LifeWay sues former president Thom Rainer for breach of contract; lawsuit divides board

LifeWay Christian Resources President Thom S. Rainer introduced to Southern Baptists, a subscription-based, online leadership development platform that will have more than 1,000 videos on various topics, during his report at the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting in Houtson, Texas, June 11, 2013. | (Photo: Courtesy of Baptist Press/Bill Bangham)

Trustees of the Southern Baptist Convention’s publishing arm, LifeWay Christian Resources, are expected to gather in an emergency meeting Wednesday to discuss a lawsuit against the organization’s former president, Thom Rainer, for allegedly breaching his severance agreement.

The lawsuit filed Monday in Williamson County, Tennessee, and cited by the Baptist Press, points to an agreement between Rainer and LifeWay upon his 2019 retirement that prevented him from doing business with LifeWay competitors until Oct. 31, 2021. Among competitors listed in the agreement is Tyndale House Publishers, which announced in August that it had reached a “multi-book, multi-year agreement” with Rainer.

A news release said the partnership would produce books that cover topics vital to a church’s life and health within the coming decades. Each core book is expected to have an accompanying video curriculum, participant’s guides, and other ancillary books to empower church leaders and inspire church members.

“Tyndale is ecstatic about our long-term partnership with Thom Rainer and Church Answers. Thom is a gifted leader, teacher, and communicator whose personal mission aligns perfectly with Tyndale’s. He is so successful and respected among tens of thousands of churches not only because he is a thoughtful and talented writer, but also because he knows perhaps better than anyone the needs and pulse of the church – its leaders and congregants. Working together we have no doubt we will create tools to serve the Church in unique and powerful ways so that we can all participate more fully in the growth of God’s Kingdom for His glory,” Ron Beers, Tyndale’s senior vice president and publisher, said at the time.

Rainer explained to BP that in October 2019, he received “a written and amicable release from publishing” with LifeWay Christian Resources and spoke with the organization’s attorney and had “assumed all was well” until he received notice of the lawsuit on Monday.

“Before learning of the lawsuit, I heard from a LifeWay representative about this concern only one time on September 8, 2020,” Rainer said in a statement to BP. “LifeWay’s counsel sent me an email asking for an explanation of my relationship with another publisher. I gave a quick and substantive response that same day. Even more, I requested to meet with the board officers in my response. I assumed all was well until the lawsuit was filed yesterday.”

LifeWay argues in the lawsuit that “termination of the Publishing Agreement did not release” Rainer from the noncompete section of his transition agreement which keeps him as a paid LifeWay employee through Oct. 31, 2020, as chief advisory officer.

Rainer’s actions, said the lawsuit, “will cause LifeWay to suffer immediate and irreparable harm for which there is no adequate remedy at law.” It further asks the court to force Rainer to end his relationship with Tyndale and award unspecified damages to LifeWay.

The emergency meeting set for Wednesday will seek to put an end to the dispute. 

Jimmy Scroggins, who is on the LifeWay board, said he was disappointed by the lawsuit, calling it "embarrassing" and "damaging to the kingdom."

“I am confident there were, and are, better options for resolving any contractual disputes we have with Dr. Rainer,” he added, noting that the matter should have been discussed with the full board.

Other SBC pastors like Tim Rogers, have expressed their disagreement with the lawsuit publicly as well.

“This is sad. My God please move on the hearts of the leaders of the @SBCExecComm to take the reins of common sense and scriptural authority. This is what happens when the sufficiency of scripture is forfeited at the altar of $$$$$’s,” he wrote on Twitter.

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