She remembers being about 4 and, as her father worked in his study that doubled as a bedroom, hearing a knock on the front door. She answered and a tearful woman said, "Is the pastor here?"
It was one of Sheila Schuller's first realizations that their small house in Garden Grove was also a sanctuary. In the years that followed, long before Robert Schuller would become an iconic religious figure with a worldwide audience, she came to see her father as "just the local pastor down the street," someone whose job it was to preach on Sundays and help ease people's problems.
The little girl is now 58, married and the mother of four. Her father is 82, white-haired and slowed, but mounting a comeback.
And in ways that she never imagined until recently, Sheila Schuller Coleman -- not her younger brother and former heir apparent -- will be the one "to help my dad finish strong."
Earlier this month, Schuller anointed his eldest daughter as the church's co-leader and the person who would carry the Crystal Cathedral's banner into the future. The announcement capped a tumultuous year for the Schullers and their admirers, as a father-son split over "a lack of shared vision" led the younger Robert Schuller to surrender his senior pastor status and leave the church after his father stripped him of his role in the TV ministry.
The elder Schuller is among the most influential American preachers of the last half-century, having written bestselling books and converted a small, local ministry into one that broadcasts the "Hour of Power" worldwide from the gleaming Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove.
But the ministry has fallen on hard times. Hurt by the economy and, perhaps, changing viewer tastes, church attendance and TV viewership have declined. Schuller, who handed his son the reins in 2006, told the congregation this month that he will return to a prominent role and put in two more years. But in the future, he said, it will be his daughter "who's making this church, not the preacher."
That may sound daunting, but Coleman does not feel overmatched. "I guess it should be a scary time. Call it naivete, but I don't feel it. I actually have a strong sense of anticipation. I'm very excited about what we can do."
Details on her new role are yet to come, but it's clear the church's board believes it needs Schuller back at the helm -- at least for now when fundraising is suffering. He remains the storied, titanic figure behind the church, which traces its inception to a drive-in theater lot in 1955.
If those were carefree days, these are not. Shadowing everything at the cathedral, spoken or not, is a family squabble that would rival that of any prime-time TV series.
"The mistake I felt we made as a family -- and it was done out of love -- was that we tried to pour all our seeds into one bucket," Coleman says of her brother's ascension. "God wanted the seeds to be disseminated and scattered so the kingdom could grow."
She says the entire family laments the internal friction, which is primarily between father and son. "My dad was very hurt, and Robert was very hurt. The healing will take time. I see signs it's beginning to happen. The thing that was so hard for me and the family is that so many people in the church and our viewers and the public who saw us as the model family, said, 'Wow, oh no.' For some reason, they didn't think it would happen to us."
Robert was the only son among Robert and Arvella Schuller's five children. He and a business partner recently announced that their company has bought AmericanLife TV Network and hopes to make the station "the destination for family values."
Through a spokeswoman, the younger Schuller said his schedule didn't allow time to be interviewed, but in a written statement he wished his sister well. "I have great respect for the work she does at the ministry and as an educator and believe she will add tremendous value in her new position."
Coleman has a doctorate in educational administration and leadership. She's been on the church staff since 1973, except for a four-year stint as a public school teacher in Fullerton. She has been directing the church's Family Ministries, and now will also serve as an occasional preacher.
"I know it's going to sound very different," she says, "but I believe my role is to mother this ministry. Which means to nurture the congregation, the staff."
She's looking forward to speaking from the pulpit (maybe once every four to six weeks) but says her sermons won't sound like those of a preacher. "My messages will be very light on Scripture. They'll be stories, primarily, with lessons. They'll be biblical concepts, but my platform on the 'Hour of Power' and the cathedral on Sunday mornings is as an outreach to the unchurched."
Poised to become the public face of the ministry, Coleman laughs easily and acknowledges having had a bout with religious skepticism as a college student. The doubt is behind her, but she still says that faith is fraught with illogic.