What James Dobson's Resignation Means for Focus on the Family's Future

The founder of the evangelical ministry became the organization's biggest asset—and biggest liability.

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By Dan Gilgoff, God & Country

Focus on the Family founder James Dobson has stepped down as chairman of the organization, citing the need to pass the reins to a new generation of leadership, the Associated Press reports. Importantly, Dobson will continue to host the organization's eponymous daily radio broadcast. His departure means that Focus recognizes the need to prepare for the post-Dobson era. Dobson turns 73 this year. The transition won't be easy. On the one hand, Dobson—a child psychologist—is the organization's greatest asset, and phasing him out may do Focus in. On the other, Dobson has become a liability because the cult of personality around him has prevented the organization from connecting to a new generation of Christians.

Dobson is so closely affiliated with Focus that most Focus supporters don't distinguish between the man and the organization he founded in 1977, even though he stepped down as president in 2003. That explains why Dobson is staying on as the ministry's voice on the radio and as a spokesman for Focus's sister political organization, Focus on the Family Action. Focus just doesn't have anyone else who could draw the 1.5 million daily radio listeners that Dobson pulls in.

Many of those listeners feel much more of a bond with Dobson than they do with Focus. The organization receives so much mail that it has its own ZIP code, and most of it begins "Dear Dr. Dobson." Tens of thousands of people call Focus every year for advice on parenting and marriage and other family-related issues (most of it is totally nonpolitical), and they want to know what Dr. Dobson—as opposed to Focus— thinks.

In short, the whole operation depends on Dobson. People hear him on the radio explaining how to deal with strong-willed children or with an alcoholic parent and they call, write, or E-mail him for more information.

But Dobson has failed to connect with a younger generation. I wrote about this problem in my 2007 book The Jesus Machine: How James Dobson, Focus on the Family, and Evangelical America Are Winning the Culture War:

While the daily Focus on the Family radio program continues to be Dobson's and Focus's main pipeline to the evangelical masses, Dobson's listener numbers have remained flat since around 2000. As of late 2005, the age of the typical listeners had risen to 38, and the average age of constituents on Focus's mailing list was 52. For an organization whose primary mission is helping parents raise their children, the number are unsettling. "The people that have connected with [Dobson], they've aged right along with him," said Focus President Jim Daly. "We've got to reach a very different 20-something parent, and to the degree we need to communicate with them differently, that will be the stretch for us."

This failure to stay relevant and to keep growing its audience helps explain Focus's dramatic staff cutbacks in recent years, from about 1,300 in 2004 to 950 now.

With Dobson stepping more squarely into the political arena in the last decade, what is known at Focus as the organization's "nurturing" side—the lifeblood of the ministry—has been overshadowed in the public eye. It will be interesting to see whether Dobson gets even more political now that he's stepping down from the board. If he does, Focus could have even more trouble selling itself as a resource to young families.

And yet the inevitability of Dobson's eventual exit looms as an even bigger existential threat. Focus is in a tight spot. Which is why Dobson is neither sticking around on the board nor leaving the radio waves.