by Angela Denker
Beth Lewis’ life and career have taken her many miles across America. Growing up in Lexington, Kentucky, a rare Lutheran surrounded by Southern Baptists, she moved on to an early career in textbook sales that often took her thousands of miles on the road from motel to motel, eating dinner alone in unfamiliar restaurants.
At age 23, she was younger—and a different gender—than most salespeople on the road. She faced sexism and discrimination, being underestimated and passed over and underpaid time and time again.
“#MeToo is very real to me,” Lewis says, remembering a time when a prospective textbook customer showed up at her motel. She also remembers getting a 10% raise in her first year as a sales rep. She was excited, until a coworker told her: “It’s a lot of work for only $15,000!”
After her raise, Lewis’ was making $9,900, and she was training this new sales rep whose salary was $15,000.
Even after beating the odds in publishing and rising to be named CEO of struggling Augsburg Fortress publishers in 2002, Lewis felt like an outsider. People said she wouldn’t make it because the company was “dangerously close to financial collapse,” and “she wasn’t a pastor.”
Her occasional southern accent also made her stand out in a world of Midwestern Lutherans who often joked about Ole & Lena, hot dish, and Jell-O.
Still, it was these very differences and challenges that enabled Lewis to transform struggling Augsburg Fortress to a dynamic, growing and self-sustaining media company called 1517 Media today.
“I was able to see beyond the northern Midwest Lutheranism,” she says. “I encouraged the company to serve the whole of the ELCA as well as ecumenical partners, and I think the roots of this came from my upbringing.”
As a current Fortress Press author myself, I can concur with the transformative effects of Lewis’ leadership. Coming from a secular journalism background before entering seminary, my preferred writing style was reported nonfiction. I wanted to tackle political topics for a secular, as well as Christian, audience, and I wanted to write about Evangelical Christianity probably more than Lutheranism. My original editor, Tony Jones, who Lewis and her team brought to Fortress 10 years ago, embraced this idea and style.
As I look at the other Fortress books releasing soon, you can again see this influence. In keeping with the Lutheran theological understanding of vocation encompassing more than just religious callings, I see Fortress seeking a wide, not primarily Lutheran, audience without betraying its Lutheran roots. This feels right for a 21st-century audience, and it’s something only a visionary CEO like Lewis could have steered.
While much of Lewis’ success came in the business world—her parents were both graduates of The Ohio State University business school—perhaps her parents’ most influential guidance came in their family’s commitment to the local church.
Lewis and her two younger brothers have remained close over the years, recalling their childhood as one reminiscent of “Leave it to Beaver”.
Her mom was a frequent church volunteer and parish administrative assistant for many years.
“At my dad’s funeral in 2017, the pastor said that when he asked long-time members about (my dad), the description was: ‘Bob wasn’t just on the finance committee…for many years he was the finance committee.”
Volunteer and lay staff roles, often overlooked in church metrics, have proven to be some of the most important in sustaining congregations over generations. In seeing her parents’ commitment to these often unheralded and unpaid roles, Lewis learned that the local church is a place not only to be served but to serve, and that the local church is the grounding of American Christianity.
Following her parents’ commitment, Lewis maintained a connection to her local church despite years of business and sales travel.
“Because I relocated so often and traveled 50-80% of the time for much of my career, having a deep faith that is nurtured in my local church community was always an important stabilizing aspect of my life,” Lewis says.
I saw this commitment first-hand from Lewis. She was one of the first people to accept me into the Lutheran world of the Twin Cities when I moved back to Minneapolis from California in 2017. She made time to introduce me to others at 1517 Media, she also made sure to invite me to her church and even invited me and my family out for brunch afterwards. Her pride in her local congregation was evident, and even as she prepared to relocate to Seattle, she wanted to leave a legacy and way forward into the future for her Minneapolis congregation. This fit Lewis’ pattern of responsive leadership, leadership that looks toward the future rather than the past.
Lewis’ faith life didn’t just happen on Sunday mornings, though. Whenever she faced challenges, she turned to God. In pushing herself forward, even as a strong introvert, she gained strength from leaders around her. When she had to restructure at Augsburg Fortress just four months in, eliminating positions for “a lot of relatively highly paid vice presidents,” Lewis says, “The doubts turned into anger and vicious emails, phone calls and letters.”
“I nearly resigned because I had no idea that my beloved church could be so cruel. But that self-confidence that my parents had instilled early on kicked in, and I kept going.”
In these moments, when long-time business success and adulation turned to rejection, even from her church family, Lewis closed the door to her office, just for a few moments.
“Whenever I was faced with a challenge, I would quietly pray in my office,” she says.
Throughout the challenging path of restructuring Augsburg Fortress, Lewis continued to find strength in the faith she shared with her colleagues.
“One of the great sustaining joys was that I was working at a faith-based organization, so I could pray with my colleagues before meetings,” she says. “And, throughout my 16 years in that role, I always knew that there were friends, board members and colleagues who were praying with and for us as we made many, many challenging decisions. I am convinced that 1517 Media would not be here today if our work hadn’t been supported through the prayers of faithful people at many important pivot points.”
Despite the challenges she faced in religious publishing, Lewis was grateful for the ELCA’s commitment to gender equity. In her life after retirement from 1517 Media, Lewis remains dedicated to creating space for women on company boards of directors, something she says has unfortunately changed slowly in the secular world.
It might surprise readers to learn that Lewis, a hard-charging business leader, says she’s an “off the chart F” on the Myers Briggs scale, meaning that her feelings dictate her actions more than her thoughts do.
“I must admit that my feelings would get hurt,” she says. “I tried not to react in kind but of course, didn’t always succeed. And after a deep breath, a prayer for patience and the occasional glass of wine, I tried to learn from such experiences for the future.”
Lewis’ honest accounting of how challenges impacted her emotions is a demonstration of the way female leaders—whose emotional intelligence often surpasses their male counterparts—can lead in a new way, taking account of emotional leadership as well as thought leadership. Lewis’ emotional intelligence helped her to steward new initiatives while considering how people would respond emotionally and thoughtfully.
Additionally, for all church leaders today reading Lewis’ story, her story of emotional impact is important permission-giving. In church work, you may experience moments of hurt feelings, but you, too, can move forward anyway. Jesus was not a proponent of stoicism.
Another permission-giving from Lewis is found in her story of being a wife and mother, as well as a business leader. Early in her career, she found that she was moving so much and was so career-focused that relationships were tough, but she also noticed that many men she dated “weren’t particularly interested in being with someone who worked as hard as I did and who (generally) had a more successful career than they did.” Lewis encourages women to lead in the church without the necessity of being married or a mother, expanding the definitions of female church leadership.
Lewis’ story of love started later in her life. In 2003, in the midst of her challenging beginning at Augsburg Fortress, she met the Rev. Dr. Rick Rouse. Three years later, they were married, and Lewis went from “single to wife, mother and grandmother in one easy step!”
Both Type-A leaders in the church who frequently speak on leadership, Rouse and Lewis are able to help each other balance their work-hard tendencies while also making time for traveling, visiting family and even wine-tasting. They live just 30 minutes from their two youngest grandchildren, and they’re able to spend lots of time with them on a regular basis.
Still, Lewis’ retirement is only a semi-retirement. She was recently named chair of the board for Thrivent Federal Credit Union and is actively looking for a for-profit corporate board on which to serve. She also speaks to faith-based groups across the country on leadership, consults for organizations and has launched a personal website called getting2transformation.com.
It doesn’t appear her influence in the church—and the world—will be waning anytime soon. As she looks back at a life full of challenges and successes, joys and sorrows, Lewis remembers joy—and shares this wisdom:
“First, find work that feeds your spirit! While no job is perfect, finding that place where you are happy and fulfilled most of the time can help one savor successes and get through failures or disappointments.
“Make continuous learning a priority. We learn from our successes, and they are more fun than failures. But, if we are attentive, we often learn far more from setbacks if we take them to heart and really think about how outcomes might be different the next time we are faced with a similar negative situation.
“When you are working, give it everything you have! Don’t be afraid of change and be willing to try something different. If you are a leader, encourage this in those with whom you work, as well.
“And, when you aren’t working, be good to yourself and those you love. This looks different for each of us. It might mean turning off your cell phone whenever you have dinner together. It might mean family devotional time. It might mean getting enough exercise and sleep. In the 13 years that Rick and I have been married, he has helped me appreciate the benefit offered by most organizations of vacation time. That benefit is in place for a reason; to give you time to rest and refresh. Take it! You will come back to your work in a better frame of mind and with a renewed sense of purpose. There aren’t any awards given at the end of your career for “least days of vacation taken.”
“Take the high road, but remember that some of the most challenging decisions you make won’t be crystal clear. Just make the best decision you can at the time you are making it with the best data you have available.
“Surround yourself with the very best talent you can find. Ideally, bring as much diversity of experience and perspective to the table as you possibly can. Sometimes this is demographic diversity (gender, race, age, sexual preference, etc.) but sometimes it is diversity of experience (finance, ministry, technology, education, etc.)
“Pray constantly. God is with you!”
Angela Denker is a Lutheran pastor and veteran journalist who lives in Minneapolis with her husband, Ben, and two boys, Jacob and Joshua. Angela is the author book, Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters who elected Donald Trump,
Categories: Fall 2019: "Failing Forward"