DENVER — Conservative evangelical leader James Dobson has resigned as chairman of Focus on the Family but will continue to play a prominent role at the organization he founded more than three decades ago.
Dobson notified the board of his decision Wednesday, and the 950 employees of the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based ministry were informed Friday morning, said Jim Daly, the group's president and chief executive officer.
Dobson, 72, will continue to host Focus on the Family's flagship radio program, write a monthly newsletter and speak out on moral issues, Daly said.
Dobson's resignation as board chairman "lessens his administrative burden" and is the latest step in a succession plan, the group said. Dobson began relinquishing control six years ago by stepping down as president and CEO.
"One of the common errors of founder-presidents is to hold to the reins of leadership too long, thereby preventing the next generation from being prepared for executive authority," Dobson said in a statement. "... Though letting go is difficult after three decades of intensive labor, it is the wise thing to do."
While Focus on the Family emphasizes that it devotes most of its resources to offering parenting and marriage advice, it is best known for promoting conservative moral stands in politics.
Dobson, a child psychologist and author, has gotten more involved in politics in recent years. He endorsed Republican John McCain last year after initially saying he would not, and also sharply criticized Democratic candidate Barack Obama.
On political matters, Dobson "will continue to speak out as he always has _ a private citizen and not a representative of the organization he founded," said Gary Schneeberger, a Focus on the Family spokesman. He said the nonprofit ministry and Focus on the Family Action _ an affiliate set up under a different section of the tax code that permits more political activity _ will continue to be active on public policy.
Dobson has a devoted following. His radio broadcast reaches an estimated 1.5 million U.S. listeners daily. Yet critics say his influence is waning, pointing to evangelicals pushing to broaden the movement's agenda beyond abortion, gay marriage and other issues Dobson views as most vital.
"In the short term, in the near term, Dr. Dobson will stay committed to the issues close to his heart," Daly said in an interview. "He'll continue to speak out on those topics."
Gay-rights and liberal groups issued statements Friday warning that Dobson is not leaving the scene. Americans United for Separation of Church and State portrayed the move as Focus on the Family "merely rearranging the deck chairs on its big, intolerant ship."
D. Michael Lindsay, a Rice University sociologist who studies evangelicals and politics, said that although Dobson will continue to be Focus on the Family's public face, his board resignation is significant because "he no longer has his hands on the levers of power" there.
Observers have questioned whether Dobson's organization can remain a key player once its founder steps away. Longtime Dobson ally Gary Bauer said in an interview Friday he believes it can.
"Their constituency not only wants help on how to keep a marriage strong or how to deal with a challenging child, but also feels as if it's surrounded by hostile territory in the culture," said Bauer, former president of the Family Research Council, which Dobson founded in the early 1980s.
Daly said there is no timetable for Dobson to leave the radio program, and the group will "look for the next voice for the next generation" while Dobson remains on the air.
That will likely mean not one person behind the microphone but several speaking on their respective areas of expertise, Daly said. The organization, anticipating a post-Dobson era, for several years has tried out different voices on the broadcast and in giving media interviews on hot-button social issues.
At the same time, Focus officials have acknowledged difficulties in raising money from younger families critical to its future. The economy also has hurt. Last fall Focus on the Family eliminated more than 200 staff positions, its largest employee cutbacks ever.
Daly said the group is now "right on track" with a revised annual budget of $138 million. The new board chairman is retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Patrick P. Caruana, a longtime board member and a former executive with defense contractor Northrup Grumman.
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