By Aaron Earls
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In his first trustee meeting as president and CEO, Ben Mandrell gave board members an optimistic vision for the future of LifeWay Christian Resources.
He described the current season as “a new day” for both himself and the 128-year-old organization. “I truly believe God built me for this job,” Mandrell said, noting his excitement about his calling to LifeWay.
Mandrell announced several strategic areas on which he would focus during his first 90-days. Among his top priorities are re-energizing employees and building strong relationships throughout the organization.
“I pray the Lord uses these early months to build trust, momentum and a culture of care,” Mandrell said.
He also spoke of developing a strategy to connect relationally with pastors and leaders across the country.
“I think there are things we can do to be more intentional about building relationships with church leaders as we look at connecting with them in a personal way.”
Mandrell said one of the questions he’s been asking is how LifeWay can begin investing in churches across the country, intentionally reaching new territories and helping churches outside the Bible Belt.
“I’ve had so much fun learning and discovering the many different things LifeWay is doing,” Mandrell said of his first few weeks as president. “It’s energizing to me. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to lead this team of creatives.
“The celebration service yesterday represents a new day for me and for LifeWay as we begin what I hope is a season of incredible creativity and relationship building with LifeWay.”
That sense of optimism was echoed by LifeWay senior vice presidents who delivered their biannual reports to trustees.
Chief Financial Officer Joe Walker said sales through the month of July through LifeWay direct channels, not including stores, have increased 6% over 2018.
Trustees approved a $281.3 million budget proposal for the 2020 fiscal year.
Prior to an update from Earl Roberson, acting senior vice president of the Resources Division, trustee Darron Edwards informed his fellow trustees that the resources committee did not hear “recommendations, but a revival” in the future of LifeWay.
Roberson shared that LifeWay’s reach and impact is not waning with the closure of brick-and-mortar stores. In July alone, traffic to LifeWay websites was more than four times larger than the normal monthly traffic to LifeWay Stores.
Roberson noted that while the organization was still grieving the loss of stores, they were excited about new opportunities moving forward to expand the reach of LifeWay.
He recognized long-lasting and strong partnerships with retailers such as Walmart, Mardel, and Books-a-Million, as well as digital channels like Christianbook.com that they would continue to build upon to expand distribution of LifeWay resources.
Roberson also unveiled a new LifeWay Authorized Dealer program that launched on June 1. The initiative involves partnering with independent bookstores to set up dedicated sections of their store containing LifeWay branded content—including, for the first time, LifeWay imprint Bible studies.
To date, 277 stores have signed up for the program, placing LifeWay products in 14 new states and 90 new markets.
Roberson also said LifeWay is reinforcing its commitment to serving pastors and the local church.
Bill Craig, director of publishing, detailed the history of LifeWay’s relationship with the Kendrick brothers and their films, including the recently released “Overcomer.” He also introduced a video message from Stephen and Alex Kendrick to LifeWay trustees. “Thank you for being our partners,” the filmmaking duo said. “Let’s keep going!”
Craig Featherstone, director of LifeWay Global, reported on strides made to reach the nations with biblical content. Over the past year, LifeWay has distributed resources and developed on-the-ground relationships in more than 160 nations.
There’s also been a rapid expansion of international authors in the publishing space. Five years ago LifeWay had one indigenous author, Featherstone said. As of now, there are 45 indigenous authors representing their global contexts.
Other highlights of LifeWay’s international reach include:
- Training for pastors, including several varieties of virtual training, downloaded more than 300,000 times, and live events with thousands in attendance.
- VBS has reached more than 100,000 children in India this year, and more than 30,000 Telugu-language kits have been distributed.
- LifeWay Global has reached more than 5 million total people over the past year through offerings tailored to fit the needs of their contexts.
“The field really is white for harvest around the world,” Featherstone said. “And this is one of the most exciting, exhilarating things for LifeWay to be involved in.”
Chief Human Resources Officer Connia Nelson shared how LifeWay continues to draw and retain top talent. “Culture is our most significant competitive advantage,” she said, noting the motivation of LifeWay employees to serve God’s Kingdom. “Team LifeWay is focused and excited on the future.”
Executive Vice President Brad Waggoner highlighted the Discipleship Pathway Assessment project from LifeWay Research as a tool churches can use to measure more than simply quantitative numbers, but qualitative markers of discipleship and spiritual growth among their members.
Chief Information Officer Tim Hill, who announced his departure last month, highlighted accomplishments and achievements of LifeWay IT during his six-year tenure and praised his team. “We built a solid foundation. There’s a bright future for LifeWay,” he said. “It’s now my time to pass the baton.”
Mandrell wasn’t the only new face among those gathered at the LifeWay headquarters. The board welcomed five new trustees who began their terms in June. New trustees include Doug Falknor of Fayetteville, Ark.; Brad Graber of Fishers, Ind.; Sharon Greer of Kalkaska, Mich.; Judy Sonich of Clay, N.Y.; and Billy Stewart of Decatur, Miss.
Jimmy Scroggins, chairman of the LifeWay board of trustees, presented Mandrell with a letter embosser containing the Baptist Sunday School Board emblem that belonged to James M. Frost, the first president of LifeWay. “I think looking into the future is so important for a CEO and president,” Scroggins said. “But looking into the past and standing on the accomplishments, leadership and lessons of the past are also very important.”
Scroggins concluded the meeting with remarks on Mandrell and the future of LifeWay: “I’m praying God is going to give Ben strength not just from inside himself, but God will give him strength outside of himself—and fill him with it so he can take us where God wants us to go.”
Aaron Earls is a writer for LifeWay Christian Resources. Carol Pipes and Joy Allmond contributed to this story.