Thom Rainer’s Defense of LifeWay’s Failure (LSP #79)

Thom Rainer’s Defense of LifeWay’s Failure (LSP #79) February 11, 2019

A while ago, I showed you a couple of news stories about Christian bookstores. Somehow, Jesus isn’t doing much to help them survive. Curious signs of turmoil emerged regarding one particular bookstore chain, LifeWay Christian Resources. And then I found today’s story. Come join me for a weird ride through Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) politics, infighting, and a strange show of defensiveness from one of their biggest names, Thom Rainer. Today, Lord Snow Presides over yet another SBC attempt to make catastrophic failure sound like incoming victories galore.

(Tyler Merbler.)

Death of a Giant, Part I.

In 2017, news sites reported on the total closure of one of the absolute units of Christian marketing: Family Christian Stores. I briefly touched on it at the time, but it really was the death of a giant. They struggled for years before admitting the inevitable truth. And that inevitable truth was that Christian bookstores were kind of a relic of that weird spurt of religiosity in the 1980s.

By the 2000s, Christian bookstores had begun to decline very seriously. By 2011, Publishers Weekly outlined just how precarious their situation had become.

All the same, when Family Christian Stores shuttered all of their remaining 240 locations in 2017, that marked the end of an era for many industry observers.

Of course, one other giant remained: LifeWay Christian Resources.

Everyone, Meet LifeWay Christian Resources.

LifeWay isn’t just another bookstore chain. It’s also the publishing arm of the SBC. Thus, every single item in their stores must conform to the SBC’s take on Christianity–right down to their culture wars. Like most Christian bookstores, they stock books, swag, music, and decorative kitsch.

For a while, LifeWay functioned as a very real gatekeeper in Christian media. Because of the ubiquitous nature of their shops, for a good while there they enjoyed the same power level of Texas schoolbook purchasers. Their uneven and distinctly sexist use of that power drew widespread criticism, but almost nobody could change their minds. If LifeWay refused to carry something, that something was all but doomed to insignificance.

Behind the scenes, LifeWay also produces propaganda for the SBC. They create, administer, and interpret surveys relating to topics of interest to the massive denomination. In addition, they create educational and evangelistic materials for indoctrination and recruitment of new foot-soldiers in those culture wars.

So they’re busy little bunnies. They even get their own full section in the SBC’s Annual Reports!

As a result of being so customer-facing, LifeWay’s leaders often function as the very visible front men for the SBC itself. Ed Stetzer used to work as one of those leaders, alongside LifeWay’s President and CEO Thom Rainer.

A Weird Bit of Infighting, Seen At a Remove.

In the SBC’s 2018 Annual Report, which covered 2017, I couldn’t help but notice some serious downsizing at the denomination. They tried very hard to conceal just how serious that downsizing was, bless their little hearts. But they couldn’t hide from our community. In the post I wrote about it, we caught some downright shocking signs of decline all over the place.

By far, the weirdest downsizing happened at LifeWay.

In 2015, the SBC sold over a million square feet of prime real estate in the very heart of downtown Nashville. That real estate housed their main 15-acre LifeWay campus. In 2017, LifeWay moved from that spacious, cushy campus into an office building.

At the time, Thom Rainer put on his brave face and declared, “You could say we have reinvented ourselves.”

I suppose people could say anything they wish. I could say I’m a space princess.

If Thom Rainer’s could say is true, then LifeWay did this reinventing with way less money from their denomination. The SBC’s 2018 Annual Report revealed that in 2017, they dropped LifeWay’s operational budget some USD$5M from the year before.

I wonder how Thom Rainer felt about that drop?

The Importance of Real Estate.

If nothing else, the selling of LifeWay’s main campus put a face on a very serious decline in the SBC. Something very serious must have happened to lead to them selling off their real-estate holdings.

Real estate represents an extremely tangible source of wealth for any business. My read of the Xenos cult in Ohio is that its religious activities mask a lucrative hidden business revolving around real estate acquisitions and rents. Catholic leaders in various American archdioceses routinely hide their assets from bankruptcy courts. They do this to avoid having to sell off real estate to pay the many victims of their predatory priests. Of course, early Christian groups likely gained many of those assets through people signing over their wealth, including real estate, to the early Church–and its leaders introduced enforced clerical celibacy to protect those assets!

The very last thing any religious group ever wants to do is sell off land. Ever.

And yet here’s LifeWay selling off 15 acres of land in the very heart of a major Southern city.

They didn’t rent it out. They just flat-out sold it.

I wonder how Thom Rainer felt about losing that land? And I wonder what options the SBC considered, then rejected in favor of selling it?

Death of a Giant, Part II.

That astonishing 2018 Annual Report came out around August 12th. On August 27, 2018, Thom Rainer announced his retirement from LifeWay. He’d be stepping down in a year or when LifeWay found his replacement, whichever came first. He totally “really loves” LifeWay and its “5,000+ employees who work there,” but he wanted to spend more time with his family.

According to the New York Times, that phrase functions as code for someone leaving under less-than-ideal terms:

Sometimes it is actually true. The family tug is strong, especially this time of year. But with large severance packages and corporate images frequently at stake, more often than not the phrase is part of a carefully scripted termination agreement, filled with nondisparagement and confidentiality clauses.

Whatever the case, last month, Rainer announced that LifeWay was going to close a bunch of their remaining 174 stores. They didn’t say how many or which stores were slated for closure. Thom Rainer announced the closures in conjunction with a shift toward a more “digital” strategy. A spokesperson also revealed that LifeWay’s already laid off some of those 5,000+ workers that Thom Rainer totally lurrrrrves JUST SO MUCH, Y’ALL. She wouldn’t say exactly how many people had been laid off or which stores they served.

Oh, I mean, sure, there’ll still be a LifeWay. And they’ll still be a very important part of this nutritious breakfast for the SBC. It ain’t like the denomination will ever stop needing propaganda, poorly-designed surveys, indoctrination tools, and ear-tickling, comforting reassurances for a tribe that still can’t quite believe that it’s solidly in decline.

It’ll just be a vastly-diminished LifeWay.

Thom Rainer’s Address.

While researching tomorrow’s post, I ran into this odd little story buried in Baptist News. In it, Thom Rainer appears in front of a LifeWay trustee meeting on February 4-5 to defend how he ran the business.

He told them that LifeWay’s people “were doing all that we could do to keep brick and mortar as a viable channel.” He’d hoped very much that Family Christian Stores’ customers would find their way to LifeWay. By August last year, when he announced his retirement, he was still voicing hope to the trustees that LifeWay would see a serious uptick from those customers.

It’s not weird that Rainer blamed online retailing for the decline of brick-and-mortar bookstores. The folks running those stores have talked like that for literally years.

It isn’t even odd-sounding that he claimed during his official speech to the trustees (his last address as the organization’s president, apparently) that he totally thinks that LifeWay will only become stronger and more powerful after “this disruption.”

“The greatest days for LifeWay are yet ahead,” he told them. 

Gang, that’s just standard-issue evangelicalism at this point–bluster and chest-thumping belligerence, faking it till you make it, and hoping “Jesus” makes the lies true.

A Strange Defense.

Much of Thom Rainer’s address to the trustees sounds a lot like a defense of his 13 years of leadership of LifeWay. He talked a lot about the various challenges the business has faced in its lifetime, building a narrative of MEAN OLE AMAZON. (Does he think he’s in a weird SBC remake of You’ve Got Mail?)

He spoke poignantly of how he’d hoped to see more customers from Family Christian Stores, and how that’d almost seemed like it would happen.

Then he said something really weird.

The slight uptick he’d seen in August 2018 turned out to be, he said, “a false positive.” Declines in brick-and-mortar store sales not only continued, but got worse by the holidays. By then, he told the trustees,

[W]e began to see that not only had our efforts not reversed the declines. They had been exacerbated.

One damn minute, Admiral.

LifeWay’s attempts to drum up business not only didn’t work, they backfired?

Fundies Don’t Take a Dump, Son, Without a Prayer.

I’d lay odds on Thom Rainer being one of those Christians who literally doesn’t go out to lunch without ostentatiously praying about where “Jesus” wants him to eat that day. The trustee meeting writeups even include photos of the trustees gathered at lunchroom-style tables to think really hard in their minds pray together for LifeWay’s success.

Rainer and his peons would absolutely have prayed before taking any of those strategies Rainer outlined in his trustees’ meeting.

How did “Jesus” fail to tell them what they needed to do to keep LifeWay stores open in meatspace?

Did they somehow not hear their god’s instructions? That’d call into question their entire ideology, yes, but it’d sure explain a lot about the SBC’s decline if their god were real but they just didn’t know what his voice sounded like anymore. I’ve personally heard plenty of evangelicals claim they just mis-heard their god when their plans failed. (Of course, that’d introduce all kinds of other problems, but still.)

Or did Thom Rainer’s evil god just want his children to fail, to throw millions of dollars into an open, bleeding money pit, and ultimately to destroy the incomes of potentially thousands of workers who were probably already being paid as little as their TRUE CHRISTIAN™ masters dared?

A Third Option.

Or is this god just nonexistent?

In that case, Thom Rainer simply took actions that he thought would bring LifeWay success, just like any other business owner would, only he backed the wrong tactical horses. Now he leaves the organization with as much dignity as he can muster–and in a way that leaves him open to take a new position elsewhere when “spending time with his family” stops being quite the pressing concern for him that it represents now.

I know what’s most likely, of the three.

As long as the SBC’s leaders insist on treating their venture like anything but an actual business, we’re not going to see anything get better for them. In that vein, LifeWay’s trustees are looking for a mini-me of Thom Rainer to carry their business forward. They’ve left nothing whatsoever to chance here. So that’s good news, in a major way–for us.

Today, Lord Snow Presides over an ongoing and catastrophic SBC failure–and its leaders’ attempts to make that failure sound like a victory to maintain their self-serving fiction about being on the winning team.

NEXT UP: More of the SBC’s attempts to make failure sound just fine. This time, they’re circling the wagons because of the “Abuse of Faith” sex-abuse story. See you tomorrow!


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. You can read more about the author here.
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