New LifeWay CEO’s push for accountability, transparency runs afoul of Southern Baptist Fat Cats

The $1,000,000-plus severance package given to former LifeWay CEO Thom Rainer was kept secret from many trustees including the Compensation Committee and the board executive committee by former LifeWay trustee chairman Jimmy Scroggins. The stunning revelations came to light in audio provided to the Capstone Report of the new LifeWay CEO discussing the recent legal dispute with LifeWay’s former CEO Thom Rainer. The audio confirms the leaked letter to the LifeWay Trustees and LifeWay employees by the current three-member trustee executive committee. 

According to comments made by new LifeWay CEO Ben Mandrell, the current board officers were unaware of the severance package details. Mandrell noted the lack of transparency about Dr. Rainer’s package with trustees in recent comments on the future of LifeWay.

According to the new LifeWay CEO, in a phone conversation between Mandrell and Rainer, Mandrell told the former LifeWay president, “that such a generous transition agreement, in my opinion, should have been approved by a larger set of eyes.”

And, making it even clearer that the $1,000,000-plus severance package was kept secret from many trustees, the new board officers were unaware of it. Mandrell said he informed the board officers about the situation in an effort to get their advice about what to do.

“So, I brought in the board officers to give me some advice—in the company of advisors there is wisdom,” Mandrell said. “I laid out all the information on the table: the generous package that had been given to Dr. Rainer, which they did not know about, and the clear promise he had made that was in effect until October of 2021.”

Ultimately, LifeWay sought legal action against Rainer. You can read more about that below. However, the real story is the severance package, the apparent lack of transparency in it and appearance of a conflict of interest involving former trustee chairman Scroggins.

The lawsuit was attacked by some members of the LifeWay Board of Trustees. This included comments by Scroggins who told the Christian Post the lawsuit was “embarrassing” and “damaging to the kingdom.” Of specific interest for our purposes, Scroggins complained to the Christian Post that the lawsuit was filed without board approval.

That’s funny. Because Scroggins played a significant role in approving the sweetheart deal with Dr. Rainer and kept that information from the many LifeWay Trustees. Scroggins was president of the LifeWay trustees when Rainer announced his retirement and was specifically mentioned in the leaked LifeWay memo.

According to the leaked document, “On Aug.13, 2018, in anticipation of his announced retirement, Dr. Rainer signed a lucrative transition agreement. The transition agreement was signed by then Board Chairman Jimmy Scroggins and former Senior Vice President of Organizational Development Selma Wilson on behalf of LifeWay. The document was signed without being reviewed by or with knowledge of the Compensation Committee or Executive Committee.”

Also, Scroggins published a book with Lifeway in 2016 and a student Bible study in 2020.

This type of intimate relationship between Scroggins, LifeWay and Rainer raises a host of ethical questions about non-profit governance; it even poses potential legal problems for the organization.

Also, why were so few people involved in the decision to grant Rainer the sweetheart severance package? Was Scroggins the only person to authorize the severance package? If so, did this comply with LifeWay policies?

Trust the trustees?

That seems like a bad idea when even the trustees are not consulted about seven-figure severance packages.

It is obvious the new LifeWay president is working hard to improve financial accountability at the SBC entity. He wants a culture of accountability at the organization.

Of course, the SBC Elites led by Scroggins dislike this level of accountability and publicly opposed the legal moves of the new administration.

Why is that?

See below the transcript of Mandrell’s extended comments. It is encouraging that the new LifeWay leadership wants transparency and accountability.

Transcript of Mandrell’s Comments on LifeWay & Lawsuit against Thom Rainer

In audio of new LifeWay President Ben Mandrell obtained by the Capstone Report, Mandrell explain why the new administration entered into a legal fight with former LifeWay President Thom Rainer. Mandrell spoke about the need to move forward and the need for a accountability and transparency at the organization.

“How is it that it honors the Lord to enter into a legal battle with the former leader of LifeWay?

“I get the question. It is fair. But, it is far more complicated than you might think. Back in March when COVID-19 began, our ELT (executive leadership team) went into an intense cost-cutting mode that was unavoidable. $25 million dollars had to be removed from the budget. Most of that would involve losing great teammates. It was gut-wrenching work.

“If you recall, I sent out a very emotional video apologizing to the number of people whose jobs were being deleted. Behind the scenes the ELT were having all these hard conversations. And I knew that I had to do something as a leader to do my part to search for every dollar that could be saved.

“So, I picked up the phone and called Dr. Rainer and I said, I had to have a hard conversation with him that my conscience would not let me rest and I asked him to give back a portion of the money he had been receiving from LifeWay so that we could save some jobs.

“I told him that such a generous transition agreement in my opinion should have been approved by a larger set of eyes.

“He was upset with me, but told me he would end the transition agreement and take no more funds from LifeWay. Days later, he reached out and let us know he had changed his mind. He wished to donate back some of the money, but keep that agreement in place. That was his decision and at that point I put it behind me and said nothing further about the matter. I did what I felt the Lord called me to do and the Holy Spirit gave me rest.

“That is, until the day Dr. Rainer decided to violate that agreement that he chose to keep in place by announcing to the world, a multi-year, multi-faceted relationship with Tyndale. I have nothing against Tyndale. I’ve enjoyed many of their books…I like to think we are on the same team.

“The issue I had now on my hands was very complex. In the Bible, I Corinthians 6, Paul encourages Christians to resolve their differences out of court to avoid putting their conflicts out in the open. But, there are other Scriptures that inform the conversation like Jesus saying your Yes should be Yes and your No should be No. There were many Scriptures that came to factor into this decision. Because we live in a broken world, we do have a legal team to protect us. And we do have a board whose job it is to represent us to Southern Baptists in the stewardship of resources. That it is sound.

“So, I wasn’t sure what to do. So, I brought in the board officers to give me some advice—in the company of advisors there is wisdom. I laid out all the information on the table: the generous package that had been given to Dr. Rainer, which they did not know about and the clear promise he had made that was in effect until October of 2021. After much discussion, they felt led to reach out to Dr. Rainer in a soft legal letter explaining they needed some information.

“He responded by saying he had not violated the agreement.

“The Board officers sent another letter saying they needed more substantive information within five days and he chose not to respond in those five days and a legal complaint was filed.

“It was not their desire to do that nor was it mine, or for the situation to move the direction it did. There are no clear winners in a situation like these. We all know that. But, I do stand by the approach our board leaders chose. I think it is important they did so. Here’s why.

“This is a culture shaping decision for us. It is a defining moment for me as a leader. This is what you can expect from me in the future. I will continue to lift up the fact that this is a ministry that requires the Holy Spirit’s anointing even more than brilliant ideas in marketing. My desire is to hold people accountable and be held accountable and to drive transparency and put safeguards in place so things like this never happen again.

“Our work here at Lifeway it is exciting. And yes, in these difficult times, we are drawing some lines in the sand and we are creating a new culture. We are in the process of that. I am thankful that we quickly resolved this legal issue and put it behind us now so we can look to the future which is exciting. We are designing trustworthy experiences to fuel ministry. Let’s get to it. Let’s look to the future. Let’s do it together.”

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