Publishing House Feels Impact of Economic Downturn

February 13, 2009

By Kathy L. Gilbert*

Feb. 10, 2009 |  NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

The United Methodist Publishing House is experiencing its greatest sales decline in 20 years, causing it to slow down its work on revising The United Methodist Hymnal as well as take other cost-saving measures.

The 2008 United Methodist General Conference, the denomination's top lawmaking body, authorized the Publishing House and the Board of Discipleship to form a hymnal revision committee. The group is to present a proposed revision to the 2012 assembly for adoption as the official hymnal of The United Methodist Church in the United States.

Before their first meeting Jan. 20-22, committee members were told that spending on the project was being suspended for at least a year because of the current financial uncertainty.

"At the United Methodist Publishing House, we've seen the largest drop in year-to-year sales performance in more than 20 years," said Neil Alexander, publisher and president (pictured left). "Our polling of local church leaders reveals that they are extremely cautious about spending for resources given current conditions and are often coping by reusing materials or simply doing without."

The Publishing House receives no general church apportioned funds. The difficult global economic climate has affected the Publishing House, causing a shortfall of 12 percent in this fiscal year and a reduction in the value of investment reserves of 25 percent.

Store closings

Two Cokesbury stores are closing in Phoenix and Aurora, Ill., while other stores are reducing staff and adjusting their hours, Alexander said. Other cost-cutting measures include altering catalog production and distribution plans and limiting overtime at the distribution center.

"The United Methodist Publishing House is experiencing many of the same financial challenges discussed in every newscast and newspaper," said Ed Kowalski, senior vice president of sales.

"The unprecedented economic conditions we face in the marketplace are formidable, as can be seen in the United Methodist Publishing House's first-quarter sales performance, unfavorable (below sales projections) by $3.2 million," he said. " … As responsible stewards and leaders of a self-funded agency of the church, we must take immediate and appropriate action."


The Phoenix store will close Feb. 21, and the Aurora store will close July 18, leaving 66 stores open around the country. Alexander said both stores have had multiyear declines in sales, despite efforts to enhance their merchandise and control costs. (In the photo on the left, a customer shops at the Cokesbury store in Nashville, Tenn. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.)

"We have regrettably reduced the ranks of staff in several departments while providing transition pay and benefits to those affected," he said. "Travel has been scaled back, employee pay held flat and plans implemented to cut the cost of building and grounds maintenance. Members of the board of the United Methodist Publishing House are cutting travel and lodging costs, and the work of the Hymnal Revision Committee has slowed to a crawl."

In the last quarter, 10 full-time staff positions were cut in the retail stores and another 14 were cut or reduced to part-time positions. Ten other full-time staff members elected to take part-time positions instead of severance, and eight positions in Nashville have been phased out.

The Publishing House continually makes changes in its staff allocation, project timing and other areas in response to trends in the church and society, Alexander said.

New hymnal work

The 27-member hymnal revision committee held its organizational meeting in Nashville and agreed to continue its work this year through conference calls and e-mail. Members will be auditing currently available hymns, tunes and worship resources and seeking input from local church leaders and others about use of music and liturgies. The current hymnal was published in 1989.

A joint study by the Board of Discipleship and the United Methodist Publishing House in 2005-2008 identified a need for a better mix of traditional hymns and new ones, the desire for more types of music and specific appeals for improvements, additional worship tools and official materials in different media formats.

The study also revealed that similar types of hymnals have about a 25-year life span, and many denominations that produced hymnals around the same time of the last United Methodist hymnal have recently published or plan to publish new versions.

The committee said issues to be resolved include determining the ability of local churches to buy hymnal-related products in 2013, and whether adequate funds will be available to support development and production. Decisions about how to proceed with the report to the 2012 General Conference will be based on the finances of both the Publishing House and local churches.

"The circumstances are unprecedented," Alexander said. "But the people dedicated to serve through the United Methodist Publishing House are gifted, deeply committed and tenacious."