Anne Robertson’s BIO
Executive Director of Massachusetts Bible Society , Anne Robertson is a graduate of Bucknell University and the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, Rev. Anne Robertson became the MBS Executive Director on April 17, 2007 after serving churches for 13 years as a United Methodist pastor.
Winner of the Wilbur C. Ziegler Award for Excellence in Preaching, she is the author of three books: Blowing the Lid Off the God-Box, God’s Top 10: Blowing the Lid Off the Commandments, and God With Skin On: Finding God’s Love in Human Relationships, all published by Morehouse Publishing. More information about Anne Robertson can be found here:
IN THE SPOTLIGHT INTERVIEW
1. Please share with us how you became involved with the Massachusetts Bible Society & tell us about your new course on Bible Study?
Anne: I was a minister serving in a local church with people I loved, but I was increasingly frustrated. I could see that there was a huge need for major changes in church structure and religious life—changes that I felt a sense of urgency about, not just for my own local congregation but for the state of the Church overall. But the glacial pace of change in large religious organizations left me feeling like my best gifts would go untouched within the confines of the institution. So I began to look for places where my hands would not be quite so tied.
When I saw the search document for the Executive Director of the Massachusetts Bible Society, I knew I had found a home. This 200-year-old institution had just sold its historic bookstore in downtown Boston and was looking for a director that would re-invent the Society for the 21st century. Most churches say they want that sort of thing but what they usually mean is that they want you to make them relevant, thriving, and full of vibrant members of all ages without changing anything about how they currently do things. The Massachusetts Bible Society had already proved their willingness to do the hard work of change by selling the bookstore. They were small, independent, ecumenical and had a heart for social justice. I was hooked and became their first woman Executive Director in April, 2007.
While we have historically given away Bibles as our core mission, it was increasingly clear that, while some populations still had issues with access to a Bible, the larger problem was not that people couldn’t get a Bible but that people didn’t read it. Of course, that’s a problem for people in Christian faith communities, but I believe it is also a problem for the general population, especially in Western culture. All of the arts are steeped in biblical allusion and metaphor and the Bible continues to have an enormous impact on public policy, geopolitics, and world history.
To be ignorant of its contents is to be deprived of the richness of mounds of literature, music, art, and architecture. Ignorance of the Bible also leaves some individuals vulnerable to cults who exploit the impressionable with passages taken out of context and leaves other individuals without a rich resource of stories and metaphors to help make sense out of the world in which we live.
Because I believe all people should be familiar with the contents and context of the Bible, I hatched the idea of a certificate program in biblical literacy. It is a series of four, six-week courses and I have just finished writing the first course: What Is the Bible? In our pilot courses, it was a hit all the way from the Roman Catholics to the Unitarians, so I’m hopeful that we have materials that transcend at least most ideological biases.
2. There is no typical day in the life of an entrepreneur. Please share with us a sample of your day, start to finish.
Anne: Well, there are some things that are typical. My day always begins with getting up as late as I possibly can, since I’m a night owl. I get the puppy shipped off to doggie day care, the cat fed and settled, pour the coffee and check e-mail (which contains my newspaper delivery). Maybe I’ll watch a few minutes of television news, and I’ll pop into Facebook and Twitter.
With my office more than an hour’s commute, even before considering Boston traffic, I work a lot from home. During this current phase of developing the new curriculum, that time is mostly research, writing, and editing the course materials. I’ll do that until late afternoon, when I take a break to forage for food, welcome a bouncing puppy home, and manage my two World of Warcraft guilds. Then about 9 or 10 pm, I’ll get my second wind and crawl into bed with the dog and my laptop where I work again until about 1 am. Throughout the day are texts from staff, calls from Board members or colleagues, and saving the cat from the neighbor’s dog.
Of course on days when I’m not at home I’m at staff or Board meetings, out preaching or leading workshops in local churches, off at seminaries giving out awards, supervising Field Education students, or sometimes doing media interviews or working on other media projects.
3. What are your ‘can’t live without’ Smartphone or desktop applications?
Anne: A lot of our income as a Society comes from our endowment, so I do keep a rather neurotic eye on the Stock Market. That app on my iPhone is very handy, as is the alarm clock since I don’t tend to wake up on my own. My app life is very basic: Stocks, weather, alarm, Pandora radio, Facebook, Twitter, Huffington Post.
4. What are your tricks for time management?
Anne: My basic rule is that I work when my body is best suited for it instead of when society tells me that I should be working. Fortunately I’m in a job where that is possible. When leaving the life of pastoral ministry, where you’re on call 24/7/365 and where you have to leave even your vacation if the right/wrong set of circumstances presents itself, I promised myself that I would not submit to abusive schedules anymore. When I’m sick, I go to bed. When I’m staring at the computer screen and can’t focus, I go do something else. When I’m exhausted, I take a day off, and I encourage my staff to do the same. With those basics of self-care in place I don’t really need tricks for time management. Of course, there are always periods of time-crunch on a specific project or event, but it is no longer a way of life.
5. What was the best advice you received when you started your career?
Anne: I think I’d have to go with the advice I got when I was trying to find a publisher for my first book: “Get a website.” That was back in 2001 and my brother created the site for me. Along the way, I learned how to maintain it, and since that was the early days of personal websites, I learned some basic html code. I became an early blogger/podcaster and found my inner geek, all of which has served me very well in my current work, which involved a complete redo of our Society website in the first year. It’s due for another.
Having a website also enabled me to be considered for this position. I found the ad for the job late in the game and when I contacted the search firm, I discovered that they had already done a first round of interviews. My initial letter of interest and resume probably would not have cut it, but the man in charge of the search could also go immediately to my website, which by then had seven years worth of my life on it. And go there he did.
The Bible Society wanted someone creative and facile with technology, and everything from my sermons, blogs and podcasts to my fascination with computer gaming to my inexplicable defense of the lowly woodchuck was there to see at a glance. From that site, the search firm could see what I already knew to be the case: This job was a custom fit for me. As a result, he had enough extra information to convince the search committee to work me into the interview schedule.
6. Given the current economic climate, what has been your strategy for building awareness of Year Up for short-term and long-term growth?
Anne: My strategy has been based on my gut-level assumption that the apathy, confusion, and even revulsion that many people today have toward the Bible is rooted in a lack of understanding of the text and exposure to only a narrow set of interpretations. We face a particular challenge in that our historic name often evokes exactly the narrow set of interpretations that we seek to expand.
Over the past few years, we have been building a presence in social media, hosting focus groups, talking with consultants, and deeply listening to what people are and aren’t saying about their relationship to the Bible in particular and religion in general. We have discovered a longing for knowledge of the Bible that isn’t colored by a particular agenda or ideology and our new set of courses: The Dickinson Series: Exploring the Bible is our response to what we have heard.
Our business model going forward is heavily weighted toward the deployment of this set of courses and the annual conference related to them. We have elected to publish them ourselves through Amazon and anticipate revenue from sales of the materials as well as enrollment for certification or CEUs, and the development of our core donor base as the courses expand and are appreciated.
Appropriately for a religious organization, it is a leap of faith that meeting a need for biblical literacy will result in concrete forms of appreciation, but we have built a foundation of relationships (both virtual and otherwise), shaped a Board that is business-savvy, done our research, and tapped into my best gifts as a writer to launch this project.
Should it fail, we are small and nimble enough to turn quickly, but the initial signs are that we will do very well by continuing to keep our focus on the place where our mission meets the needs of others to sustain our growth and keep us relevant for the next 200 years.
7. What is your proudest achievement as an accomplished entrepreneur?
Anne: In the fall of 2010, when Terry Jones announced that his congregation would burn Qur’ans and international concern ensued, I decided that we would support the Muslim community by offering to give away two Qur’ans for every one that was burned.
Within 24 hours of that decision, we had a press release out and in three days had raised $3,000 from people of all religious stripes. That number could have easily tripled had Jones not backed down at that point. We were praised in the media all the way from the London Free Press to Sojourners as “the best Christian response” to the situation.
We got a ton of hate mail as well, but the number of people—from Christians to Muslims to atheists—who were deeply moved by our response was well worth what we put up with from those who took us to task. We lost none of our regular supporters, gained many new ones, garnered new friends in the Muslim community, and got tremendous press coverage all for following my conscience. We even have been contacted by some officials working with our government in Muslim areas overseas to explore ways that we…the little, old Massachusetts Bible Society…might help soften hearts and minds in those areas.
8. How do you achieve balance in your life?
Anne: This question assumes that I do indeed achieve balance in my life! This is both easier and harder for me than for others. I live alone and do not have children so in one sense there are fewer things to balance. On the other hand there are also fewer things to call me away from work, making it easier to get lost in a work project and completely forget things like lunch…or Christmas…or spring. Balance is a work in progress.
9. Your top 3 book recommendations?
Anne: Aside from the Bible, those would be:
1. Lord of the Rings (JRR Tolkien) to help remind us that anything is possible with the support of a friend.
2. King Lear (Shakespeare) to remind us that too much ego can lead to ruin.
3. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Robert Cialdini) to remind us of how easily we can be manipulated if we are not paying attention or paying attention to the wrong things (see book #2).
10. What are your most rewarding charitable involvements?
Anne: In this case, my work is my primary charitable involvement as it overlaps with my life as a clergywoman as well. In order to keep working at that balance thing, the rest of my contributions to charity remain mostly monetary.
11. Who has influenced your career the most?
Anne: Probably it would have to be my father. Although he died right after I graduated from college, he instilled in me the belief that I could do anything I wanted and do it well. I’m sure my mother supported this, too—as I remember her reading The Little Engine That Could to me many, many times—but it was my father who was always expanding my mind to embrace new possibilities and who taught me to fear stagnation more than failure.
12. What is your advice for someone interested in entrepreneurship?
Anne: My basic advice is almost clichéd at this point: “Do what you love.” Related to that is, “Experiment with a lot of things so you know what you love to do.” Do that experimentation early and often.
In college, my parents looked at my course selections with despair, believing that I would be unemployable. They didn’t always see the benefit of my translating Sesame Street songs into German or doing an independent study in Old English. I took Archaeology, “Art in the Dark,” Biblical Hebrew, Creative Writing, Classical Greek, Russian…and never in enough depth to be useful. But they were tremendously useful to me in discovering what I loved.
I’ve also been fortunate to have several jobs with bosses who let me loose to try my hand at things I wasn’t qualified for because it was much cheaper than hiring an expert. Small businesses are great for this. I got to design book covers, learn computer software, write and direct television commercials, run direct mail campaigns, manage major conferences, create rare book exhibits, catalog 18th century letters, and develop, purchase, and manage the entire trade book inventory for a university bookstore.
In my volunteer church involvement (before entering ministry), I designed and implemented children’s summer camps, wrote musicals, chaired committees, did puppet shows, taught classes, led the youth group, taught aerobics, directed the choir, stuffed envelopes, painted the walls, and updated the 900-member church membership list.
By the time I was 30, I had a solid knowledge of what gave me energy and what drained it; what I did well and what was best for me to leave for someone else; and what areas of what I did well could really be exceptional with additional experience and training. Then I moved forward in my work life, looking for opportunities to do what I loved. It worked.