By Michelle Boorstein and Michael D. shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, February 28, 2009
James Dobson, a child psychologist who became a leader of the religious right, announced yesterday he was stepping down as board chairman of Focus on the Family, the megaministry he and his wife started 32 years ago.
Dobson, 72, had ceded the position of president and chief executive six years ago, and there have been ongoing discussions among the organization's leadership about how to keep the Colorado Springs-based ministry and its popular radio show relevant to younger evangelicals. Dobson had already pulled back from most administrative duties, although he will continue to host the show, which reaches 1.5 million Americans daily, and write a newsletter that goes to 1.6 million people each month.
Nonetheless, group spokesman Gary Schneeberger said the announcement at a 700-person staff meeting was a surprise, adding that the gathering yesterday was a "sweet, warm, emotional time."
While Dobson and his ministry remain giants in the social-conservative movement, a new generation of leaders has appeared in recent years that is less tied to the Republican Party and is more willing to seek common ground, even on core issues such as abortion and recognition of same-sex couples.
Some conservatives said they saw Dobson's decision as a desire to go out on top. Dobson was unable last year to persuade Republicans to reject John McCain as their presidential nominee -- he said the senator from Arizona was not "a conservative" -- or the majority of voters to reject Barack Obama -- who he said had a "fruitcake interpretation" of the Bible.
"He realizes he's done what he can do, and the conservative movement needs focus," said Randy Brinson, a conservative physician who founded Redeem the Vote, a group that encourages young evangelicals to vote. "There are some of us trying to show there is a middle ground. . . . Dobson couldn't be a spokesman for that middle group."
Focus on the Family, like most nonprofit groups, has been hit by the recession. Last fall, it had to eliminate 200 positions and cut its budget from $154 million to $138 million.
Although many Americans know Dobson for his comments on hot-button political and policy topics, Schneeberger said the group spends only about 6 percent of its resources on lobbying and the rest on promoting programs to support traditional marriage and child-rearing.
"One of the common errors of founder-presidents," Dobson said in a statement, "is to hold to the reins of leadership too long, thereby preventing the next generation from being prepared. . . . Though letting go is difficult after three decades of intensive labor, it is the wise thing to do."
Dobson will be replaced as chairman of the board by retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Patrick P. Caruana, a former vice president of Northrop Grumman Space Technology. Jim Daly has been president and chief executive since 2005.