Hi and welcome back! I’ve been keeping a weather eye on LifeWay Christian Resources for the past few years. LifeWay is the publishing and propaganda arm of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) — and arguably the denomination’s biggest and most influential subgroup. But in recent years, LifeWay looks more and more like a star that is falling. Today, let me catch you up on what’s going on with this evangelical publishing company — and show you why their most recent leader reflects this dysfunctional group’s covert goals a lot better than its stated ones.
Abandoning the LifeWay Ship.
You gotta give these bigwigs at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) a bit of credit. They possess the instincts of rats on a sinking ship. Indeed, they know exactly when to split!
I’m guessing Thom Rainer began making tracks a couple of years ago, when he began to perceive the utter failure of his gamble about LifeWay’s future. That’s when he began to make a big screaming deal over the idea of revitalization and began to talk up his consulting work for churches. On his watch, LifeWay became the ALL REVITALIZATION, ALL THE TIME channel.
It’s no coincidence that he ended up pursuing a post-retirement career in church revitalization. In my opinion, Thom Rainer (along with Ed Stetzer, who barks up a similar tree) prepared the way for the business he recently opened, Church Answers.
Ordinarily, in a real business I mean, a side gig like this constitutes a conflict of interest. However, the SBC doesn’t follow sensible business principles and rules. Like evangelicals everywhere, they constantly engage in business practices that would get ordinary executives fired. So nobody ever raised an eyebrow. (See endnote for examples.)
But Thom Rainer’s retirement/firing meant LifeWay had to appoint a new CEO.
Gosh, who to select, who to select…
LifeWay: Let’s Hire a CEO With No Relevant Experience!
In June 2019, LifeWay announced their new pick: a 42-year-old Colorado pastor named Ben Mandrell. Obviously, Mandrell has no experience whatsoever in publishing or even in business. He’s literally just a pastor. He’s only ever worked in church ministry.
Mandrell’s big claim to fame is that he started his megachurch, Storyline Fellowship, with 250 people and had 1600 regularly attending at the time of the announcement. That kind of growth appeals to evangelicals generally, since they think it indicates divine favor.
And it appealed particularly mightily to the beleaguered LifeWay hiring committee. They thought this success might translate to a turnaround for their publishing-and-propaganda business, which now operates only from a digital storefront.
I cannot stress enough that absolutely nothing in Ben Mandrell’s entire work history prepared him for this role. You can find his resume here, on a document prepared by the LifeWay hiring committee. He’s never had any formal training or education in either business or management.
I found their writeup about him most illuminating, by the way.
Segue: Ben Mandrell, a Perfect Fit for LifeWay!
In the committee’s Theology section, we discover that Ben Mandrell is “unequivocally reformed in his theology,” but also embarrassed about the growing schism between Reformed/Arminian viewpoints. More importantly, he tried to hide his church’s connection to the SBC. He knew it’d wreck his sales metrics. So he came up with a very clever way to indicate his SBC affiliation without outright stating it. (Gosh, I wonder if his flocks know they’re SBC?)
In the Communication section, we learn that Mandrell is a far better in-person leader than a written communicator. The committee noted “numerous typographical errors” in his writing. He charmed the committee, but can’t really communicate well in writing. That doesn’t bode well for an online-only publishing business.
In Miscellaneous, we learn that he was earning about USD$150k at Storyline. He asked about a pay figure of $700k he saw online. The committee replied that his pay “would not be close to 700k.”
When asked about LifeWay’s requirement that he move to Nashville, Mandrell noted with pleasure how close Nashville is to the beach — just six hours away!
And in Leadership History, we learn that “Ben is not a hands-on manager in a significant way.” In fact, he’s not actually much of a manager at all. He can’t even organize his own megachurch. Instead, he allows individual sub-leaders to dominate their own fiefdoms. I’m sure tin-pot dictators love Mandrell’s hands-off style. However, LifeWay specifically asks, in its Responsibilities section, for a CEO who can work with a highly hierarchical company with a number of management levels.
Seriously, I have to wonder:
How bad were the other candidates, if Ben Mandrell was the guy who won the job?
(Compare and contrast with the qualifications of Jamie Adams, their Senior Vice President and CIO. LifeWay hired her last year.)
The Spiral Had Begun for LifeWay.
At the time, I noted how important real estate is for any big religious group. This sell-off was huge. (In August, Ben Mandrell also announced that LifeWay planned to sell their Ridgecrest campsite/resort.)
More to the point, I’d noticed that LifeWay was getting less money from the SBC mother ship. The SBC records this info in their Annual Reports.
So between the real estate losses and LifeWay’s diminishing support levels, I saw a lot of infighting behind the scenes. I can’t imagine Thom Rainer was happy about any of these developments, and I doubt Ben Mandrell would be either. Thing is, Mandrell’s a lot newer and seems way less business-savvy. So he likely put up less of a fuss than a political animal like Rainer.
For the next year or so after Mandrell’s hiring, I didn’t hear much out of LifeWay one way or the other. Sometimes, he’d pop up with a sound bite in a news story on the Baptist sites (like this January 2021 article, where he talked about LifeWay changing its mission statement).
But overall, Ben Mandrell wasn’t anywhere near as high-visibility as Thom Rainer had been. That fact in itself boded poorly for the organization.
And Now, What Happened Recently for LifeWay.
In a January 27 story in Baptist Standard, we learn that LifeWay is now selling its downtown office building. They’ve “entered into a contract” for the building, though we don’t know quite yet who’s buying the building or how much is being paid for it.
Ben Mandrell expresses a sentiment we can immediately guess is a hard cope:
Lifeway President and CEO Ben Mandrell said he is excited about Lifeway’s future workplace and the prospects of settling into a new work environment.
“Lifeway is moving forward, building fresh vision, and getting prepared for a new season of ministry to churches,” Mandrell said. “This has led us to think strategically about selling our large building downtown, fully embracing remote work as the norm and moving into a new era of creative and collaborative work.”
Mandrell said he and other Lifeway leaders have been looking at options for their headquarters since the summer of 2019, well before the COVID-19 pandemic.
For what it’s worth, I can easily imagine that the last bit is true.
LifeWay Seeks the Winning Team’s Banner.
When LifeWay sold their cushy Nashville greenbelt campus, they admitted at the time that they barely even used most of it. Similarly, their new office building likely was almost certainly larger than they really needed.
However, nobody wanted to actually buy a building that better fit their needs. I mean, just think about what that would have said about LifeWay!
That said, the pandemic has entered into SBC leadership’s thinking. It certainly became part of the downsizing discussion of Southern Baptist leaders. A declining business uses every excuse it can to look like it’s not really declining — especially in evangelical culture, where downsizing is seen as a defeat not only in business but on the divine battleground for souls.
Thus, Ben Mandrell tries to set the SBC’s terminally-failing propaganda arm on the same shelf as all other companies making changes due to the pandemic:
“Like other companies are doing as a result of COVID, we’re re-imagining the corporate office for the future of work.
“We are moving away from the idea of a ‘headquarters’ to a fully mobile and agile workforce that intentionally gathers to build strong relationships, celebrate what God is doing and share ideas.” [source]
Yes, but again, LifeWay was already failing before COVID-19 had even become a thing. COVID-19 had nothing to do with the problems LifeWay faced. Even their May 2020 layoffs likely had little to do with the pandemic. Those problems had come to a head years earlier under Thom Rainer’s incompetent handling of the company.
In future days, LifeWay employees may find themselves pining for Thom Rainer, though.
This Bodes Very Poorly for LifeWay.
I’m sure that Ben Mandrell’s vision of “moving away” from a consolidated central leadership office to “a fully mobile and agile workforce” fits in well with his lack of management skills. As we saw in the hiring committee’s writeup, Mandrell isn’t much of a manager. He doesn’t have any training or background in it. Nor has he ever faced significant backlash for his lack of knowledge there.
Thus, he likely feels much more comfortable with the new normal at LifeWay. We can get a little taste of how he’s been adjusting to LifeWay in this podcast from the company. I cringed at just the quotes they list:
“If you aren’t constantly articulating the overall mission, then all of the subgroups begin to take on their own focus and lose sight of the big picture.” [Because evangelical culture is dysfunctional, Mandrell must hammer at the big picture constantly. This non-stop nagging takes precious time away from fulfilling the group’s stated goals. Also, this quote indicates that his churches’ management structures never facilitated their own stated goals.]
“The leader’s job is to keep shuffling that deck and to make sure that different people have the opportunity to exert influence.” [This strategy takes competent subordinates out of circulation for no reason at all. It also keeps power centralized to the leader of the dysfunctional group. I’m sure that’s a coincidence for Ben Mandrell.]
“It took me at least 15 years in ministry to realize how important it was to spend time with my key staff.” [And he probably still doesn’t. At a guess, nobody under him has any clear idea of what they’re supposed to be doing at any given time.]
Mandrell articulates these flaws as positives. To me, though, they indicate that he is possibly the least-prepared CEO in publishing history.
Authoritarians Require Hierarchy.
Worse, it tells me that Ben Mandrell is a terrible fit for the hierarchical SBC culture in particular.
Evangelicals are die-hard authoritarians. They need hierarchy: clearly-defined lines of power and chains of command. They get lost when they don’t have those guiding ropes in every situation.
When authoritarian followers don’t know exactly what they’re supposed to be doing, they get very balky. They’re easily frustrated anyway, but they may just shut down rather than make a possible mistake.
If authoritarians follow a directive that turns out poorly, they can blame the person who gave them that directive. But if they make an independent decision that turns out poorly, their leaders (and fellow followers) will absolutely stomp on them. That mistake may follow them forever.
Jesus may forgive all sins, but their Dear Leaders won’t ever let them live down any mistakes they make. So they get extremely reluctant to move on their own. The more ossified and calcified the authoritarian group is, the worse this fear of independent movement seems to get.
And there ain’t many groups quite as set-in-stone as LifeWay.
So Ben Mandrell’s non-approach to leadership has got to be producing sheer chaos at his job.
So Why Did LifeWay Even Hire Ben Mandrell?
LifeWay likely hired Ben Mandrell for a few reasons. First and obviously, they clearly wanted someone with proven success at building church membership. Unfortunately, those skills don’t apply across very well to their business. It’s a sheerly nonsensical line of reasoning, but they’ve alluded to it many times.
More to the point, LifeWay’s management team knew that they had a lot of bad news to deliver to their employees soon. Mandrell came into LifeWay at the start of its biggest and worst decline. Almost immediately, he had to deliver news of downsizing and layoffs. He’s had a steady drumbeat of bad news to deliver since then.
And I’m wondering if LifeWay wanted a “people skills” person to deliver that news.
Their hiring writeup (relink) indicates that Ben Mandrell a very charming and persuasive speaker — far more so in person than in writing. He also speaks the SBC jargon and church lingo very well. Every communication I see of his contains at least a little Christianese designed to force compliance and complacency.
So I’m guessing that LifeWay hoped that Ben Mandrell would deliver their bad news in the best light possible, and bring them the least amount of blowback for it.
Ultimately, I don’t foresee a good ending for LifeWay Christian Resources. They keep choosing ineffective leaders who keep making bad calls for the company. They can’t run a digital publishing empire like a church, but that’s what they keep trying to do.
NEXT UP: The culture wars can only produce hateful Christians. In fact, nobody can “know they are Christians by their love” if the culture wars are in play. Tomorrow, we’ll see a Christian piously demanding a return to loving Christianity – and examine why this truth applies especially to him. See you then!
- Constantly appointing their own kids to positions of power in their own organizations, like Jerry Falwell Jr. heading up his daddy’s empire and Ken Ham’s kids and in-laws often popping up as the authors of materials that Ham sells on his Creationist website. This time around, Thom Rainer’s own son Sam Rainer just so happens to be involved with his daddy’s new gig. He’s the President and Senior Coach!
- Who could forget that hilarious SBC scandal around that “Who Cares?” campaign they ran during the Million Baptism Challenge in 2006? Bob Reccord, the president of the SBC subgroup NAMB (North American Mission Board) had to resign his cushy post over that whole mess. Oh, and by the way, the next NAMB president, Geoff Hammond, had to resign under similar circumstances. The next and current NAMB president, Kevin Ezell, ain’t lookin’ good either. WTF, NAMB? Do you think you’re a castle built in a swamp or something? Just keep appointing bad leaders one after the next, hoping one of ’em manages to keep out of trouble at last?
- Pastors, money laundering, conflicts of interest, and affinity scams… is there a pairing more classical and enduring? The SBC sure doesn’t appear to think so.
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