Q&A With New LifeWay President and CEO Ben Mandrell
Facts & Trends spoke with Ben Mandrell, newly-elected president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, about his perspective on leadership, communication, and legacy as he begins leading one of the world’s largest Christian publishers.
Having spent most of your career in the church and particularly as a church planter outside the Bible Belt, what advantages and perspectives do you think that provides you in leading LifeWay?
As I look back over the chapters of my life, I can see the hand of God preparing me for this significant moment at LifeWay. Lynley and I loved our time in Tennessee serving at Englewood Baptist Church in Jackson, as it helped us understand the culture of the Southern Baptist Convention and the warm people of the South. Our time in Denver expanded our horizons and helped us see how different things are in regions beyond the South.
I believe God has called us to help LifeWay expand its influence into other areas of the U.S. and around the world. I also believe there is a growing army of brave church planters across the nation who are looking for relevant resources in their post-Christian contexts.
LifeWay can come alongside them and help them in their mission to preach the gospel and make disciples. We exist to serve churches, and since the Mandrells have been immersed in church leadership for 18 years now, we feel this gives us a seasoned perspective.
In your letter announcing this transition to your church, you said you were a “writer and communicator at heart.” How have you seen God use this gift and calling in your life to this point and how do you see this continuing as you lead LifeWay?
A paradigm change requires a compelling vision, thoughtfully delivered. All through Scripture, we read of God raising up leaders to communicate a message of hope, pouring courage into the peoples’ hearts. I believe words can stir hearts and inspire people to believe the best is yet to come.
I have many weaknesses, as the LifeWay team shall soon see, but one of the gifts I bring to the table is the ability to tie words together in a way that helps people see the big picture, and also inspires them to “own the idea” themselves.
This is how God used me in my previous places of ministry, and I am choosing to believe He will do it again.
In describing this transition from pastor to CEO, you said you believe “God equips the called.” How has God been equipping you for this and in what specific areas do you believe He is continuing to equip you to serve as the president of LifeWay?
My first pastorate was at a 65-year-old megachurch in West Tennessee. I loved that church with all my heart. When God called Lynley and I to move west to plant a brand new church in Denver, we knew virtually nothing about the world of church planting. Though we were green, we were hungry. We were both “all in” and worked tirelessly to accomplish what God had asked us to do.
As I look at the “giant” challenge of leading LifeWay, I feel a little like David with a sling in his hand. David looked to God’s faithfulness in the past to bolster his confidence in the future. Having “seized the beard of a lion,” he moved forward with confidence. I’m praying God will supply that kind of boldness as I step into this role.
As you step into this leadership position, LifeWay is in the midst of its own transition—away from a time of emphasis on brick-and-mortar retail to a more digital approach. What have been your thoughts as you watched this transition from the outside and now as you will be a part of leading it?
In my opinion, LifeWay has not “lost its stores” as some might argue. LifeWay has incredible stores—online and at strategic events. The market has spoken, and LifeWay must pay attention to the winds of culture, continuing to adjust its sails.
With four teen and pre-teen children under my roof, I’m amazed at how tech-savvy and device-driven they can be. This is only going to increase over the next 30 years, and LifeWay must utilize its brilliant creatives to go where the younger people are going.
How would you describe your approach to leading LifeWay?
First of all, I would say I lead by listening. I love to draw people out and synthesize their best ideas into the overall vision. The team at LifeWay is an unbelievably talented army of creative professionals. The very best ideas for the future are sitting inside their heads, and I can’t wait to start hearing those bright ideas and strategizing ways to implement them.
I also lead by demonstrating courage. While humility is paramount, courage is required to move any organization forward. Confidence is contagious, and I believe the team at LifeWay will see that I will be confident in making those occasional tough calls that may disappoint some but will move the mission of LifeWay forward with greater speed.
When you think about who you are as a leader, who have been the biggest leadership influences in your life and what books, outside of the Bible, have most shaped you?
Mere Christianity was a series of radio broadcasts delivered to a people in war-time distress. Through the use of carefully crafted words, C.S. Lewis encouraged and inspired people to believe and to renew their hope in God.
When I think about the legacy I want to leave, no person has affected me more than Lewis, who gave his life to changing the way people think about God. LifeWay will not be around on the other side of the trumpet call, but the people who were radically changed by the resources we created shall be.
As a parent of four children still in the home, seeing the next generation know and follow Christ is obviously important to you. How can LifeWay best help the church in making disciples of kids, teenagers, and young adults?
I think that we Southern Baptists need to loosen up and have a little more fun. Our kids teach us to do that. It would do us all good to go to an amusement park together.
My kids are drawn to joy, to laughter, to positive environments where Christian people are truly having a good time. Lynley and I love kids and student ministry, because younger people haven’t learned to take themselves too seriously.
Being a skit character every year at our VBS is a highlight for me, and Lynley loves creating environments where the kids have that magic blend of structure and spontaneity. Kids ministry is where the action is! She and I can’t wait to work with the LifeWay professionals who focus their time in these areas.
What needs of the local church do you think have been underserved by Christian publishers? How can LifeWay adapt to meet these needs?
I have much to learn about the scope of LifeWay. I’m amazed at how diverse the company truly is. One area where I see a need is in the contextualizing of our materials.
Being a church planter in Denver these past five years, I’ve seen firsthand how some of the resources created in Nashville were ill-fitting for the Western audience.
I believe we need to increase communication drastically with the pastors on the ground in the more post-Christian contexts, and start adapting to their needs, speaking their language more fluently.
What are some of the greatest areas of potential you see at LifeWay?
There’s potential around every corner! It’s hard to know where to begin. The gospel need is growing more obvious as America becomes increasingly secular. LifeWay is becoming more and more countercultural, which elevates the uniqueness of Christ’s message.
Our events, books, curriculum, intentional conversations around the Christian worldview, our creation of compelling video and story—there are so many weapons in our arsenal that I’m excited to stockpile.
As you think about starting your tenure at LifeWay, I’d like to ask you about the beginning and even the end. As you step into this role, what is your vision for the future of LifeWay? And what do you want LifeWay to look like when you retire and pass the baton to someone else?
Lynley and I are both very competitive people. We like to win, and to lead winning teams! We are praying the Lord’s favor would fall upon us, and that our tenure will be remembered as a winning season.
We know that leading a large organization will certainly come with a measure of criticism, but so long as the great leaders at LifeWay knew that our hearts were always for the advancement of the Kingdom, then that’s all we can ask for.