Why Cokesbury Failed 01: Automated Catalog

Why Clergy can no longer say "just get anything at Cokesbury"

 

This is a series using quotes and perspectives from Cokesbury insiders as to why the official bookstore of one of the largest Protestant denominations that for decades contributed its profits to the Pension fund…chose to shut down and close its brick-and-mortar stores (including seminary stores) by May 2013.

The Lego Heavy Weapons Fiasco

This past weekend was an embarrassing weekend for Cokesbury. It started on social media: someone noticed that Cokesbury had as part of its stock the Lego Heavy Weapons Book that showed how to make four assault rifles out of Legos. Harmless but tasteless especially in the months after Newtown.

So social media did what it does best and got up in arms and even the Tennessean newspaper posted an article about it entitled “LEGO assault rifle manual dumped from Methodist online bookstore.”

It has obviously finally been taken down after being live on the Cokesbury website for at least 48 hours.

How did this happen? As embarrassing and misunderstood as that item was, it exposed a problem with Cokesbury’s business model: a substantial portion of their catalog is automated, as per Neil Alexander. A friend on Facebook expounds on what the Ingram database is:

When you go to Cokesbury.com and it says a book is “In-Stock”, that doesn’t mean its actually in the Cokesbury Warehouse. Most likely, it is in an Ingram warehouse, Cokesbury’s primary book vendor. In fact, the vast majority of books on the website are coming from Ingram, not the Cokesbury warehouse.

So, Cokesbury’s computers automatically port over any titles in the Ingram database that are marked religious. That’s why you can find some really non-Methodist stuff. Occasionally, Ingram codes a book wrong and it slips through the filter. Cokesbury also filters the Ingram database to try and prevent offensive stuff from getting through. Occasionally it fails. Like this weekend.

To be clear, there is plenty more stuff that has slipped through the filter. One enterprising person on Facebook found the following books that violate the social principles: The Beer Guide, 101 Whiskies to try before you die, No Limit Texas Hold-Em instructions, and likely more.

Problems of an Automated Catalogue

In Neil Alexander’s statement (and my friends explanation) one could surmise that a substantial portion of Cokesbury’s online catalog is automated: whatever is marked as “Religious” (with some extra filters) will show up as “For Sale” at Cokesbury (and even the 101 Whiskies got the usual 20% off).

This decision finally makes clear the problem that clergy have increasingly had regarding church curriculum and Sunday School study books: We can no longer trust that Cokesbury only offers solid Wesleyan products that are acceptable to most United Methodist clergy.

When I moved back to Oklahoma, the common refrain from other mainline/progressive pastors was “you have to preview what people buy at Cokesbury now.” I didn’t think that was true, surely our own Denominational bookstore would police its products, right? I mean, Lifeway Christian Bookstores keep out uppity women’s books and faces from their catalog, surely Cokesbury can take a cue and keep out some Calvinist or Neo-Calvinist products, right?

Wrong. Instead, Cokesbury had displays of Beth Moore, David C. Cook curriculum, Francis Chan and other Calvinist products that if I encouraged study of in my church, the core Wesleyan theology that I preached and teached would be argued with daily by those authors.

I’ve already written substantially about the problem of Beth Moore, who is invited into many church houses and ends up setting fire to core Wesleyan values. Read the full article here (and especially the 100+ comments if you have a thick skin). But more recently I wrote about the problem of churches that choose to allow in popular studies so that they can get in the crowds that give the resources to do other parts of the church.

So the problem that clergy have with their congregations is exacerbated by Cokesbury’s willingness to outsource their watchdog and chase after the dollars.

I mean, I get it. It is a business and you go where the business is. But as we have seen this weekend, an automated catalog that is not seriously reviewed by theologically-inclined people but rather by marketers not only has “oops” moments, but also contributes to the overall mess that theological education is in the churches. And when we want a doctrinal source, one so close to our heart as the Book of Discipline, when we want it to be free (as a petition from Oklahoma sent to General Conference 2012), it is amended to still cost money as “that money goes to our pension fund” which has not been the case for at least the last few years.

I also get that that same business mindset hurt the local stores. I admit I would go to the store and peruse a book or two that parishioners had asked to study as a class, so that I could preview the chapter headings and conclusions. Then we would order the products through our official rep…not the local store. Little wonder the leadership decided to close the local stores if more people were doing this than I was. Now, I changed my habits after the first year as I wanted to support the local store. But going forward…without a local store to examine products (and conceivably these traveling Cokesbury Reps wouldn’t have a trunk full of the entire Ingram catalog), it’s difficult to believe we will have any way to preview materials easily and faithfully.

But it is my belief that the business model of a substantially automated catalog does not empower churches with more options, it constricts pastoral authority over what is taught in their churches in harmful ways by allowing in anti-Wesleyan theologies in the back door of the Sunday School rooms. And that’s a two-front conflict that few clergy can properly handle. thanks to Cokesbury.

Thoughts?

This is the first in a series of posts including comments by Cokesbury insiders, employees at the local stores and at the mothership. My goal is not the denigrate the past decisions but to help laity understand the importance of Cokesbury and what role it has played in our history.

I welcome other comments if you want to remain anonymous. Send comments to my twitter handle at gmail.com and I will respect confidentiality.

[Photo credit: "Vintage Postcard: Cokesbury" by Coltera on Flickr, shared via Creative Commons license]
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Comments

  1. says

    I must confess that I buried the new Mark Driscoll book under some more redeemable ones while perusing books at the Cokesbury display at the Quadrennial Leadership Training. They were still there to find if people were really looking but it was less likely they would jump out and say buy me. I think the Cokesbury catalog issue speaks volumes about our denomination; perhaps more than the bookstore. Our people don’t seem to be immersed or engaged by the Wesleyan theological tradition enough to discern the difference.

  2. Kristen says

    This is really great information and something that we as clergy need to be more aware of. Until now the lament has been that with the brick and mortar stores closing we will have to resort to using either the cokesbury website (which has never been known for being user friendly) or the call center (the last few times I did I spoke with people who were not polite or knowledgable in chruch products). I miss the days when I could call my local cokesbury store and speak to someone who a) I knew and b) actually knew what I was talking about when I said I needed candles for our advent wreath. While those problems are frustrating the issues addressed in this blog are so much bigger and in need of addressing!

  3. J.R. says

    I suppose we could add to the list of non-Wesleyans authors such as Walter Brueggeman (UCC) and Tony Campolo (American Baptist). However, I’m not sure that using materials developed by non-Wesleyans is such a bad thing… so long as (1) we recognize such ourselves, (2) we inform those we’re discipling such, and (3) provide correctives where the material deviates from our own Wesleyan understandings. Personally, I find it theologically informative and enriching to understand the varying perspectives within the larger body of Christ; however, it is imperative that we also have clear knowledge of our own tradition. Perhaps if both Abingdon Press and Cokesbury were a little more receptive to reaching across denominational lines to embrace authors from other Wesleyan churches–like Free Methodists, Wesleyan Church, Nazarenes, Salvation Army, AME, AMEZ, etc.–instead of from Reformed, Lutheran, and Baptist churches like UCC, ELCA, ABA, PC(USA), we wouldn’t be served such a smorgasbord of resource materials.

  4. Robin says

    Somehow, I think United Methodists who have spent the last few decades telling themselves that they can believe whatever they want as long as they are nice aren’t in the market for books steeped in Wesleyan theology, a theology which, when I was in seminary, was something the theology professors were telling us to recover, to reclaim, treating the church like a recovering amnesiac; someone who had to be told who she was. Not sure that took.

    The Cokesbury website is impenetrable. I won’t go there.

  5. says

    Jeremy-

    I guess I tend to be different on this. I don’t particularly only want only our denominational material for small groups. I am of the belief that we understand better how we understand God as Wesleyans when we engage different viewpoints. My fear is that if we just live in our own “Wesleyan” ghetto we fail to see our own shortcomings but also end up just creating our own little community that doesn’t engage at all levels (denominational, local, and personal) with the other strands of the larger Body of Christ.

    Does that make sense? Now obviously this means that our leaders have to be steeped in Wesleyan understanding in order to be able to give that perspective and have a healthy dialogue.

  6. Matt says

    I’m curious what you would recommend as an alternative to an automated catalog system? It seems to me like that, under normal circumstances is a highly efficient way to import titles. Of course somethings are going to slip through filters. No filter system is perfect human or automated. Run a Google image search with the safe filters in place and you will still come up with questionable images, just a lot less if you have the safe filters set to the highest setting. No one is going to argue that the Lego book incident is troublesome in the current climate, but a year ago it wouldn’t be anything but funny.
    I certainly don’t think the website is perfect, its downright awful and needs to be overhauled if this transition to having local sales reps is really going to work for the company in the long run.
    I also don’t think its the responsibility of a business(and yes we can talk about Cokesbury being a non-profit or ministry of the church, but at it’s heart it is a business) to provide a catalog that is ” reviewed by theologically-inclined people.” It is your responsibility as a pastor and leader to teach your congregation how to be theologically-inclined people. As a theologically-inclined person I find it refreshing that Cokesbury does/did contain a wide variety of theological views and even serious books about other religions. The store’s name is Cokesbury: Resources for the Christian Journey, not Cokesbury: Resources for the Methodist Journey. If I don’t like the theology in a particular book, I don’t buy it, but its not Cokesbury’s job to take it off the shelf. And beyond that who’s to say that it doesn’t meet the spiritual needs of someone else. At what point does all our quibbling over orthodoxy(and lets face it you are arguing that it was Cokesbury’s job to only carry “Methodist Orthodoxy”), become immaterial because we’ve become so ivory tower that we aren’t on the streets being Christian. I don’t care if my neighbor likes Beth Moore and I’m more of a John Cobb kinda guy(and lets face it I am). As long as we’re both out feeding the poor and working to make the world better do you really think God cares if arrive via different theological paths? I’ll get off my soapbox for a while.

  7. says

    This is so well done that I don’t have anything to add but “right on!” I continue to wonder why I should remain loyal to an institution that has long since abandoned its own institution (the UMC and UM theology . . . an admittedly big tent).

    • says

      Also, I have wondered how Cokesbury decides what to sell. It is now clear that a robot decides. And that’s just not a path I’m ready to walk down.

  8. says

    My experience with Cokesbury ordering is less a failure of offerings — either too wide or too narrow, depending on your preference — and more of a failure of customer service. Paying extra for expedited shipping that doesn’t arrive on time, denominational resources that were in fact out of stock (most of my lay speaking class this last fall had to order the approved Upper Room book through Amazon because Cokesbury didn’t have it. It was, of course, cheaper), smaller discounts than other online services, gouge-level prices on required material like the BoD, unwillingness/inability to expand format offerings for needed material (print-to-order CD or online hymnal augmented by, say, a quarterly subscription service to make quality new music available? Nah. We’ll just make the cover in new colors) — it’s a long list.

    I kind of did the reverse of what you mentioned. I would browse the store and then either buy the materials there or let the store order them because we were so poorly served by the catalog operation. I stopped using it and the decsion to close the physical stores just means I will be making an even richer Mormon out of Jeff Bezos.

  9. says

    I think there are great points (thought I’m kinda bummed I didn’t see that Cokesbury was offering Lego building books. I really wanted a Death Star). I’m definitely with Brett on the customer service. Pricing tends to regularly be higher.

    Matt’s point about what does it matter seems to strike at the heart of the issue: does it matter what Christian material Cokesbury is carrying? I would say it does, only if we care about Methodist Theology and Practice. I can go to any Christian bookstore and almost guarantee that outside of John Maxwell, I’m not likely to find any Wesleyan-Methodist author represented. If John Maxwell was still serving as a Wesleyan Minister, not a leadership guru, it is doubtful we could find Maxwell’s works in Cokesbury.

    It seems apparent, at least to me, we’re no longer convinced that our Wesleyan-Methodist heritage is a great concern from either the classroom or the pulpit. How readily available have we made Wesley’s 51 Standard Sermons and Notes on the New Testament? These are both to be part of our reference work for our theological practice. The automation is certainly an issue to be addressed moving forward but the failing of Cokesbury stores is indicative of what we are doing on Sunday mornings in many UM churches. We’re going through the motions and when people ask, “What do Methodist’s believe?,” we stutter and stumble over words and have nothing to offer because we’re no longer sure ourselves what being a Methodist really means. It is this I grieve.

  10. Pam Ford says

    Good article. Long ago, Cokesbury lost track of its priority constituency for the sake of high-overhead brick and mortar stores in shopping centers. What we have now is a lot worse than the David C. Cook and Beth Moore stuff that I used to worry about. I don’t give Cokesbury online much of a shelf life. Who wants to deal with the Cokesbury website when there’s Amazon?

  11. Rev. Epling says

    The biggest problem I had with Cokesbury was their pricing. Even with my clergy discount I could still go on Amazon.com and purchase books cheaper including the shipping prices. Add on that I use a Kindle for most of my reading now and it really killed my desire to shop from Cokesbury. I still purchased clergy items as well as church supply from their store, but I noticed I could get lower prices for the same items at other stores. I loved Cokesbury, but they were not making it easy to use them.

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