by Isaac Phiri
Most Western missionaries overseeing publishing houses abroad would love to see effective indigenous leaders emerge and then move the missionary-initiated publishing efforts to local ownership and financial autonomy. However, making these transitions work can be a nightmare.
Most Western missionaries overseeing publishing houses abroad would love to see effective indigenous leaders emerge and then move the missionary-initiated publishing efforts to local ownership and financial autonomy. However, making these transitions work can be a nightmare. Many publishing houses fail soon after missionary withdrawal. Sometimes, missionaries have to return to rescue them.
These failures make some wonder whether indigenization is worthwhile in publishing. My tenure as a publisher-development specialist at Cook Communications gave me time to reflect. I concluded that the emergence of effective and autonomous indigenous Christian publishing around the world is critical to the growth and maturity of Christians worldwide.
The argument is not that missionaries are unable to publish materials that impact indigenous populations. They can. But the church’s global discipleship effort cannot be sustained on Western missionary expertise alone. Indigenization is needed. We have to make the transitions work.
Advanced here are five seemingly simple but arguably critical strategies to make transitions work. Tentative evidence from around the world indicates that when these exit strategies are applied early and sincerely, they work. Examples cited come from interactions with publishers at Cook-sponsored events. Others are cases I came across when I edited InterLit, Cook Communications’ magazine of international Christian publishing.
1. Hire the best people. Good people are critical to the future of a publishing house. Many missionaries err in assuming that writers also make good publishers. In East Africa a pastor who loved writing was asked to assume the leadership of a missionary-initiated publishing house. It was not long before the publishing enterprise was on the verge of closure. The missionary had to come back. Running a publishing enterprise demands more than just a flair for writing.
Leadership in publishing requires a unique combination of abilities. When looking for staff, go outside your seminary or denominational ranks. Visit universities and colleges and interact with Christian students about to graduate. Don’t just talk to language majors. Interact with majors in business, economics, mass communication, marketing, etc. Many who studied biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics and engineering in college now lead publishing organizations in Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America.
Look for a healthy combination of passion for publishing and commitment to professionalism—critical traits for the future of the publishing house. Publishing thrives on passion. Without passion, it will be very hard to keep the ministry going after you leave.
Professionalism also is desperately needed in Christian publishing in many emerging nations. Many Christian publishing houses fail because their products are poorly conceived, written, edited, printed, and distributed. Everything from production to marketing has to be done professionally. That is the only way start-up Christian publishing houses can survive competition.
2. Pass on the vision to publish. Missionaries who have a vision for publishing see (with the eyes of their hearts) the impact good published materials can have on individuals and whole societies. They see this even before the publishing program becomes operational. This vision keeps them going even when discouraged. In Write the Vision, Jean Lockerbie, then a missionary to Bangladesh, described how the vision for publishing kept her going despite the many obstacles.1
However, this vision to publish is not often passed on to upcoming or incoming national leaders. So, when the missionary leaves, the vision also departs. The publishing ministry downshifts from vision to maintenance. No new products. No new thinking. No new direction. The operation stagnates, shrivels, and dies.
Passing on the vision begins at hiring. Look for people who are forward looking, who can generate ideas, and who can mobilize people to pursue and accomplish goals. As suggested earlier,you may have to look in unusual places for the best people.
Your next challenge is to pass on your passion and vision for publishing to this person. Open your heart. Share. Talk. Pray. Discuss. Debate. Disciple. Convert him or her to your faith in the power of publishing. Obviously, this takes time. One missionary in Kenya invested about three years into this process.2
You may also want to adopt a management style that fosters participation. Edwin Carlson, a missionary leading a Christian publishing house in Pakistan, introduced a horizontal, rather than hierarchical, style. This allowed for the full participation of the organization’s management team in all decision making and permitted a healthy transition to national leadership.3
Needless to say, there is no textbook formula for passing on the vision. Let God lead you. The goal is to pass on the publishing house to a leader or team of leaders with the same vision and passion for the ministry. This is what will keep the publishing ministry going even when everything else goes wrong.
3. Communicate concepts, not just skills. Even the best people need to be developed. Unfortunately, many in publishing have a flawed understanding of what good training is. They show their staff how to do things but do not explain why. The result is a team of people who have “hands-on” skills but no grasp of publishing in its totality. One “manager” of a publishing house I met could describe the intricacies of running an archaic printing press but could not explain the difference between printing and publishing.
We should not trivialize practical training; there is a place for that. But grooming people for leadership requires that you go beyond equipping them with how-to skills to develop the whole person. Arnold and McClure offer an illuminating distinction between “training” and “development.” According to them, training is “teaching people things they need to know for their current jobs…” while development “includes more conceptual understanding of the ‘why’.”4 Obviously, the former is easy; the latter is hard. Training requires your skills and experience. Development demands your heart and soul. Training is done during normal working hours; development is a 24-hour commitment.
If you are committed to the indigenization and long-term viability of the publishing effort, help the incoming leader acquire a conceptual understanding of publishing. Help her understand societal factors that affect publishing. Involve her in the thinking process. Let her acquire a sense of ownership of the mission of the publishing house. If possible, involve her in the process of drafting and revising the organization’s mission statement.
Also help the incoming leader understand the reasoning behind the procedures you established in the publishing house. Once people understand why things are done, their enthusiasm for practical skills training increases.
4. Establish self-sufficiency as a standard. Almost all missionaries I know who lead publishing houses would like these organizations to become self-sufficient. However, many also observe that local economic and political conditions are hostile to the emergence of viable indigenous publishing. Some have even concluded that this will never happen.
Yes, political and economic instability makes publishing perilous in many situations. However, some potentially viable publishing efforts have emerged in the same conditions said to be bad for publishing.
When William Gopffarth of Church Strengthening Ministry, a missionary-initiated publishing house in the Philippines, began to talk about self-sufficiency, some were skeptical. They reasoned that Philippine economic and related social conditions would stifle the publishing enterprise.
But Gopffarth pursued the vision to move CSM “toward nationalization and financial independence.” Notice the link between nationalization and financial autonomy. As Gopffarth puts it: “One way, perhaps the only way, national ownership can be achieved is through financialself-sufficiency.”
Gopffarth shared his vision for a locally led and financially viable publishing house with his staff and introduced business practices to reduce the press’s losses and reliance on foreign subsidies. Only materials that would, minimally, break even would be published. Materials with no viable market were dropped. CSM also developed aggressive marketing and distribution programs. Today, CSM is close to total financial autonomy and has a Filipino associate director.5
In 1994, a colleague and I were in Ethiopia, facilitating a magazine editors’ workshop. To our surprise, we came across a handful of magazine publishing efforts financed entirely from local efforts. The magazine editors were salaried by local churches; the magazines generated enough revenue to cover costs. All this happened when Ethiopia had severe economic and political problems.
Political and economic conditions do not necessarily predict the success or failure of a publishing effort. In fact, they make it possible to hypothesize that internal variables—vision, leadership, management, planning, product development, etc.—are more closely linked to viable publishing than national economic conditions. Thus, the best way to help indigenous publishing is through leadership development, skills training, and organizational capacity-building.
The political and economic conditions assumption also should be challenged because it promotes a helpless corporate culture. If your staff members listen to you lament about how “impossible” it is to make publishing viable, how will they perform after you are gone? On the other hand, if you establish self-sufficiency as the goal, your staff may be motivated to pursue it even after you leave.
Don’t forget that not too long ago America was a developing country in which publishers struggled to survive. Sheila McVey found intriguing parallels between problems of publishing in 19th century America and in contemporary developing nations.6 American publishers eventually became viable, and I believe the same will happen in today’s developing nations. For instance, until recently, Brazil was, according to economic and political indicators, a hopeless case. But today, Brazil has a booming publishing industry.7
Therefore, it is imperative that, from the very beginning, self-sufficiency be infused into the corporate life of the publishing house.
5. Develop and execute an effective exit plan. All efforts invested in developing indigenous leaders and adopting effective business policies go down the drain when expatriates leave either too abruptly or too late. Therefore, missionaries about to leave a publishing house to indigenous control must develop and execute effective exit strategies. The exit plan must address internal organizational problems, confront some external threats, and allow for a timely departure.
One internal area that cripples incoming leaders is human relations. Part of your role was to contain conflict in the work place. You addressed tensions between departments and power struggles between individuals. Once you leave, the incoming leader will have to contend with these conflicts.
Your exit strategy must include implementing clear staff regulations. Clarify the organization’s expectations of all staff positions and enforce them. Make any personnel changes that, in your opinion, favor the incoming leader. Get rid of troublemakers. Retire staff who have been with the organization too long and who are not ready for change. This is particularly important if the incoming leader is a young person and the indigenous culture makes supervising older people difficult.
When missionaries leave, organizations lose their knowledge and experience. Brazilian publisher Israel Belo de Azevedo suggests that you prepare a “self-explanatory” manual to “reduce the impact of the transition on the publishing program.” Azevedo says the manual must recapitulate the mission and background of the publishing house and outline in detail procedures for dealing with common problems inpublishing. Azevedo emphasizes that the manual is “not supposed to be a straitjacket, but a magnetic compass—it is not to hinder creativity, but release it.”8 Find a way to leave some of your knowledge and experience behind.
The second part of your exit strategy must confront external threats. One of these, believe it or not, is the national church itself. National churches cripple publishing efforts by not paying for goods and services rendered. At an all-Africa publishing consultation in Harare, several publishers were owed large amounts of money by the churches they serve. Many said their financial standing would improve greatly if the national churches paid them.
When the publishing operation includes a printing press, you can anticipate even more problems. For example, national church leaders may see the printing press as a cash cow for the often financially troubled denominational headquarters. One press in East Africa faced this problem. Once a national took over the publishing establishment, national church leaders pushed the house to print outside jobs for cash. Since none of the money was reinvested into maintenance, the equipment was worked to death. The publishing effort came to a virtual standstill. The expatriate was recalled to rescue the enterprise.
Before you leave, therefore, you must address these problems. As a missionary, you (though you may not want to admit it) enjoy relative autonomy from national church control. It is easier for you to resist national church intervention in the affairs of the publishing house. The indigenous leader does not have this advantage. Therefore, educate national church leaders about the place and mission of the publishing house. Show that the press complements the ministry of the churches through effective publishing and must not be forced to do otherwise. This effort may cost you some national friends but will greatly help your successor and the future of the publishing house.
Finally, your exit plan must ensure that you depart at the right time. Do not leave when computers have a viral infection, the building structure a serious case of osteoporosis, the vehicle chronic TB, and printing equipment rheumatoid arthritis. The best time to leave is when you have done your best and the publishing organization is at its best.
Make transitions work. Many missionary-initiated ministry efforts, churches, Bible colleges, and so on have been successfully transferred to indigenous leadership and ownership. But in publishing, transitions to indigenous leadership and ownership remain precarious. Indigenization of Christian publishing is integral to the church’s call to discipleship. We need further exchange of ideas and experiences from both missionary and national perspectives. We have to make the transitions work.
1. Jean Lockerbie, Write The Vision (Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey Library, 1989).
2. Mwaura Njoroge, “Me, Take Over?” InterLit Vol. 33 No. 2 (June 1996), pp. 9-10.
3. Edwin C. Carlson, “Make Way for the Next Leader” and “Our Distinctive Management Style,” InterLit Vol. 33. No. 2 (June 1996), pp. 7-8.
4. William E. Arnold and Lynne McClure, Communication Training and Development (Prospects Height, Ill.: Waveland Press, 1996), p. 9.
5. William Gopffarth, “Publish What People Will Buy,” InterLit Vol. 33 No. 1 (March 1996), pp. 7-9.
6. Sheila McVey, “Nineteenth Century America: Publishing in a Developing Country,” Annals of the America Academy of Political Science No. 421 (Sept. 1975), pp. 67-80.
7. Israel Belo Azevedo, “Brazilian Christian Publishing Booms,” InterLit Vol. 34 No. 1 (February 1997), pp. 4-6.
8. Israel Belo Azevedo, “Minimize Transitional Problems,” InterLit Vol. 33 No. 2 (June 1996), pp. 4-6.
Issac Phiri, Ph.D., is director of international publisher training for Cook Communications Ministries, Colorado Springs, Colorado. Before that he was assistant professor of print communication at Toccoa Falls College, Toccoa Falls, Georgia.
EMQ, Vol. 35, No. 1, pp. 6-69. Copyright © 1999 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS). All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.