Which way Lifeway?


For nearly the past half century, Southern Baptists have had four very different leaders at the helm of their behemoth publishing arm, headquartered in Nashville, Tenn. They’ve had a former seminary president, a seminary executive vice president, a megachurch pastor who served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and a fifth generation banker-turned-ministry consultant.

Each of them brought certain administrative strengths and pastoral experience. Only one of them had made any consistent contribution to the Christian publishing world prior to his election. One retired for health reasons, only to later oppose Charles Stanley for the SBC presidency; one took a negotiated separation amid personal scandal; one retired more than decade ago and now serves as “Ambassador-at-Large” for the SBC Executive Committee; and one is determined to step down within the next several months.

Three of these men were between the ages of 49 and 54 at their election. Rev. Draper — the organization’s eighth president — was 58. The Sunday School Board’s founder, J.M. Frost, was 43; and longtime Sunday School Board leader James Sullivan was 40.

Today, the Baptist Sunday School Board — now named Lifeway — is a $500 million-a-year enterprise, providing curriculum and other ministry resources to a majority of the Southern Baptist Convention’s roughly 47,000 churches, as well as other Christian organizations. Through its 170-plus retail stores in 31 states and internet-based sales, Lifeway generates the bulk of its revenue. Events, conferences, and training events are projected to bring in more than $50 million this year.

Of course, Lifeway is the only entity not receiving Cooperative Program funds that returns a sizable portion of its revenues to support convention causes. It is — by far — the largest of the SBC’s entities in terms of investment holdings (excluding Guidestone, which is an asset manager), rent obligations, revenues, real property assets, pension and other post-retirement liabilities, and employee headcount. Next year, Lifeway projects it will pay out more than $28 million in pensions, with the amount increasing to more than $153 million between 2023 and 2027.

Product sales for FY2019 are projected to reach $440 million, according to the 2018 SBC Book of Reports, though despite Lifeway’s addition of approximately 50 retail stores since 2005, revenue has remained flat.

Pause for a moment and read that again:

Despite adding more than 50 retail stores in the last 14 years, revenue in terms of nominal dollars has remained flat. In terms of constant or real dollars, Lifeway earned $182 million less than it did in 2005, despite having more retail stores.

Or put another way: Lifeway has more bricks but fewer buyers. This is the chief dilemma facing the next president.

To be sure, Lifeway is not alone. In the last decade, other bookstores have faced similar declines. In 2011, Borders Bookstore filed for bankruptcy, sold off its 400 stores and gave 11,000 employees their walking papers. Book retailer Barnes & Noble has faced its own pressures, reporting a 6 percent sales decline the second quarter of this year and a 14 percent drop in online sales. A publicly-traded company, B&N has hemorrhaged more than two-thirds of its market capitalization since 2015, a seeming insurmountable trend that is forcing shareholders to consider their options.

Thank you, Jeff Bezos.

Almost before Lifeway employees could finish unpacking boxes in their new 277,000 square-foot headquarters in downtown Nashville, news emerged that Amazon would be locating 5,000 jobs (each paying on average $150,000 a year) at its Operations Center for Excellence in Music City’s new $1 billion development complex.

To add insult to injury, the new Amazon site will go up where the Jimmy Draper Tower came down.


So what sort of leader does Lifeway need? What sort of man — or woman — should be sought to fill the void left by retiring CEO Thom Rainer? We’ve been thinking about this over the course of three recent visits to Lifeway’s headquarters in the last four months. The search for a replacement is surely daunting; the list of competent candidates, increasingly small. In truth, anybody who actively seeks the job probably has no clue how to do it.

Rather than list, therefore, the qualities we sense Lifeway might need in its next CEO, we’ve decided to list the sorts of considerations that we think ought to influence the search process. In no particular order:

  • The new Lifeway CEO candidate must have done something more than write books that get sold for bargain, blue-light prices in the bookstore of the convention’s annual exhibit hall.
  • The new Lifeway CEO candidate must not have a public relations firm representing him or her. Not even a “boutique” one.
  • The new Lifeway CEO candidate must not be required to have an earned research doctorate, but in the absence of such a degree he or she must have an advanced degree in a major field of finance, business, or executive management.
  • The new Lifeway CEO candidate doesn’t need to have been a megachurch pastor, and probably shouldn’t be one.
  • The Lifeway search committee should seriously consider an experienced female executive. Retail sales at Lifeway stores are driven in large part by the market of materials designed for women and women’s ministries. The Baptist Faith & Message says nothing about females in executive, non-church ministry positions. If they aren’t interviewing women for the post, they are foolishly reinforcing a stained-glass ceiling that limits the convention’s future ministry potential.
  • The new Lifeway CEO candidate should be more known for his or her success in the business world than their Instagram photo-ops, their Twitter account, or their epistolary compulsion with religious and political leaders.
  • The new Lifeway CEO needs to understand — in real, practical, and conversant terms — what Sumner Redstone meant when he said “content is king.” We are more interested that the new CEO be able to read the Wall Street Journal and understand it than he or she reads and quotes Oswald Chambers.
  • The new Lifeway CEO candidate needs to understand the difference between selling a book and endorsing its content. Or to put a sharper point on it: idiots should not be elected as trustees.

That’s all . . . for now.


6 thoughts on “Which way Lifeway?

  1. Hi … I promise this comment is not meant to provoke or insult in any way. Having lived overseas for years, and having been back in the States for a year, my perspective is probably different from some SBs. My question: do we really need physical stores? I’ve only been to a Lifeway once since being back, and honestly, people kept trying to sell me things, to get me to download the app, etc.. I’ve never been back. It doesn’t feel like any kind of ministry, just another store. I’m sorry for any offense … just trying to understand why so much SB money is spent on retail. Is most of the money mentioned in the article spent for development of Bible studies, maybe?

    1. “. . .do we really need physical stores?” Just so you will know, knowledgable people have been asking that question since, at the very least, 1987.

  2. As a former LifeWay store employee, physical stores serve a need in the community by providing face to face interaction. Employees show care and concern for their customers. Many times, ministry happens while an associate is helping a customer find a book, a Bible, a song, or Sunday School/Bible study materials.Prayer happens. Hope is offered. Smiles are readily available. I personally experienced our store partnering with a frequent church customer to get a homeless teenager rescued from the streets and into a great place for him that wasn’t a shelter. If we had not had the relationship with the church, I don’t know that we would’ve been able to help that young man. (BTW, none of the SB churches we called, some quite large, were willing to help, but this large non-denominational church responded within an hour.)

    There is a vast disconnect between the retail side of LifeWay, what happens in the stores, and what goes on at the corporate level. There are many more perks for corporate employees than for local store employees. IMO, the organization as a whole needs to be restructured. The new leader should consider that and make the necessary changes to save the organization.

    1. We had more complaints about store employees from Southern Baptists than from any other area when I was on the Board, even more than about SS curriculum. The stores have been a failing proposition for maybe three decades.

  3. Maybe downsize the retail sites into a plastic fish Jesus gift shops and home decorating businesses in the burbs? One is always more reverent with Jesus tchotchkes abounding, right? And find another Beth Moore to churn out shallow drivel like pancakes for the ladies to save the empire.

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