James Dobson Easing Out of Job With Focus on the Family

More than 25 years after starting an evangelical ministry that has won a worldwide audience in the millions and boasts an annual budget of $130 million, James Dobson is about to start easing out of his day job.

The founder of Colorado Springs-based Focus on the Family will resign as president and chief executive on May 15. He'll hand over management duties to former Christian Coalition leader and Reagan cabinet member Donald P. Hodel.

While Dobson, 67, says the change is needed to give him more time to speak and spread his message of conservative family values through newsletters and radio homilies, the move signals that Focus on the Family is beginning to prepare for Dobson's eventual departure. Dobson also is sharing some time on the radio and television with two younger voices.

The changes at Focus come as similar transitions are occurring for other evangelical ministries, which have aging founders who are preparing a second generation to lead their organizations.

"We are in the early stages of some significant leadership changes," said Paul Nelson, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. "They have led an organization from upstart through maturity and now the baton is about to be passed or it's in the process."

Religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, 73, stepped down from leading the Christian Coalition in late 2001. Many believe he is grooming his youngest son, Gordon, to fill his shoes on the "700 Club," Robertson's daily television broadcast.

Franklin Graham, the son of the Rev. Billy Graham, already heads the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and stands ready on missions to step in if his 84-year-old father is unable to preach.

Dobson and a part-time secretary formed the beginnings of Focus on the Family in 1977 in Arcadia, Calif., after he published "Dare to Discipline," a book about children-rearing that sold 2 million copies. At the time he was respected as a counselor rather than a religious leader, promoting solutions to family problems through Christian values.

He became an evangelical media star through films and daily radio broadcasts, blending professional credentials in child psychology with an appealing, down-home style on the microphone.

Dobson's divestment of management and budget duties coincides with his sharing of radio airwaves with psychiatrist Bill Maier, who is in his 40s, and obstetrician Walter Larimore, 50. In his May newsletter to 2.5 million readers, Dobson calls the shift a new era.

God "has told us not to move on but to move over," Dobson writes. "That is what transition is all about."

Hodel and Dobson met in 1987 in Washington, D.C., when Hodel invited the Christian leader for a game of basketball in the Interior Department's gymnasium.

Hodel was secretary of the interior; Dobson was nurturing the fast-growing Focus on the Family, which moved from Arcadia to Colorado Springs in 1991. Here, it receives such a flood of mail that it has its own ZIP code.

Hodel became a member of Focus' board in 1995 and helped it through a restructuring two years later. He said he would not seek to increase Focus' political influence, despite his background and leadership of the politically potent Christian Coalition from 1997 to '99.

"They are two very different organizations," Hodel told The Associated Press. "Christian Coalition is a grass-roots, political lobbying, get-out-the-vote type group. Focus is very much a ministry."

It's a ministry with a long reach, despite suffering in the economic downturn like other Christian nonprofits. In February, Focus trimmed $5 million from its budget and laid off 34 employees the first such cuts from the 1,300-member work force.

Still, Focus on the Family's homilies are translated to reach 40 different countries, including China. The responsibility of dealing with such a wide-reaching organization has taken its toll, its founder said.

"For 26 years, I have handled both the creative responsibilities, the books, the films and tapes, and the administrative tasks. And as Focus has grown that's become very burdensome," Dobson said in his trademark drawl. He suffered a heart attack in 1990 and a stroke in 1998, but maintains that his health is strong.

Focus' board of directors began paving the way in 1999 for the permanent split of the CEO's job and the creative role of orator. The goal is to allow Focus on the Family to survive beyond Dobson.

"When it's time for me to go it should be seamless," Dobson said.