracts.

While the value of positive thinking is unquestioned, we go down a slippery slope when Christianity becomes “me-centered” rather than “God-centered.”  Preaching a pop psychology of self-esteem rather than Jesus Christ crucified can easily turn into a narcissism that neglects the weightier matters of justice, poverty, sin, and suffering.  Possibility thinking may be one outgrowth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, but it is not the gospel itself.  Nor can possibility thinking alone adequately engage the immensity of the issues that face our world today.

The second headline caught me quite by surprise.  10 days ago the Grand Rapids Press reported allegations that our neighborhood pharmacy, Eastgate Pharmacy, having recently joined the Kentwood Pharmacy chain, sold contaminated or expired drugs to customers.  Officials said that as many as 800 nursing homes served by Kentwood Pharmacy were getting most of the recycled pills.  However, some went to 4 retails stores, including ours.

Evidently, company employees would collect unused pills from unsuspecting nursing home employees after patients died or were transferred.  The drugs would be then be repackaged, with patient co-pays being credited if less than half of the pills in a blister pack had been used.  Other allegations of the Drug Enforcement Administration included unsanitary practices at the packing plants, such as using pills that had dropped on the floor, and putting pills into bottles or blister packs labeled for a different drug.

On Nov. 4 the State Department of Community Health recommended that anyone with prescription medications from any branch of Kentwood Pharmacy get them replaced.  The next day I walked by our Eastgate Pharmacy, and there was a handwritten sign on the door, “Closed Effective Immediately.”

Maybe it’s my naivete, but I was shocked that a pharmacy chain would resort to such risky and unethical practices in order to increase their profit margin.  For the last 17 years Gary and I have used Eastgate Pharmacy because we believe in supporting local businesses.  Eastgate was not a sophisticated operation by any means, and I marveled at how they could stay open while existing in the shadow of large nearby chain pharmacies.  However, I loved the diversity of people who used Eastgate Pharmacy and its convenience store, and I grieve the effect its closing is having on those who relied on a store within walking distance of their home.

What can the church learn from the downfall of these two organizations, which are very different but both of which have served their constituencies faithfully for many years?

  • The foundation of healthy organizations is trust, and when that trust is betrayed, trouble is not far behind.  Every November Gallup conducts a survey of honesty and ethics in various professions.  Nurses have ledGallup’s Honesty and Ethics ranking for the last 11 years except for 2001, when firefighters jumped to the top because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.  In 2009 druggists/pharmacists, medical doctors, police officers, engineers, dentists, college teachers, and clergy rounded out the eight most trusted professions in that order.  Because Americans place great trust in pharmacists and, to a lesser extent, clergy (why that is the case is another story), we have a responsibility to faithfully and ethically serve our constituents.
  • Being out of touch with the changing face of our world is costly.  Both the Crystal Cathedral and Eastgate Pharmacy were throwbacks to a previous time.  They did not adapt well to changing circumstances and relied on the unquestioning loyalty of their constituents.  On Sunday, October 24, Robert Schuller said to the congregation, “I need more help from you.  If you are a tither, become a double-tither.  If you are not a tither, become a tither.  This ministry has earned your trust.  This ministry has earned your help.”  Does he really get it?  Are more pleas for money the answer?  Probably not.
  • Organizations must continually focus on their mission and refuse the temptation to take short cuts or be fiscally irresponsible.  I can’t help but ask, “What were you thinking, Eastgate Pharmacy?  Why did you substitute the great trust that your customers gave you for the lure of quick profits?”  And to the Schuller family, “What were you thinking?  Were you oblivious to the effect that your poor financial decision making would have on others?”  Putting a positive spin on the crisis at the Crystal Cathedral, Sheila Schuller Coleman said that the bankruptcy declaration “is just one more chapter in the book that He is continuing to write — and we know that God’s plans are good — we have no doubt His chapter will be good!”  Tell that to the family who is owed $57,000 for providing animals for the annual Crystal Cathedral Christmas pageant.  Because they were not paid, the family could not keep up with their mortgage and lost their house.
  • Unmitigated conflict in organizations leads to dis-ease and instability.  According to a national survey of congregations called Faith Communities Today, the greatest predictor of church decline is destructive conflict.  In addition, church and organizations that are personality or family-based are often tenuous.  Angie Schuller Wyatt, granddaughter of Robert H. Schuller, said in a recent interview, “When you mix faith, family and fame, it’s a toxic combination . . . when people start vying for positions of power, and I think that’s what led to the Crystal Cathedral’s crumbling.”
  • Truth-telling: the admission of wrongdoing, acknowledgment of hurt caused, restitution, and a demonstrated commitment to change, is what restores trust and confidence in any organization.

Lest we be too hard on Eastgate Pharmacy and the Crystal Cathedral, we should readily admit that local churches all across the country make similar misjudgments every day.  Although our mistakes are on a much smaller scale, the ripple effect of pain and mistrust can be just as devastating.

  • We build a new addition to the church without counting the cost.  Blithely claiming that all the new people who will join the church because of the new addition will also pay for it is both ignorant and foolhardy.
  • We fail to formulate policies and procedures for the handling of money, the care of children, or the chaperoning of youth activities, therefore putting individuals and the church in jeopardy.
  • We place our pastor on a pedestal and give him/her so much power without checks and balances that the temptation to abuse one’s position finally becomes irresistible.
  • Instead of open and honest communication, the norm becomes gossip, spreading rumors, and treating others with disrespect.
  • We redirect money designated for memorials or ministry shares to the general fund to pay bills, thus denying the integrity of our ministries.

The church cannot hide behind God.  People will no longer trust us or our clergy simply because we are the church.  We are held to the same standards as any other organization, which is only right and just.

This week Kentwood Pharmacy, the parent company of Eastgate Pharmacy, also closed.  Stating that the owners filed for bankruptcy because they could no longer operate, the company’s attorney said, “The good will of the business was gone.”

May God grant us the wisdom to lead ethically,
The courage to admit when we have betrayed the trust of others,
The will to restore what has been wronged, and
The grace to start over again, with God’s help.

Blessings, Laurie

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