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Focus on the Family celebrates 25-year ministry

Focus on the Family, the nation's pre-eminent evangelical Christian media ministry, marks its 25th anniversary today with an eye toward the future.

The organization, begun in Southern California and based in Colorado Springs since 1991, is preparing for two eventualities: the departure of founder James Dobson and the aging of its supporters.

Dobson, 66, reports he is in excellent health after suffering a heart attack and stroke in the past 12 years. He says he expects to continue leading Focus on the Family for another decade or longer.

Even so, the transition to the post-Dobson era has begun. The ministry is grooming two potential successors _ a family doctor with cable TV and radio experience and a clinical psychologist with a radio background _ and is developing new products for young families.

The results of these efforts likely will determine whether Focus on the Family remains influential as a conservative voice on social and political issues such as abortion, gambling and homosexuality.

The question of who will ascend into visible leadership positions _ most importantly, who will take over Dobson's daily half-hour radio show _ is the greatest challenge.

"American evangelicalism is very personality-oriented," said Quentin Schultze, a professor of communications at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. "Media ministries need at least one person that represents the ministry. The problem always is continuity when that person retires or passes away. There's a tremendous upside in the visibility, but the downside is what you do with transition."

Dobson, a child psychologist and former University of Southern California professor, came to prominence in 1970 for writing the child-rearing manual Dare to Discipline. He founded Focus on the Family as a nonprofit organization seven years later "to make a contribution to the family."

Today, Focus on the Family is a $130-million-a-year enterprise with 14 broadcast programs and more than a dozen magazines and publications that reach 104 nations. Dobson's monthly newsletter goes to 2.5-million U.S. households.

His on-air comments about a social issue can light up the U.S. Congress switchboard. Over the years, Republican political candidates have sought his counsel.

The ministry will mark its 25th anniversary today at Denver's sold-out Pepsi Center arena with a keynote speech from Charles Colson, a Watergate conspirator and head of Prison Fellowship Ministries. Gospel music superstars Michael W. Smith and Stephen Curtis Chapman will perform.

Focus on the Family's board of directors began work on a succession plan after Dobson suffered a minor heart attack in 1990. Eight years later, Dobson had a mild stroke.

The succession plan, finished in 1999, acknowledges one person cannot replace Dobson. It calls for a chief executive officer to handle business matters and a "chief articulator" to be the voice of the ministry _ jobs that Dobson does alone.

The articulator job, Dobson and others say, will be much harder to fill. There's internal debate about whether one person can do it or if a team approach is best.

Neither of Dobson's two grown children has ever been considered a possible successor.

So ministry officials went looking for young talent. They found it in Dr. Walt Larimore, 50, a family doctor who has delivered 1,500 babies and hosted radio and cable TV shows in Florida, and Bill Maier, 44, a psychologist and radio host from Southern California whose resume resembles Dobson's.

Larimore gained fame for hosting the first live birth on the Internet in 1998, one of 35 medical Webcasts he did while working for America's Health Network, later Fox's the Health Network, in Orlando. He is developing a new Focus on the Family medical call-in show geared toward the secular market.

Maier quit a Los Angeles morning radio show to pursue a doctorate in clinical psychiatry at Biola University in La Mirada, Calif. He will help develop radio and print products for young families at Focus.

Larimore and Maier are part of a program called "other voices," which is meant to introduce the ministry's audience to new personalities as guest hosts on Dobson's show and in other venues.

"We're not pushing Jim Dobson out," said Ted Engstrom, the retired chief executive officer of the Christian relief group World Vision and a Focus board member for 22 years. "In the minds of the people, they have to get used to a new identity, a new personality. It doesn't happen overnight."

Focus on the Family's most important new venture, Dobson said, is the young families initiative.

The ministry and its audience bonded over a dislike for the 1960s and grew up together. Now, with 47 being the average age of a Focus consumer, ministry officials know they must reach the sons and daughters of those boomers, who are now raising children of their own.

By January, the ministry expects to introduce Focus on Your Child, a newsletter with editions geared toward different ages. In the next two to three years, Dobson plans to update a landmark parenting video series for young families and may begin a new radio program aimed at them.

Dobson has always said the ministry will continue as long it has support. And he strongly endorses the succession plan.

"We're not sitting around waiting for me to die," he said.

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