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EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK: Three Evangelical Institutions Worth Saving

New Leaders at Liberty University, Museum of the Bible, and David C. Cook Have Great Opportunities, Daunting Challenges

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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.

MinistryWatch has reported on leadership changes at three high-profile evangelical institutions in recent months: Liberty University, Museum of the Bible, and David C. Cook.

These leadership changes are a sign of things to come in the Christian ministry space. MinistryWatch’s recent survey of ministry executives indicates that a majority of large ministry leaders are in their 60s and have been in their current role for eight years or more. We will see the leaders of hundreds of the largest Christian ministries in the nation retire over the next few years.

For Liberty, Museum of the Bible, and David C. Cook, this changing of the guard is not hypothetical. These venerable institutions are different. They have uniquely gifted leaders and specific challenges, but these three institutions also have one thing in common: they are all in trouble, and they are all worth saving.

Liberty University

The troubles at Liberty have been well documented. In fact, MinistryWatch has done a good bit of the documenting. We’ve published more than 200 stories that feature or at least mention Liberty. You can read them here.

Lost in the discussion of Liberty’s failings, though, has been an appreciation for the unique contributions of Liberty both to church life and to American life over the past 50 years. If you are a Christian kid who wants to study the liberal arts in a Christian school, you have hundreds of options. But if you want to study aeronautical engineering, interior design (my daughter’s major at Liberty), biomedical science, or outdoor education in a Christian setting, your choices are limited. For some majors, Liberty is the only option in the country.

We should also note that Liberty has a full range of ROTC programs and trains thousands of new and mid-career American military officers each year.

That’s why it is no surprise that the new president at Liberty is retired Air Force Major General Dondi Costin. After retiring from the Air Force, he saw success as the president of Charleston Southern University, which is not well-known nationally but has 3,500 students and an annual budget of $120 million. It was good training for someone who will now lead an institution with a budget of a billion dollars and 20,000 students in residence plus 100,000 online – many of them active-duty military.

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Museum of the Bible

Museum of the Bible also has a new president, or it will have when Dr. Carlos Campo finishes his tenure as the president of Ashland University next year.

Museum of the Bible is relatively new, by far the youngest of the institutions I’m discussing here. It first opened its doors to the public in 2017. But its big, bold vision captured the imagination of many evangelicals. That vision is to bring the story of the Bible and the Bible’s contribution to American life to the country’s seat of power, Washington, D.C. Of course, Washington is also one of the premier tourist destinations in the nation, and MOTB seeks to do nothing less than become one more “must see” site among the great museums on the National Mall.

But this project has proven easier said than done. Donors, led by the Green Family of Hobby Lobby fame, have poured more than $400 million into the museum in the last five years alone. That did not include another $500 million dollars in start-up, construction, artifact accumulation, and early operating costs. For all that, the MOTB generated just $15 million in program revenue in 2022, only a fraction of which came from ticket prices. MOTB lost $10 million in 2022. In the Covid-impaired year of 2020, it lost more than $30 million.

Like Liberty University, Museum of the Bible is a unique resource, and it is hard not to wish it well, but Carlos Campo has his work cut out for him. The good news is that he is an inspiring leader, a proven administrator, and a successful fundraiser. He will need all three skills to succeed.

David C. Cook

The situation at David C. Cook, one of the nation’s largest Christian publishers and music distributors, is even murkier than at Liberty and MOTB, in part because Cook stopped releasing its Form 990s to the public, which is never a good sign.

What we do know of Cook’s finances is not good. As I have reported elsewhere, the organization has been hemorrhaging money for more than a decade, and it would have been out of business long ago were it not for the more than $100 million in assets the organization accumulated in better times.

Bill Reeves, the new president, is one of the few persons on the planet who has background and contacts to save the organization. He comes to Cook from the Educational Media Foundation, a $200 million per year behemoth which owns the well-known K-Love radio network. That means he knows music and digital, important parts of whatever future Cook hopes to have. He also knows publishing, having spent time at Thomas Nelson in the early 2000s. He helped lead EMF into publishing, helping launch K-Love Books in 2021.

The “secret sauce” could be Reeves’ movie experience. He’s been involved in several movie projects based on best-selling books, including books by Max Lucado, as well as a Johnny Cash biopic. It will be interesting to see if he leads Cook in that direction.

Again, I wish Reeves and David C. Cook well. Cook has a rich history of publishing excellent and often beautiful books. They’ve included bestsellers by my friends and former colleagues John Stonestreet and J. Warner Wallace. (And I should add, by way of disclosure, that one of those books – Unplanned Grace — was co-written by my daughter Brittany Smith and my MinistryWatch podcast co-host Natasha Cowden.)

But of the three new leaders mentioned in this piece, his job will perhaps be the hardest.

Bottom Line

The loss of these organizations would be tragic for thousands of people directly dependent on these organizations, but also for evangelical and America life. All these organizations have unique assets that we need, and missions that will benefit us all if accomplished.

For that reason, for all three men, I pray Godspeed.

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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.