The past two years have not been easy for the employees of LifeWay Christian Resources, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention and erstwhile book retailer. Making the difficulties faced in Nashville more acute for LifeWay employees has been the record of ministry successes that marked the decade before the current crisis.
Two years ago this month, the organization’s 9th president, Dr. Thom Rainer, announced his retirement plans. During his thirteen year tenure, Rainer had redoubled efforts to provide biblically-faithful curriculum to churches of all sizes. The introduction of The Gospel Project — an effort spearheaded by current LifeWay VP Trevin Wax and pioneering missiologist Ed Stetzer — helped reverse a decades-long decline in ongoing curriculum sales to realize five years of increased market share. Ever the futurist, Rainer pushed LifeWay into new and competitive global markets, supplying emerging churches in the developing world with desperately needed resources written by and for indigenous audiences.
All the while, Rainer continued his own prodigious writing, competing for record sales with the organization’s top-selling author, SBC ministry leader Beth Moore. Under his leadership, LifeWay relocated its ministry headquarters (a 277,000 sqft, nine story building that now faces strategic repurposing in a post-COVID world), jettisoned the increasingly burdensome Glorieta retreat facilities outside Santa Fe, NM, and completed major acquisitions like the church consulting powerhouse Auxano, the dynamic Birmingham-based Student Life Ministries, and the struggling Berean Bookstores.
In February 2019, as the LifeWay trustee search committee ran aground in their quest for Rainer’s replacement, some trustees attempted to persuade Rainer to postpone his retirement and stay with the company through the difficult decision of shuttering its brick-and-mortar retail operations. To the surprise of many, Rainer instead shortened his retirement timeline and left the ministry’s executive suite before the store closure decision was finalized.
Many denominational observers were left scratching their heads. Trustees felt the pressure to expedite their search process. New candidates were engaged. Within months, LifeWay was envisioning its future in a post-retail era under the leadership of an immensely telegenic Bible teacher with an impressive college ministry and church planting background.
At the time of his departure, Rainer left a nearly $500 million/year organization with a 5-person executive team. Dr. Brad Waggoner was quickly named acting CEO, leaving LifeWay’s entire revenue-generating resources division under the leadership of Earl Roberson as acting Senior Vice President. (Today, LifeWay is a $220 million/year organization with a 9-person executive leadership team).
We came to know Earl Roberson during these days of critical transition for LifeWay and had occasion to see how he led his team, many of whom were working extended and exhausting hours amid corporate downsizing and diminished morale. Yet under his leadership, LifeWay notched impressive online sales growth and established a profit-generating trajectory free from the encumbrances of its struggling brick-and-mortar division.
With that rare blend of pastoral sensitivity and demonstrable corporate success, Roberson worked hard to earn and keep the loyalty of his direct reports and the confidence of the trustee board. To his credit, Roberson never sought public recognition for his ministry success. In fact, a search of Baptist Press archives for his name yields only a handful of references, none of which report to Southern Baptists the extent of his ministry responsibilities nor the many ways he’s strengthened Southern Baptist’s publishing efforts during an historic identity crisis.
Earlier this year, LifeWay announced that Roberson’s division would be broken up — a prudent move given the unsustainable structure of a single revenue-generating presence at the executive leadership table — and that Roberson would assume a peer role alongside his newly-minted subordinates Trevin Wax, Michael Kelly, and Bill Craig.
A reorganization like that would cause lesser men to seek the nearest exit. In Washington, the slightest hint that a department or agency head will lose a portion of his portfolio to people further down the pecking order would inspire predictable media leaks and the reinforcement of organizational silos.
But none of that has happened under Roberson, primarily because of his own integrity and ministry commitment. In fact, rather than grumble that his subordinates have been thus promoted, Roberson affirmed the reorganization and assumed the role of peer with seamless efficiency and quiet determination.
Perhaps this is because Roberson, under the sustained weight of years of pressures and paradigm shifts in Nashville, was relieved to have others share the burden of leadership that had been his own. It’s more likely that Roberson realizes the promotion of his subordinates is an implicit affirmation of his own mentorship, and he rejoices as a ministry leader should.
Whatever the case, Southern Baptist churches should know that Roberson, perhaps more than any leader in Nashville, has exemplified the kind of business mind and ministry heart that they look for in denominational servants.
Indeed, Earl Roberson is one of the good guys. And we are proud to call him a friend.