By Carol Pipes
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Lifeway Christian Resources trustees celebrated a successful rebrand while renewing a focus on kingdom work and serving church leaders during their two-day board meeting, Jan. 25-26.
“At Lifeway, our mission is to design trustworthy experiences that fuel ministry. We are servants to the servants of local churches, walking alongside them in ministry,” said Lifeway President and CEO Ben Mandrell. “God has called us to be a part of the ministry of the local church and to give ourselves to something larger than ourselves—the kingdom of God.”
In Tuesday’s full board meeting held via Zoom, trustees heard a report from a special audit committee, passed a recommendation on amending Lifeway’s mission statement and ministry assignments, and recognized outgoing trustees.
In his president’s report, Mandrell shared four kingdom-focused prayers to guide the organization through 2021.
“The kingdom of God has to be the heart of every Christian, every Christian church, every Christian organization,” Mandrell said. “Jesus taught us to pray, ‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.’ Let’s keep that our prayer also—that we would all remain focused on building up His kingdom, rather than building up our own kingdoms that fade.”
He told trustees a rebrand should represent far more than fresh graphics and web design, but also a renewed focus on the core customer. “The primary focus for us has to be the church leader. We’re here to serve pastors, Bible study leaders, ministry volunteers and all those spiritual difference makers in the church who are leading others,” Mandrell said. “We want people to see we are in ministry with them and right beside them.”
Mandrell also spoke of Lifeway’s decision to fully embrace remote work as the norm and move into a new era of creative and collaborative work.
“The work-from-anywhere model works well for us, saving the time and frustration of the daily commute, but allowing us to meet up and strategize as needed,” Mandrell said. “We are changing the way we work at Lifeway in the strategic sale of this building.”
Trustees also heard a financial report from Lifeway’s Controller Cossy Pachares. He reported that Lifeway’s revenue fell $45 million short of the fiscal year 2020 budget. Pachares said the revenue shortfall was due to the impact of COVID-19. He cited Lifeway’s inability to host camps and events throughout most of the year, limited VBS participation by churches, and the decline of sales of ongoing curriculum as many churches were not able to gather in small groups. He noted that during 2020 Lifeway saw a surge in Bible sales and the sale of Fellowship Cups.
“Lifeway’s funds provided from operations only missed budget by $15 million due to the significant expense reductions that were put in place in the spring,” Pachares said.
In April 2020, Lifeway implemented a series of budgetary freezes, cutbacks and staff reductions in response to the economic crisis resulting from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Pachares reminded trustees that Lifeway’s 2021 fiscal year budget is a transition year budget “as we recognize churches are still not able to meet in full gatherings. We are monitoring COVID-19 and its impact on churches, and we are continuing to manage our expenses.”
Pachares reported that through the first quarter, “Lifeway is exceeding both the revenue and the bottom-line budget. God is blessing us and continuing to show us favor.”
Special Audit Report
During executive session, trustees heard a report from a special trustee audit committee tasked with reviewing the circumstances and events leading up to the contract dispute with former CEO Thom Rainer last fall. The committee recommended five actions to provide greater transparency and accountability for Lifeway trustees and executives.
- Implementation of a clear conflicts of interest policy, with disclosure and certification. In recent months, Lifeway has developed a conflicts of interests disclosure and certification process for the entire organization to maintain and emphasize full transparency.
- Communicate the recent bylaw changes, approved in the February 2020 trustee meeting, which formally established the role of the Executive Compensation Committee as a standing committee to bring oversight of compensation and benefits of the CEO.
- Communicate that the bylaws have also been amended to further outline the role of the Executive Compensation Committee, including the oversight and benefits of the CEO and proper disclosure of any agreements made with executive personnel related to compensation.
- Develop an ongoing, in-depth trustee training process that goes beyond routine orientation.
- Develop a renewed emphasis on the availability of the Lifeway Ethics Hotline, whereby employees can express concerns anonymously through a third party and concerns can be shared appropriately with Board leadership.
The committee also reported that trustee Jimmy Scroggins’ involvement in Rainer’s transition agreement was not illegal or motivated by ill intent. The committee found that it would be beneficial for these types of agreements to have a greater level of transparency in the future.
“We have made changes to how we will handle this in the future so more trustees are involved,” said Vice Chairman J.D. Perry. “Those changes have since been communicated widely to the full board to increase transparency of the process.”
The committee also reported that Lifeway’s decision to publish Scroggins is not in violation of Lifeway’s bylaws as a conflict of interest. The bylaws specifically allow for a trustee to enter into a publishing agreement with Lifeway. In addition, the special audit committee noted that all advance monies and royalties from Scroggins’ books going back to 2015 have gone to his church and not to him personally.
Mandrell affirmed the work of the special audit committee. “Their work demonstrates a renewed commitment to higher transparency throughout the organization and a dedication to building strong relationships,” Mandrell said. “This not only serves Lifeway well, but also strengthens trust with Southern Baptist churches.”
Mission and ministry statements
In other action, trustees unanimously voted to forward to the SBC Executive Committee recommended revisions to Lifeway’s mission and ministries statement. The revisions included adding the resourcing of Vacation Bible School as a ministry assignment and removing or amending assignments related to church architecture, capital fundraising, direct support of campus-based ministry to college and university students, faculty, and administration, and the operation of conference centers, camp facilities and brick-and-mortar stores.
“The majority of Lifeway’s ministry assignments were assigned to us in 1995,” Mandrell said in a separate interview. “Since then, the digital revolution, changing church practices, and, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic have all contributed to significant shifts in Lifeway’s business model and how we minister to our church customers. The internet has touched almost every facet of our daily lives—from how we consume media, how we connect socially, how we shop, how we work, even how we connect with our local church.
“The current generation of church leaders are feeling the tremendous effects of these changes. And the current pandemic has only compounded the pressures church leaders are feeling,” Mandrell continued. “These sea changes have reinforced the need to update our ministry assignments as Lifeway adapts to meet the needs of churches today and tomorrow.”
The recommendation also included adding the phrase “designing trustworthy experiences that fuel ministry” to Lifeway’s mission statement.
“We’ve added this phrase because it boils down Lifeway’s purpose into six words,” Mandrell said. “We want to be known as a ministry that will go the extra mile to thoughtfully design tools that help people meet God and grow closer to Him. Whether it’s curriculum, short-term studies, ministry training, a new Bible, camps, or events, it has to be well-designed and provide a trustworthy experience, or we no longer offer it.”
As approved, the Lifeway mission statement would read: “Lifeway Christian Resources exists to assist churches and believers to evangelize the world to Christ, develop believers, and grow churches by designing trustworthy experiences that fuel ministry and by being the best provider of relevant high quality, high value Christian products and services.”
Mandrell said the Great Commission was not given to Lifeway, but to the local church. “Our job is to come alongside churches and individuals and fuel their ministries as they fulfill the Great Commission. That is our most important task.”
Lifeway will make a report to the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee in February with the intention of presenting the recommendation to messengers at the SBC annual meeting in June.
Mandrell ended his report by pointing to the words of Apostle Paul in Philippians 3: “Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and reaching forward to what is ahead, I pursue as my goal the prize promised by God’s heavenly call in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13–14).
“That’s my heart and the heart of our leadership team. We want to move Lifeway ahead into the future, learning from the past but pressing on into the future.”
In other business, the trustees:
— Amended language in Lifeway’s Retirement Plan, making the annual supplement to retirees contingent on Lifeway paying a Christmas gift to employees in December of the same year.
— Recognized five trustees who are ending their board service in June: Paul Baxter of LaGrange, Ga.; Darron Edwards, Kansas City, Mo.; Charles Green, Grand Junction, Colo.; Jennifer Oliver, Brentwood, Tenn.; and Jerry White, Chesnee, S.C.
Board Chairman Todd Fannin concluded the trustee meeting by thanking Mandrell for his prayerfulness during this difficult and transitional season for Lifeway.
The next scheduled meeting of the board of trustees is August 23-24.
Carol Pipes is director of corporate communications for Lifeway Christian Resources.
About Lifeway Christian Resources
In operation since 1891, Lifeway Christian Resources is one of the leading providers of Christian resources, including Bibles, books, Bible studies, VBS, Christian music and movies, and church supplies, as well as camps and events for all ages. Lifeway is the world’s largest provider of Spanish Bibles. Headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, Lifeway receives no denominational funding and operates as a self-supporting nonprofit.