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EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK: At The American Bible Society, Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast

But ABS is an organization worth saving

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Editor’s Note:  Most Saturdays we will feature this “Editor’s Notebook” column. MinistryWatch President Warren Smith will offer his opinion on stories in the week’s news or, sometimes, offer a behind-the-scenes look at how and why we do what we do.  

Emily Belz has written an excellent article about the American Bible Society (ABS) for Christianity Today. In this carefully reported piece, she identifies long-standing problems at the 208-year-old institution. Chief among those problems is what author Peter Greer has called “mission drift.” As Belz writes, ABS “used to have a simple mission: print and distribute Bibles in the US. At its peak in 1979, it was giving away 108 million a year.” Today, the ABS mission is “bible engagement,” an amorphous term that has included everything from the publication of Bible study material to the creation of a new (and first-rate) Bible museum in Philadelphia.

Belz continues: “This 21st-century identity crisis has sharpened in the last two years with the quick turnover of five executives in a row, tens of millions of dollars in financial shortfalls, and the loss of a major donor. Sources said that about 30 staff were laid off late last year, which amounts to about 20 percent of employees.”

The problems that Belz cites at ABS are not new. I first wrote about almost identical problems there for WORLD in 2008, and then again in 2013. In those articles I identified the same leadership, financial, and organizational issues that ABS still hasn’t solved, though the organization has seen a revolving door of presidents since my 2013 article.

Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast

Now ABS has yet another president, the fifth in just three years. The new president, Jennifer Holloran, is a former executive at Wycliffe Bible Translators.

She may be a gifted leader, and I wish her the best in this new role. But for anyone who has been paying attention to the Bible translation industry over the past few years, that choice did not inspire confidence. Wycliffe Bible Translators and the entire Bible translation industry is in turmoil, as MinistryWatch has documented in more than 50 articles over the past four years. (You can read those articles here, but I recommend starting with “Just How Broken Is The Bible Translation Industry,” which you can find here.)

For the American Bible Society to pick a leader from another major organization in this incestuous industry betrays a certain myopia, a failure to fully appreciate that the real problem at ABS is not one of strategy, but of culture. Leadership matters, and new leadership can help. But the problems in the Bible translation industry go deeper than a few personnel changes – even changes in the executive suite, as the ABS’s revolving door of CEOs demonstrates.

Management guru Peter Drucker is often credited with the saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” The problem with ABS and with the Bible translation industry generally is that it still pursues 20th and even 19th century fundraising and resource deployment models, and until that changes, we are likely to get more of the same.

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A Path Forward: Funding Innovation

I did, however, see a glimmer of hope in Emily Belz’s article. She cited board chair Katherine Barnhart: “For approximately two years, the board of directors of American Bible Society has been strategically aligning its planning and work in a way that is focusing ABS on finding, fostering, and furthering innovations in Bible access and engagement.”

Belz concludes that this alliterative corporate-speak means: “The organization’s tax filings show how it has been shifting to operate more like a foundation: Its head count has been shrinking over the years as it has moved from direct ministry to providing grants to partners doing projects on Bible engagement.”

If true, that could be a good thing. If there’s one thing that ABS has, it’s money. If it gets in the business of funding innovation that could be a true game changer.

But who ABS funds will matter.

When technology disrupted the analog music industry, it wasn’t the existing record labels and music stores who rose to the challenge.  It took a company outside the industry to solve the problem: Apple, with iTunes. When the bookselling industry became bloated and inefficient, existing book retailers didn’t solve that problem. Amazon did. NASA got America into space more than a half-century ago. Today, private, entrepreneurial companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic are doing things NASA wasn’t able to figure out how to do with its existing funding models and culture.

If ABS just rounds up the usual suspects, the traditional players in the Bible translation world – Wycliffe Bible Translators among them – and pours money on them (which it can, given its $650 million in net assets), it will end up right back where it started, but with depleted financial resources.

If, on the other hand, ABS remembers that in the 19th century it was the innovator, and if today it taps that DNA to nurture some of the smaller, more innovative organizations in the Bible translation space, it could both honor its legacy and make a real, positive difference.

MinistryWatch has written about the use of Translation Service Providers (TSPs) to dramatically reduce the time and money needed for Bible translations. Innovative organizations such as Unfolding Word are combining technology, an “open source” culture, and church-based Bible translation to make dramatic advances in Bible translation processes.

The world would be a poorer place without the work of the American Bible Society over these past two centuries. It is an organization worth fixing, and a process worth watching.

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Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.