Would a denominational publisher resort to underhanded tactics in a bid for Baptist business?
That’s the impression one might get from reading a letter sent out in mid-December by Lex Horton, publisher of Smyth & Helwys, a publishing house that produces books, curricula, and electronic resources used mainly by moderate Baptists. The letter stated that United Methodist publisher Cokesbury — which many moderate Baptists also use, had been calling churches and informing them that Smyth & Helwys was going out of business and would no longer publish a dated curriculum, and that Cokesbury was the preferred Sunday School and resource provider for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Since none of that information was true, the folks at Smyth & Helwys had reason to be upset, as did longtime customers who thought the company they depended on was about to fold. That led to Horton’s letter to CBF churches who have been customers of the company. Horton emphasized that Smyth & Helwys is alive and well, entering its 18th year with a strong commitment to continuing its publishing mission. And, it has no plans to discontinue its dated curriculum, he wrote.
I spoke to Ed Kowalski, who is senior vice president for sales and marketing at Cokesbury, and asked him what had happened. Kowalski said Cokesbury did recently sign an agreement to be one of CBF’s preferred resource providers (the CBF website lists “partnerships” with The Upper Room, Smyth & Helwys, and Cokesbury). As Cokesbury’s customer service representatives started calling CBF churches to introduce themselves as a preferred provider, he said, one of them misinterpreted the information and wrongly assumed that Smyth & Helwys was going out of business.
That person contacted 38 churches with the erroneous information on Nov. 12, Kowalski said. When a pastor contacted Cokesbury about it, officials quickly stopped all outgoing calls until they could figure out what had happened. Once they did, he said, Cokesbury representatives immediately starting contacting those churches to apologize and correct the misinformation, reaching all of them by Nov. 15. Kowalski said Cokesbury contacted Smyth & Helwys about the same time to explain what had gone wrong and what had been done to correct it.
Unfortunately, the story was just juicy enough to spread like a spilled smoothie, and the brief interval between the initial and follow-up contacts with the churches provided ample time for word to get out among Baptists that the Methodists were playing dirty.
Horton told me the problem was bigger than the 38 churches who were initially called. A number of church representatives who called or e-mailed Smyth & Helwys indicated that Cokesbury’s sales representatives had corrected the erroneous claim that Smyth & Helwys was going out of business, he said, but had continued promoting Cokesbury materials over Smyth & Helwys resources and stating that Cokesbury is CBF’s preferred resource provider. Churches were still getting confused, he said, and Cokesbury’s callbacks had not adequately cleared up the situation. Some callers were actually angry at Smyth & Helwys, Horton said, thinking that the company had decided to close down without telling them. Thus, he said, Smyth & Helwys thought a clarifying letter to all of the CBF-related churches who buy from the company was needed.
In his letter, Horton said “We are at a loss to explain why such a large-scale publisher would feel the need to resort to such tactics.”
There was no such need, according to Kowalski. “It was a very unfortunate mistake,” he said. “We have absolutely no reason to create a story like that.” Cokesbury is very respectful of all who are involved in publishing ministries, he added.
Kowalski said conversations are ongoing between officials of Cokesbury and Smyth & Helwys, and that he hopes a joint letter of understanding regarding the situation can be released. Horton was less confident about a joint letter, saying the matter was now two months old and “water under the bridge.”
One way or the other, let us hope for peace between publishers. Smyth & Helwys and Cokesbury are both quality companies, and Baptists need them both. Smyth & Helwys is more targeted to the particular resource needs of moderate Baptists, while Cokesbury offers a broader range of liturgical, academic, and church resources.
Let’s hope the unfortunate dust-up will quickly blow over, and continue to profit from the good resources that both publishers provide.
Professor of Old Testament at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, North Carolina, and the Contributing Editor and Curriculum Writer at Good Faith Media.