The United Methodist Publishing House dates to 1789 and has come through many dangers, toils and snares, as the old hymn goes.
Then came COVID-19.
While the pandemic was closing church buildings, it also was sabotaging the Publishing House’s sales revenue, prompting leaders to lay off about a third of the staff and put the Nashville, Tennessee, headquarters up for sale.
Even with severe cost-cutting, the self-supporting agency recently forecast an operating loss for fiscal year 2021.
“We’re continuing to evaluate and reset the business, and right size, if you want to call it that, for what we can afford,” said the Rev. Brian Milford, the Publishing House’s president and publisher.
Among those watching is retired United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon, who has written many books for the Publishing House and its imprint Abingdon Press.
“I’ve talked to a couple of editors and they were in deep pain for having to lay off some talented and consecrated people,” he said.
But Willimon is a longtime advocate for shaking up The United Methodist Church, and he feels there are lessons in the bold moves the Publishing House was making even before the pandemic.
“They have been the first to recognize that we’re in a very different time and there’s got to be some painful adjustment,” he said.
Founded as the Methodist Book Concern, the Publishing House is the denomination’s oldest continuous agency, rooted in the emphasis Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, placed on Christian formation through literacy.
It also sells church supplies — everything from clergy robes to pre-packaged communion elements, which have been in demand during the pandemic.
“Their whole heartbeat is: ‘How do we help local churches make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world?’” said the Rev. Adam Hamilton, pastor of the largest United Methodist church in weekly attendance, the Church of the Resurrection, in Leawood, Kansas. He also is a prolific author whose Abingdon Press books on Christian faith have sold cumulatively more than 2 million copies.
The Publishing House has persisted through wars, denominational breakups and mergers, and the Great Depression. But recent decades have presented some of the biggest challenges.
The denomination has been gradually declining numerically in the U.S., while also facing internal division over how accepting to be of homosexuality. In what many observers see as a post-denominational age, churches have increasingly shopped around for or made their own vacation Bible school and Sunday school curricula.
Reporting in writing to the 2016 General Conference, the Publishing House said that “the natural markets for congregational-based resources that have been the mainstay of UMPH work for decades continue to shrink.”
Meanwhile, the Publishing House has had to adapt to the internet age, including the discounting and delivery prowess of bookseller Amazon.com.
“We know we have churches that are buying their Advent study materials from Amazon,” said Neil Alexander, president and publisher emeritus of the Publishing House. “We know that because Amazon purchases those same products from us at a wholesale discount.”
Reports to General Conference show the Publishing House’s quadrennial sales have steadily fallen, from $373 million (2008-2011) to $276 million (2012-2015) to $219 million (2016-2019).
In past decades, the Publishing House contributed nearly $50 million to support United Methodist clergy pensions. Since the 2008-2009 financial crisis, it has needed to focus on restoring its own defined-benefit plan assets.
The Publishing House, unlike other key United Methodist agencies, gets no apportionment dollars — that is, shares of church giving. Depending largely on sales, the Publishing House has had little choice but to change and retrench.
Through the years, the Publishing House has outsourced its printing and distribution operations. The most attention-grabbing move, announced in 2012 and carried out the next year, was closing all 57 of its bricks-and-mortar Cokesbury bookstores and focusing instead on selling through Cokesbury.com and at annual conference gatherings.
Many United Methodists complained about losing their local store, but the decision is hard to challenge in retrospect, given the demise of the Borders and LifeWay bookstore chains.
A few years back, the Publishing House also sold its downtown Nashville properties at a big profit and relocated farther out in the city, turning existing office space into a digital-first headquarters. Staff size dropped too, from 415 in 2016 to about 300 at the beginning of this year.
The board, elected from across the United Methodist connection, strongly backed the executives.
“All those very tough (board) decisions have been ultimately, virtually unanimous every time,” said Tennessee Supreme Court Justice Cornelia Clark, a board member since 2008 and current chair. “Not without regret, but with the understanding of the moment we’re in.”
But COVID-19 presented an unanticipated threat, closing church buildings across the U.S. beginning in March.
“If congregations are not meeting, they’re not using the resources we sell,” Milford said. “It was like somebody turned the faucet off.”
Lenten studies sales dropped first. Then the crucial vacation Bible school market got hit.
Mardi Bowen leads children’s ministries at First United Methodist Church in Plano, Texas, and usually gears up for 300 children in vacation Bible school.
This year, given the pandemic, the church’s vacation Bible school went online. About 100 kids participated.
Instead of ordering lots of hands-on curriculum materials from Cokesbury.com, Bowen and team mostly came up with their own online activities.
Thinking of her church and many others that have limited or foregone curriculum orders, Bowen said, “It is evident how this impacts our Publishing House.”
When most U.S. annual conferences decided because of the pandemic to meet online, another depended-on sales opportunity for the Publishing House vanished.
The agency’s vacation Bible school-related sales have fallen 51% this year. Other key categories have been sharply down, and though many churches resumed meeting in-person, overall sales revenue for the Publishing House was still down nearly 30% for this October compared to a year ago.
Milford said sales for August through November of 2019 were $14.7 million, dropping to $9.1 million for the same period in 2020.
The agency announced in late April that it would soon have to let go about 70 of its 296 employees. Additional layoffs followed.
Clark verified that the agency’s top executives — whose salaries, some in the $200,000 to $300,000 range, are set according to publishing industry standards — have taken pay cuts.
“That to me speaks volumes about their understanding as to where we are and that they need to lead,” Clark said.
The Publishing House closed its own headquarters because of the pandemic, and the positive experience of working remotely, combined with the need to save funds, prompted a decision to sell the property — though the agency has only occupied it since 2015.
The Nashville real estate market remains hot, and the property should bring considerably more than its $17.6 million appraisal value, Alexander said. He foresees the agency having a small office for administration but with nearly all employees working elsewhere.
He said it’s clear that a 100,000-square-foot footprint isn’t required. “That’s a tremendous cost savings in overhead.”
Even as the Publishing House works with the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History to arrange transfer of historical manuscripts and other artifacts, it’s trying to come up with a plan to close a projected operating loss in the $31.3 million working budget for fiscal year 2021.
The dissemination of vaccines for COVID-19 should eventually allow churches to resume in-person worship and order from the Publishing House more or less as before. But The United Methodist Church may well be headed for a breakup after so many years of division over LGBTQ inclusivity.
“It is a critical time in the life of the United Methodist Publishing House, just as it is in the life of The United Methodist Church,” Milford said. “The two challenges are not unrelated.”
Hamilton of the Church of the Resurrection is among those pulling for the Publishing House, not least because he wants United Methodist pastors younger than himself to have a Wesleyan publisher to share their insights into Christian faith.
“The need for the Publishing House is more now than ever,” he said.
Meanwhile, Willimon sees the Publishing House as shock troops for the denomination.
“They’re a model for how you deal with downsizing. … They’re the first to step up and face facts.”
Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.
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