Everything you need to know, you will learn tomorrow

2013ImportOf2011Photos 028I recently spent a day in Nashville with a group of publishing peers. Our association is called the Protestant Church-owned Publisher’s Association (PCPA) and MennoMedia, previously Mennonite Publishing Network, and before that, Mennonite Publishing House, has been part of it for decades. I enjoy these meetings, partly for the sense of camaraderie, but even more so for the things I learn.

I never fail to come away challenged, encouraged and sobered. We all are feeling greatly challenged these day and we frankly share our successes and our failures. When I think that our problems at MennoMedia are unique, I realize that we are in good company. With the drastic changes happening both in church denominations and in the publishing industry, we are continually reminded that, “This work is not for the faint of heart.”

In our November meeting, our group had the privilege to hear from one of our peers, Neil Alexander, of the United Methodist Publishing House, who has announced his retirement. He shared some wisdom with us out of his 20 years’ experience as CEO. I share here the 10 things I heard from him:

  1. Be realistic about our situation: There are no safety nets and lots of competition. The assumptions of our core business model are being upended. There is no sentimentality and no discrimination—disruption hits everyone and you can’t make it go away.
  2. You are behind every day that you wake up. Hence the saying, “Everything you need to know, you will learn tomorrow.”
  3. MORE-BETTER-FASTER—this is what the customer wants.
  4. Be courageous in adapting new methods, while staying faithful to the mission. This is key: it’s a hard balance to strike, but a constant reminder of the “why” of what we do.
  5. Relentlessly innovate. If we don’t, someone else will—and then our job will be to manage decline.
  6. Prudently manage the risk. I would add here—don’t be afraid of mistakes, so long as you learn from them.
  7. Keep your head up—stay alert.
  8. “Mission” and “business” are not the same thing, but they are not enemies, either. The sweet spot is the conjunction of the two, when business and mission meet. This is a great reminder for denominational publishers who often get caught in an imagined competition between the two.
  9. Staff need to be highly adaptive, fearless but not stupid, must possess the ability to integrate, and have a capacity to change and grow. We must possess humility and not hubris.
  10. We must have a transcending purpose with a compelling objective. I like this one the most.

These are helpful insights, coming from a lot of years of experience. We have a lot to learn from each. This is one side of our work: a media and church landscape and environment that is evolving rapidly; old assumptions no longer fitting; trends coming faster and unexpectedly; plus the constant needing to adapt.

There is another side to be balanced against the difficulties in the preceding paragraph. I will share more of that in a post next week: the timelessness of our message; the need for rootedness, community and tradition; the need to non-conform to a rapidly changing and fast-paced society and environment, the need to slow down so that we hear God’s voice. How can we do our work, keeping both in mind and still keeping our souls, and our mission, intact? Maintaining this tension is essential to our work and the biggest challenge we face. How do we serve our mission, stick to our core values, do what we do best and develop our niche, in this environment? These are questions we face as we go forward.

More on that next week! Meanwhile, I’d love to hear your comments and questions.

~Russ Eanes, Director


The Trapezoid of Death

This past week I had the privilege of hearing Diana Butler Bass speak at the Protestant Church-owned Publisher’s Association (PCPA), a professional organization which brings together staff and leadership of the major denominational publishers in the U.S. Diana is “an author, speaker, and independent scholar specializing in American religion and culture.” You can learn more about her here.

She gave a talk entitled “Trending Faith: Up, Down, Forwards or Backwards.” Much of her material came from a book she has published called Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.

She spoke about the fact that the U.S., a nation which used to pride itself in being largely Protestant (66% in 1960) is now a truly religiously pluralistic country; within the past year studies indicate that less than half (48%) identify now as Protestant. The biggest, and most dramatic change, however, is among young people 18-29, for whom a large 35% describe themselves as religiously “unaffiliated” and another 11% were non-Christian religions.

Of particular interest was the startling difference between the youngest and oldest age groups. Among those 65 and older, 69% were white Evangelical, Mainline Protestant or Catholic. By stark contrast, a mere 26% of 18-29-year-olds identified themselves the same way: an enormous change. Considering that most people fix their religious identity by the time they are 30, this does not necessarily bode well for those groups previously mentioned.

As she spoke, she showed a graph of religious affiliation, broken up by age groups. In her chart (below,) derived from a study done by Public Religion Research, those traditionally dominant groups, variously color coded orange, make a sort of “trapezoid” which shows how much their share is shrinking. Diana said that when she showed this to one denominational leader, he referred to it as the “trapezoid of death,” no doubt fueling anxieties that the decline was permanent. Denominational publishers can also find this depressing …DBB

Diana also pointed out that the new, younger and “emerging” market (much of which self-describe as “unaffiliated”) is two-fold: a post-institutional, spiritual-but-not-religious cohort and racially, ethnically, and religiously pluralistic. She noted that, “the emerging (new and younger) market needs publishers, authors, theologies, resources that speak faith in languages they understand. And both are young, tech-savvy populations.” I found that encouraging for us, so long as we learn to be both creative and adaptive in our content and delivery.

Of greatest interest to me, however, was her advice to denominational publishers, given that our traditional market is older (but not yet gone!) and the younger market (and ethnically diverse as well) is not captive to us, as our older one once was. She said something similar to what we are already saying here at MennoMedia, “Publishers and authors have to deliver new content in a multitude of new ways through non-traditional channels to entirely new readers in audiences you must build yourselves and develop new ways of monetizing products … while at the same time … continuing to relate to the needs and concerns of traditional constituents.” In other words, we have to stretch ourselves and that’s a real challenge. For some publishers it may seem like too much. For us, we see it as an opportunity.

At MennoMedia we want to learn and use this new language and adapt both ourselves and our organization to be able to respond to this new opportunity and thrive in it. We are convinced that we convey vital messages for our time.

Russ Eanes, Director of MennoMedia