Laurie Goodstein, a religion writer reporting in the New York Times Saturday edition, January 16, tells a rather amazing account of the new ministry of Dr. James Dodson, the internationally well-known founder of Focus on the Family. Her story is both revealing and, to me, troubling. (I draw my information that follows from her account and then make my own responses in what follows.)
Dr. Dobson is, as most readers know, a much respected psychologist who used his experience in counseling and teaching, along with his best-seller status as an author, to build a major Christian ministry in Colorado. Eventually Dr. Dobson adopted an extremely partisan political agenda as the Christian Right developed since 1980. Now, do not misunderstand me here, but Dr. Dobson is entirely free to promote whatever he desires to promote. He is clearly a man of deep personal conviction, for which I honor him. But I am not required to remain silent, by any known biblical standard I know, when it comes to a careful analysis of his very public decisions and comments. I would be wrong to judge his motives or to condemn him. It is not wrong to ask questions or discuss his ministry objectives or decisions that are public.
In March, Dr. Dobson, now 73 years-old and the survivor of at least one heart attack and some other health related issues, will co-host the radio show with his son, Ryan, 39. This is where the whole story gets pretty interesting and, to me, quite disturbing. Ryan, a tattooed surfer and skateboarder wrote a book several years ago with the provocative title: Be Intolerant. He targets younger people with his exceedingly conservative message and in-your-face style.
In telling the world of his new venture in ministry Dr. Dobson announced on his Facebook page, on December 29, 2009: “Our nation is facing a crisis that threatens its very existence. We are in a moral decline of shocking dimensions. I have asked myself how can I sit and watch the world go by without trying to help if I can. That is what motivates me at this time.”
Please do not misunderstand me. I think James Dobson is sincere, dedicated and deeply troubled by America’s growing secularism. I think he is a pious Christian who loves his Lord and his family. But I still think his decision, especially with regard to the ministry of Focus on the Family, is extremely problematic. I do not judge his motives so please do not assume that in this post. I do judge his actions, at least in terms of how we ought to judge what we see and how we shall respond to it in public and private.
In February Dr. Dobson will host his final daily radio show for Focus on the Family. It is reported in the New York Times story that the show now has 1.5 million listeners a day on about 1,000 stations. Many are not aware that Dobson has been gradually withdrawing from the leadership of Focus on the Family since 2003. What Goodstein reports is that it is unclear why Dobson decided to start a new organization and create a new show—“to be called ‘James Dobson on the Family.’ ” Dobson said in his announcement that he wanted to “hand the reins of Focus to gifted successors.” This sounds very solid to me. I have several friends who began ministries that have grown and developed over the course of three or four decades who are now handing them over to new leadership. This is commendable. What troubles me is not Dobson’s stepping down, or the new leadership at Focus on the Family, but what Dobson and his son are now planning to undertake in ministry. (When Goodstein asked for an interview with James and/or Ryan Dobson they declined requests for such interviews.) Goodstein surmises that the “real reason for Dr. Dobson’s new venture may have been his son. A Focus board member who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that because Ryan Dobson has been divorced, it would be against the board’s policy for him to serve as the voice for Focus, which counsels people on marriage and child-rearing. (Ryan Dobson has since remarried and has a son of his own.)”
Goodstein adds, and she is absolutely spot on in saying this: “Experts who study Christian ministries said that whatever the reason for it, Dr. Dobson’s decision was extraordinary.”Stewart M. Hoover, director of the Center for Media, Religion and Culture at the University of Colorado said: “I can’t think of another example where the leader of a major ministry organization founded it, built it up, then moved on and did something so visibly competitive."
Give Dr. Dobson full credit. He did cultivate a successor as the leader of Focus. But Goodstein says the problem is that “he never cultivated anyone to succeed him as its media personality. Focus will continue broadcasting its radio show with a variety of hosts, including Jim Daly, whom Dr. Dobson handpicked as the new president for Focus in 2005.”
When Laurie Goodstein contacted Jim Daly he also declined an interview request. She writes, “He has already taken the organization in new directions. He has expressed a willingness to work with Democrats. He has praised President Obama as a role model for African-American fathers, and just last week, Focus issued a news release hailing Mr. Obama for his attention to human trafficking and urging him to do more.” To anyone who knows Dobson, and Focus, this is a startling statement. I do not intend to agree or disagree with it so much as to report it and say that it seems more than obvious that things are Focus are changing and changing quickly.
Jim Daly was orphaned as a child, Goodstein reports. This may or may not mean anything but what is clear is that Daly has moved Focus toward more hands-on social services, including a program that finds families to adopt children who have been in foster care. I applaud this direction with all my soul. I think it brings
balance to a ministry that s
eems long ago to have lost its balance by becoming so deeply mired in conservative politics.
“The organization has been trying to moderate its image,” said D. Michael Lindsay, a sociology professor at Rice University who studies evangelical leaders, “and I imagine that Dr. Dobson will now speak out on public policy issues with a louder voice than his organization exercised.” Lindsay, a writer I also follow now and then, might well be right but only time will tell. My guess is that he is spot on. The problem here should be apparent to anyone who follows such mega-ministries closely.
Goodstein concludes that “Dr. Dobson’s new venture is likely to compete directly with Focus for donors, listeners and radio stations.” That, to my mind, is a grave understatement. It will potentially shatter what we have known as Focus on the Family. This is not all bad but it does involve people their jobs and their families. I grieve over this harsh fact, something I have seen both publicly and personally.
On Dobson’s own Facebook page he asks contributors to donate $2 million to get his new ministry with his son under way. Oh yes, by the way, he urges people to also continue to support Focus. Are you serious? Do you think people will not finally make a clear and passionate choice? This scenario creates what Paul D. Nelson, a board member with Focus and the former chief operating officer, called a “big unknown.” He adds, “Focus on the Family is losing its icon, it’s losing its face and its voice. You have to reinvent yourself, but that reinvention is all about delivery, not about change of values.”
I toured the facility of Focus in Colorado Springs in the early part of the last decade. In 2002 it had 1,400 employees. There are only 860 employees now. Its budget was cut from $160 million in 2008 to $139 million in 2009. Goodstein suggests, quite correctly I am sure, that Focus’s financial struggle is not all about the recession but also about the inability of the ministry to retain a younger generation of evangelicals who identify it with their parents. This is happening all across evangelicalism. When people 55 and older give 85% of the money, as is the general case with such ministries, then this is to be expected. Those organizations that cannot connect with the younger donors, and they are there but not yet ready to give in the same way to the same types of causes, will slowly experience a loss that will become more and more apparent.
What I did not know until I read Goodstein’s excellent journalistic report is that Ryan Dobson, the only son of James and Shirley Dobson (they also have a daughter), was adopted as an infant. In his own words he says that he spent years rebelling against the expectation that he should follow in his father’s footsteps. But he eventually found a calling by preaching at youth events. He later formed what is called Kor Ministries.
Here, to me, is the interesting part of the Ryan Dobson story, something I missed until I began looking into his book, Be Intolerant. Ryan Dobson is as opposed to abortion and homosexuality as his famous father. Goodstein expresses the difference between the younger and older Dobson by citing the subtitle of Ryan Dobson's book. She concludes: “His tone is edgier.” The full title of Ryan Dobson’s book (which he co-wrote) is: Be Intolerant: Because Some Things are Just Stupid. Publishers Weekly said the book had “all the subtlety of a two-by-four to the side of the head.”
Ryan Dobson clearly has an edge, but it is not one that I believe large numbers of thoughtful young Christians will ultimately follow. His father had a great ministry that helped many marriages and families for decades. When Dr. Dobson then decided to embrace partisan politics, in the form of promoting candidates and speaking out about who was and was not a “real Christian” (as he did during the 2008 election cycle), he completely lost me. I had many questions about his direction for years but I always deferred to all the good that Dr. Dobson accomplished. I still believe he did a lot of great good. I love his spirit and his real zeal for God. He is his father’s son. (His father was a pious and passionate Nazarene minister!) But Dr. Dobson seems to have pursued a different direction that began about thirty years ago. History will judge him in its own way but I find his recent decision, and the way that he left Focus on the Family in this position, to be very disturbing. You draw your own conclusions but to me the whole story is very, very sad. It reveals what I would call the soft underbelly of evangelical empire building in modern America. I am convinced the next generation will not follow such leaders in the same way that mine did. I welcome this change and embrace the new paradigm, though with new reservations about the mistakes that some younger leaders might now make all on their own. Surely we can learn a great deal by admitting where our models of ministry have gone astray. Humility, a virtue often missing in so much of this older approach, should lead us to consider how we can improve our public ministries by being more self-critical.