Focus on the Family prepares for life without James Dobson

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James Dobson will be signing off in February. Sad?
Word that Focus on the Family founder James Dobson would stop producing his trademark radio show and cut the cord between him and the organization in February likely spurred cheers among people whose vehicles sport one of those "Focus on Your Own Damn Family" bumperstickers. But Focus supporters feel very differently, according to Gary Schneeberger, the organization's spokesman. "We've been getting e-mails and phone calls from people saying how much Dr. Dobson has meant to them over the years," he notes. "I wouldn't characterize it as an enormous outpouring, because we all knew this day would come. But for many people who've grown up hearing his voice on the radio, and for all of us, it's still a very emotional time."

It's likely an anxious one as well, since Dobson and Focus are one and the same in the minds of many observers -- and given that the operation has struggled with cuts and layoffs in recent years, the timing of his departure seems particularly bad. But in this case, anyhow, Schneeberger doesn't foresee an apocalyptic scenario.

"The transition has been formally going on since 2003, when Dr. Dobson stepped down as president of Focus on the Family," he points out. "And then, in February, he stepped down as Chairman of the Board, freeing him up of any administrative ties. So this is the third chapter, and one that we've been planning for a long time. Dr. Dobson wanted to model the gracious transition from one generation to the next.

"Dr. Dobson has given speeches talking about the passage from the scene of leaders from his era, like Jerry Falwell, who passed away, and others who've stepped aside a little bit, like Billy Graham. From a Christian perspective, everything has a season, and we recognize, and Dr. Dobson recognizes, that his season of direct affiliation with the ministry has come to a close -- and it was, by all measures, an exceptional season."

(Even you lefties out there would have to agree with that -- although I suspect your reasons for feeling that way might differ a little from Schneeberger's.)

Once Dobson moves on, Focus' focus will be on Jim Daly, who succeeded the doctor as FOTF's president. Daly's profile remains modest, due in part to the fact that Dobson has remained the face (and the voice) of the outfit despite having slowly surrendered behind-the-scenes roles. However, Schneeberger downplays cult-of-personality perceptions.

"One of the things Dr. Dobson has said as often as he's said anything over the last 32 years is that Focus on the Family is not about one man -- him or Jim Daly or anybody else," he stresses. "He's said there should be no building on campus named after James Dobson. He didn't want it to be about him."

Schneeberger also dismisses any suggestion that ideological differences between Dobson and Daly might have played a part in the former's plans -- or that once Dobson is gone, Daly may alter Focus' agenda.

"What we've been about is offering counsel, wisdom and advice about how to walk out your faith in public boldly. And those principles won't change," he pledges. "We believe now more than ever that a voice that sticks to those principles is needed in our culture, and far from being concerned, we're excited to reach a new generation of families.

"This is the analogy I use," he continues. "Pretend that Focus on the Family is a train, and the tracks we run on are the tracks James Dobson set in 1977. Those tracks are rooted in Biblical principle, and those tracks weren't created by James Dobson. They were followed by James Dobson. Now, as we move forward, will the train look a little different? Yeah. And the conductor will absolutely have a different style, because Jim Daly's style is different from Dr. Dobson's. But the advice we're giving will not change. It's about that Biblical foundation, and we'll continue to follow that."

Schneeberger concedes that Focus' income has been in decline of late, although not precipitously. "For the fiscal year that ended in September, we were down about 5 percent. We projected $136 million and we brought in $132 million. But when you look at not only religious organizations but businesses, some folks out there are reporting 20 and 30 percent downturns.

"Also, we can trace that dip to a reduction in giving of what we call the 'upper donors' -- those who can usually afford to write those checks for $500,000. You and I may have been hurt a little by what's happened in the economy, but those folks have lost half their net worth in some cases -- so they can't afford to write those checks. But in that same fiscal year, we've held the same level for donors who give us $25, $50, $100. They're donors who tend to give because the ministry has helped them with something, like counseling, and they want to give a little back. That shows that, even in these economic times, we're still reaching people."

Focus' political efforts have stirred mucho controversy over the years, with plenty of progressives expressing alarm at the close relationship Dobson had with President George W. Bush. To put it mildly, no such connection exists between Dobson and President Barack Obama. But that doesn't mean Focus will abandon its efforts in this arena.

"In 33 states, we have family policy councils that work to help pass pro-family legislation and to defeat legislation that, in our point of view, isn't pro-family," Schneeberger says. "These are the groups that in 2000 and 2002 worked to pass marriage amendments in so many states, and they'll continue to do that regardless of who's in the White House.

"The reason we advocate in the public square is based in Biblical principle, too, and that doesn't change depending on who's living at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. President Obama isn't someone we agree with on many issues, but that doesn't mean in any way that we will stop speaking out and looking for ways to influence policy. That's what we believe our mandate is, and Jim Daly's made it clear he's going to continue to engage the culture in that way."

At this point, no radio successor for Dobson has been selected. But no one was blindsided by his announcement. "We've been talking about this day for at least the last seven years," Schneeberger says. "It's not like we're starting out at zero and we have to suddenly get up to sixty miles an hour. We've been cruising along at 35 or forty, and we'll move pretty quickly to put a plan in place."

And that blueprint calls for Focus on the Family to keep going long after James Dobson has signed off for the last time.

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