No other industrial craft is as closely identified with the rise of the Western religions as printing. From Gutenberg, Caxton and the printers of the Reformation, to the $1 billion publishing market for books on doctrine, spirituality and faith in the United States, printing stands out as perhaps the only profession that can make a credible claim to being divinely inspired.
To people working for in-plant printing centers that belong to religious organizations, this would be a case of stating the obvious. These shops are very much like other in-plants in what they produce and how they get their printing done. The bright line separating them from secular in-plants lies in the why: their belief that a higher calling lets them turn even the most routine printing tasks into the equivalent of prayer.
We talked with seven religiously affiliated in-plants — three large, four small — about their commitments to faith and work. They represent an in-plant segment consisting of some of the industry’s most loyal institutional supporters of in-house production. Economy, security and responsiveness, the spokespersons say, are the main reasons why churches bless the in-plants that help them spread the good word in printed form.
‘Good Stewards of God’s Money’
Those working for church in-plants must be “good stewards of God’s money” who can produce at less cost than outside printers, says Eddie Owens, print manager for First United Methodist Church of Lubbock, Texas.
At Community Bible Church in San Antonio, Print Production Manager Cecily Berg notes that because tithes from the congregation supply the church’s income, “we have to be mindful of our spending,” which means making “wise choices” about cost that might not constrain a commercial printer.
At the in-plant of the Jehovah’s Witnesses Watchtower Bible & Tract Society in Wallkill, N.Y., cost control has a strongly spiritual dimension.
“We share the Bible’s message of hope with our neighbors, in part by offering our printed publications at no cost to those interested in the Bible’s message,” explains Steven Bell, assistant manager of operations at the Printery, as the in-plant is known. “Those that work with our literature production do so on a volunteer basis, thus keeping our production costs low. The volunteers understand the work is financed by voluntary donations, so we endeavor to do the work as efficiently as possible to save funds.”
Security of product is an overriding concern for the Printing Division of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS) in Salt Lake City, Utah. Steven Lewis, the in-plant’s director, explains that protecting scripture from forgery and fraud — a mandate first given to the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith — is best accomplished by keeping production of the Book of Mormon and other sacred texts in-house. Lewis adds that Mormons are “commanded” to print in the places they inhabit and have been doing so in the Salt Lake City region since 1849.
The Archdiocese of Detroit, ministering to 1.1 million Roman Catholics in 235 parishes across six counties of southeast Michigan, also calls upon its in-plant to produce confidential material, according to Ned McGrath, director of public affairs. What the Archdiocese values most in the in-plant, he says, is the “absolute control over priorities” it can exercise when things need to be done urgently or on short notice.
This means when Archbishop Allen Vigneron wants something printed and distributed by the end of the day, “it jumps to the head of the line,” even if the in-plant has to stop the presses to make it happen, McGrath says. “We’re nimble that way.”
Getting the Message Out
No commercial shop could produce the range or volume of printed matter that the Church of Scientology’s in-plant provides to the faithful from the church’s International Dissemination and Distribution Center in Commerce, Calif., asserts Jud Posner, pressroom manager.
He says that operating the in-plant, which was established in 2010, gives the church full control over quality, scheduling and cost — a major plus for the effectiveness of its outreach. The shop can produce, for example, 35 million copies of a booklet for an anti-drug campaign for the same amount of money it used to pay an outside printer for 3.5 million copies.
“It’s about being able to produce the materials you believe in and getting that message to the outside world,” says Posner, alluding to another unique aspect of religious in-plants: the empowering effect of shared faith upon individual performance.
Lee Belcher has felt it for the last 44 years at the General Conference Print Shop of the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Silver Spring, Md., where he is the manager and sole employee. (The church also operates a much larger in-plant in Nampa, Idaho, called Pacific Press, which prints high-volume church publications.) His day starts with a 15-minute worship service with other Adventists at the General Conference headquarters, and through that exercise, Belcher says, “God gives me wisdom to do what I do.”
When wisdom isn’t enough, he turns to prayer — a spiritual practice that also is part of the daily routine at the LDS in-plant. Lewis recalls the day when the breakdown of a stacker on one of the shop’s web offset presses defied all attempts to fix it. The team prayed, and just as they were about to telephone for a field service technician, the rep himself — summoned by no one — entered the pressroom unannounced.
It turned out that the technician was heading off to a vacation and had decided to look in on the in-plant on his way out of town. But Lewis remains convinced that what some might call simple coincidence was God’s caring response to the shop’s prayerful appeal for help.
A True Mission Statement
In surroundings like these, the word “mission” in “mission statement” means preaching and proselytizing, not pursuing a business objective. “Our workers begin the day with a spiritual discussion based on the Bible, thus keeping our attention on the purpose of our work,” says Bell of the routine at the Printery. “We view our work as part of our worship, so we always give our best.”
Berg says everything she and her volunteer workers do at the Community Bible Church in-plant upholds the congregation’s pledge to “Reach, teach, help and go in Jesus’ name.” The team at the Archdiocese of Detroit’s in-plant “proudly uses its talents” to bring people closer to God through pastoral letters and other diocesan missives in print, notes McGrath.
“We will make gospel teachings, resources and services accessible to all in a simple and affordable way,” says Lewis, quoting a directive from the general bishopric to which the LDS in-plant reports. This includes supporting the famous Mormon missionary program by making sure the church’s 67,000 emissaries around the world have the printed literature they need at all times.
“We’re a ministry in what we print for the church,” declares Berg.
As believers as well as printers, says Owens, “there’s just something special about our community that separates us from the secular world.” But the distinction is strictly devotional: religious in-plants are as grounded in the everyday realities of print manufacturing as any other type of in-plant or commercial print firm.
“It’s a job, and you can’t forget that it’s a job,” McGrath notes. It’s subject to the same deadlines and customer-satisfaction requirements as printing environments that aren’t faith-based. This is especially true in high-volume operations like the Scientology, LDS and Jehovah’s Witnesses in-plants, which print and distribute on a scale comparable to that of the largest commercial printing businesses.
Smaller Shops Just as Dedicated
The four smaller, digital-only in-plants might not be in the same league, production-wise, as their counterparts at Scientology, LDS and the Printery. But they’re no less fervently engaged with the printing tasks their churches set before them.
“I’m a quick printer, in-house” to the 700 staff members at Seventh Day Adventist world headquarters in Silver Spring, says Belcher, whose typical workload consists of agendas, manuals, financial statements and cards. Turnaround on these items is swift because “I’m right here. I’m ready to start anything” within minutes of receiving the request.
Belcher, like everyone else quoted in this story, is a conscientious printer, having been one since he first went to work for the Adventist in-plant at the age of 19. He says that given the nature of the work, “I take a personal interest in everything I do. It’s part of a cause.”
This entails double-checking things that don’t look right even though they might pass unquestioned in the workflow of a commercial shop. McGrath calls it “institutional memory”: the extra mile employees of religious in-plants are willing to go because they know their work is a reflection of their community of faith.
At Community Bible Church, Berg’s primary customers are the 350 people who work at ministry headquarters. On weekends, however, the audience she prints for is far larger. The congregation has 22,000 members, and as many as 14,000 of them may gather at the main campus for the five weekend services that the church — one of the San Antonio area’s largest — conducts. Many thousands of pieces for the worshipers have to be ready by then, a common deadline for church in-plants whose work culminates on Christianity’s traditional day of rest.
Although they pride themselves on self-reliance, church in-plants don’t hesitate to reach out to the secular world when they need help in accomplishing their missions.
Owens sources envelopes from a commercial shop in Lubbock whose owner is a First United congregant — and who generously contributes the paper for the church’s weekly bulletins. McGrath cites Mike Lesnau, owner of Lesnau Printing in Sterling Heights, Mich., for his support of Archdiocese of Detroit print programs over the last 40 years.
Berg has three preferred providers to whom she can turn when the quantity is too large, the time frame is too short or the binding is too tricky for her postpress equipment. Lewis says the LDS in-plant team understands that “some things we’re good at — but so are other people.” As the church’s printing program shifts to a less centralized strategy, he intends to rely more on local and international partners to balance the workload and ensure the availability of church materials wherever they are needed.
As printing operations, church in-plants have to deal with the same issues confronting the industry as a whole — for example, recruiting and retaining qualified employees. Some hire conventionally; others, like the Scientology in-plant, prefer to train church members who may have had little or no previous exposure to printing.
“We make the most of our technology, and we bring out the best in our people,” Posner says.
The same staffing model is in place at the Printery.
“All of those that work in our plant are Jehovah’s Witnesses and are volunteers,” says Bell. “Very few if any have printing and binding experience before they arrive.” This requires newcomers to undergo intensive training on the equipment, but Bell characterizes them as “well motivated to learn quickly.”
“We have always been able to staff trained personnel for our Printeries,” he adds.
Voluntarism, a traditional lifeline for faith-based organizations, can sustain their printing activities as well. As the Community Bible Church’s only full-time printing employee, Berg gets a helping hand from students, retirees and other church members who pitch in during the week in the spirit of ministry. In Berg’s view, these motivated part-timers are “hungrier to learn” what she has to teach them than employees merely working for wages would be.
Faith has always been a constant for people seeking direction in a changing world. Faith also helps people working in religiously affiliated in-plants to chart a reverential but realistic course through a profoundly changed printing industry.
At the Jehovah’s Witnesses in-plant, it’s understood that print can no longer be the sole vehicle for religious publishing. “As the world moves more and more to electronic publications, there has been a decline in the demand for our printed publications,” observes Bell. “As a result, we upload most of our publications to our website, jw.org, and have publications in 954 languages on that website. We encourage our readers to use the website to download their publications for personal use and even for use in their personal public ministry.”
The drop in demand for print brings a need for corresponding adjustments in production. Bell says that careful forecasting and selective cross-training are helping to reduce overall staffing needs while keeping peak production periods covered.
Lewis similarly notes that much of the content the LDS in-plant prints is now also available in the church’s Gospel Library app. He says the growing popularity of alternatives to print, declining run lengths and the advanced age of the in-plant’s web presses are shifting the focus of operations to smaller-batch production in a digital workflow.
It is on challenges of this kind that religious in-plants thrive. “Every day I come to work, it makes me a better person,” Lewis declares. “I’m surrounded by my faith every single day.”
For believers, being immersed in the work of their religious communities is no accident.
“I’m just blessed at this job,” says Owens, who took over the First United in-plant after a 37-year career in marketing and public relations. “I think God directed me here, honestly.”
Related story: Religious In-plants Are Publishing Powerhouses