PATT MORRISON ASKS

Sheila Schuller Coleman: The reverend daughter

She shares the pulpit with her famous dad, the Rev. Robert H. Schuller, at the Crystal Cathedral.

Iwas 7 or 8 years old, reading my way through my kiddie encyclopedias, when I infuriated my Sunday school teacher by suggesting that the miraculous parting of the Red Sea was simply low tide. At that age, Sheila Schuller was working for her father's fledgling church. On Sunday mornings, she thumbtacked the Sunday school lessons to the wooden picnic tables at the Garden Grove drive-in theater where the Rev. Robert H. Schuller preached sermons from atop the snack stand.

Today, half a century later, Sheila Schuller Coleman and her dad share the pulpit at the Crystal Cathedral, heart of a vast faith empire that he founded. In 2006, her brother, Robert, succeeded their father as chief pastor and star of the internationally viewed "Hour of Power" TV show. But this year, father and son fell out publicly and painfully. And the little girl with the thumbtacks, ordained in May in the Reformed Church in America, stepped up.

The onetime schoolteacher and mother of four (her husband is president of the church) now co-leads a church whose drawing power has slipped. She hopes to expand the church's education role here, open schools in Africa, build back the church's membership and TV viewership, extend its multicultural outreach -- and, as she often says, help her legendary 83-year-old father to "finish strong."

As a little girl in Garden Grove, you answered your door to crying people asking for the pastor. Did you ever think "the pastor" would be you?

Heavens, no. Dad has this phrase, that great dreams of great dreamers are always transcendent. That's not it exactly, but the meaning behind it is, we are surprised that the reality transcends our dreams.

Did he talk like that at home?

Oh my, yes. He was just as dramatic and vociferous at home. He'd practice his messages on Saturday night, then the next morning in church, I'd go, "Oh, I know this story." Dad is such a mesmerizing storyteller, I could hear him tell the same story over and over again.

Billy Graham, Pat Robertson, Robert Schuller -- those are hard acts for sons to follow.

They are incredibly hard. I think what really saved me is the gender differentiation.

How's that?

I never felt like I had to measure up to Dad. I wanted to have my life count for important things like his, but I didn't compare myself to him as much as, say, my brother did, or Franklin Graham to his father. It's so much harder for boys because it's a man following a man. But I did not grow up with that.

Nobody expected this of me -- I didn't expect this of me -- and I think that has been my saving grace. Even today, when I watch the two of us side by side -- which I don't like to do be because I always look a lot older and fatter than I think I do! -- it's just much easier. And it gives me the freedom to be who I am.

How does it feel to be up in the pulpit?

I'm having the time of my life. I was in drama and theater when I was in high school, so I'm not shy. I love being with Dad. I'm his legs, he calls me.

The denominations that don't want women to be ordained -- what are they missing?

Jesus Christ came to break barriers, and he broke not only barriers between Jew and Gentile, he also broke barriers between men and women. He was surrounded by women who took the Gospel and spread it. So I am thrilled. I've been hearing from young girls: "I can consider being in ministry now." Women weren't ordained until 1973 in our denomination; that was the year I graduated from college!

Your father's theology doesn't put an emphasis on sin but on faith and hope.

People talk about the legacy of the buildings, but I believe his message is probably his most important legacy. He grew up in a home where it was, "You don't do this, you don't do that." He's said we focus so much on what not to do that you could spend your whole life just living under that oppression. You miss out on all the good you should be doing. Today other churchmen are following suit -- they've been influenced by Dad.

He took it on the chin for years and years, that he wasn't teaching enough sin and he wasn't Christian enough. Other pastors in neighboring churches [were] warning their congregants against him. When I asked him, he said, "Sheila, I don't care what they say about me. Those are Christians. They already know Jesus Christ. I'm worried about non-Christians."

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