Love and Church Boards

TMC Digging A Deeper Well

What do you love that keeps you in church leadership? 

In the last chapter of 1 Corinthians, after Paul has thrown every theological argument he can muster at the church at Corinth to encourage them to love one another, and three chapters after his iconic ‘faith, hope, and love’ passage, Paul reaches the summation of his letter in two small verses:

Keep alert; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. 

Let all that you do be done in love.

                                                            1 Corinthians 16:13-14

Over the last several months, business publications have lifted up the surprising (to put it mildly) turnaround of the bookstore Barnes & Noble.  Articles in the New York Times, Forbes, and Publisher’s Weekly have noted how Barnes & Noble, once dismissed as a victim of the Amazon effect, has changed its direction.  This week, blogger Ted Gioia also weighed in.

What happened to cause Barnes & Noble to thrive anew?

In short:  a new leader, keen alertness, a firm hold on purpose … and love of books.

Gioia sets the scene for us.

Barnes & Noble is no tech startup and is about as un-cool as retailers get. It’s like The Gap, but for books. The company was founded in 1886, and it flourished during the 20th century. But the digital age caught the company by surprise. 

For a while, Barnes & Noble tried to imitate Amazon. It ramped up online sales and introduced its own eBook reader (the Nook), but with little success. 

Even after its leading bricks-and-mortar competitor Borders shut down in 2011, B&N still couldn’t find a winning strategy. By 2018 the company was in total collapse. Barnes & Noble lost $18 million that year and fired 1,800 full time employees—in essence shifting almost all store operations to part time staff.

In desperation, Barnes & Noble shifted from books to, well, almost anything else.  Walk into a B&N store five ago, and you would have been confronted by toys, cards, calendars, tchotchkes, and cafes that offered, by almost everyone’s estimation, the worst coffee around.

New CEO James Daunt came on board in August 2019 (yes, just six months before the pandemic).  In his first weeks on the job, he realized that Barnes & Noble stores had become, as he put it, “crucifyingly boring.”  In short order, Daunt stopped discounting books (“I don’t think books are overpriced”), ended “buy one get one” promotions, and stopped selling publishers prominent space in the stores.  (Daunt said this “force-feeding” let publishers promote mediocre books in exchange for payments to the store – “everyone wins, except the reader.”)

As Gioia observes:

This is James Daunt’s superpower: He loves books. 

“Staff are now in control of their own shops,” he explained. “Hopefully they’re enjoying their work more. They’re creating something very different in each store.”  

…Daunt used the pandemic as an opportunity to “weed out the rubbish” in the stores. He asked employees in the outlets to take every book off the shelf and re-evaluate whether it should stay. Every section of the store needed to be refreshed and made appealing. 

As a result of these changes, Barnes and Noble has opened 16 new bookstores last year, with another 30+ openings planned for 2023.  (In some locations, they have taken over space where Amazon tried bricks-and-mortar stores and then closed them.)  B & N still operates 125 fewer stores than at its peak in 2008, but the numbers are starting to move up again instead of straight down.

The articles about Barnes & Noble go on (and we could go on about them).  For your church board, though, why does any of it matter? And what’s love got to do with it?

  • Love is expressed in many ways. At Barnes & Noble, Daunt expressed his love of books through nuts-and-bolts changes to operations.


  • That’s the right order: our work must begin with love of what we are doing, followed by work that shows the love.  (Too often we find ourselves starting on the work, and the love gets lost somewhere in the operations manual.)


  • Like Barnes & Noble Stores, many churches have been closing. But some new churches are also opening. What’s going on? Is there a story worth learning?


  • Being “cool” or “trendy” remains a powerful temptation for faith communities. But it may not be crucial to a turn-around.


  • Programs, ideas, agendas, and imperatives from outside the congregational life need to be adopted with caution. What is the equivalent of publisher contracts that can tempt you to fill your church with mediocrity?  (Does the “Twelve Weeks to a More Growing Congregation” program really know your congregation, or your community, the way your own board does?  Does the latest denominational emphasis really fit where you are right now?)  Your church can be connected to others without ceding the wisdom you have earned about what your community most needs.


  • What do you know about why people are coming to your church? What are they seeking?  At B&N, customers were coming for books and were met with toys, puzzles, and novelties.  In our post-Christendom culture, people seek faith communities for… faith.  For ways to address life’s challenges.  To learn more about Jesus.  Chances are, they are not seeking to be met at the door with membership information or a sign-up sheet for ushering and bell choir.


  • Leadership matters. A lot.


  • Most importantly, everyone in church leadership – pastors and board – needs to love the work. You need to be able to love the people, love the ministry, love the gospel of hope and grace offered us in Jesus Christ.  There is no substitute for leading out of deep, abiding love.


Or, as Paul wrote when he was pressed to sum up all he had urgently communicated to the church at Corinth:

Keep alert; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. 

Let all that you do be done in love.



Where do you see connections between the Barnes & Noble saga of the last twenty years and the challenges and opportunities facing your congregation?

What lessons would you take from these stories of a Barnes & Noble turn-around?

What do you love that keeps you in church leadership? Whether as church board member or a pastor, what do you most love about this work?

What on the agenda for this month’s meeting is a direct expression of that love?

Are there items you would like to take off the agenda, as a direct expression of that love?

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