Dr. Teresa Hairston, founder and publisher emeritus of Gospel Today magazine, spoke with Faithfully Magazine about her pioneering publication and her ongoing work to shape the future of gospel music. The interview took place on account of the release of Hairston’s new book, Unstoppable: The Incredible Journey of America’s #1 Christian Lifestyle Magazine.
Hairston started what would become Gospel Today magazine with just $300 in 1989. At the time, she was a divorced mother of three children and holding down multiple jobs, including one in the music industry. At its height, Gospel Today was the magazine of choice for many Christians, especially African Americans. It also had an international audience. Over the years, a list of who’s who in Christianity graced its cover, including T.D. Jakes, Rick Warren, Joyce Meyer, and Tia and Tamera Mowry among many others.
Hairston was awed by how many readers embraced the publication—whose prominence brought her invitations to the White House and to the board of the Gospel Music Association (responsible for the Dove Awards). But not everyone embraced Gospel Today’s inclusive approach. In 2008, Lifeway Christian Bookstores, its leading distributor, instructed retailers to pull the magazine from shelves and keep it out of sight. The publication’s transgression in the eyes of the Southern Baptist Convention entity: putting female pastors on its cover.
Gospel Today, which enjoyed a circulation of 240,000 at the time, was rocked. Hairston eventually stepped down as publisher in 2011, passing the reins to her son, Roland T. Hairston, II. Unfortunately, the magazine never fully recovered. After transitioning to a digital-only publication, the magazine soon ceased operations. “We published all of 2012, but with the rise of the internet we encountered major financial challenges,” the younger Hairston explains in Unstoppable. “The market was changing in ways that we could not overcome.”
In the following Q&A (also available on audio), Dr. Hairston reveals more details about Lifeway’s actions and discusses aspects of her journey as a businesswoman, how her battle with COVID-19 inspired Unstoppable, what she sees for the future of Christian publishing, and more. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Tell us about the title, Unstoppable. Was that title your idea or did someone suggest that to you?
Actually, I was in the process of writing the book. And you know, of course, that was week after week, month after month. So in the middle of all that, I had a friend who was reading through what I was writing as I was doing the various versions…. I had one suggestion, one of my kids had another suggestion, and she says, “What about Unstoppable?” And…we all kind of said, “Hmm, that sounds good.”
So it kind of is the embodiment. That word really tells the story of so much of what I’ve been through in the journey of [being] a mother, single mom, divorced, working multiple jobs, [with] three kids, you know… [I had] very little income, [was] struggling, all of that stuff, but continuing, after divorce, and even in the face of being an entrepreneur, a Black female in the business world and in the church world where [it’s] dominated by men, and just continuing to move forward.
It’s a coffee table book, you’ve got a lot of photos, you’ve got contributions from different people. How long did it take to get it all together?
Well, the book started out of an incident. Actually, I was in the hospital with COVID. And it was before people knew what COVID was. So the doctors were scratching their heads, like, “What is this, this virus?” They diagnosed me with double pneumonia and an unidentified virus. So at that point, I am really going downhill. I’m on heart monitors, I can’t breathe, all of that. I had gotten to the point where I couldn’t walk or talk. And I called my daughter over to the bedside and said, “Listen, you gotta call people who can pray.” And she did. People began to pray around the clock around the country. Three days after they began praying, the Lord healed me. My fever broke for the first time in over a week. And I was able to come home the next day. Well, it took me a while to get back on my feet. A lot of people who have relatives or [who] have experienced COVID themselves, know that it is very, very devastating to your body. So it took me a minute. But once I got back on my feet…
There was a point at which I was really not doing well in the hospital. And the nurse came to me and she said, “Ma’am, I don’t mean any harm. But do you have your end of life plans in place?” When she said that to me, I was like, wow. So when I got back home and got back on my feet, those words that nurse spoke came back to me—do you have your end of life plans in place? And I always talk about [how] we have to tell our own stories, we have to leave our legacy in the earth in a printed format so that it will last generation after generation. And I had never told my story, and I probably wouldn’t have told it. But I then began probably somewhere around February or March , and I kind of dibble dabbled with it. Then I got real serious and focused in and the Lord really began to give me a strategy for how to present it. So that it’s not just a story about me and what I’ve done, but it is a story that speaks to the next generation and the next generation, and lets people know that when you have a God vision, God will give you the provision.
Jumping into Gospel Today magazine, it started out as a newsletter in the late ’80s, right? Wasn’t it called “The Score?”
It was “The Score,” and “The Score” [a music reference] was a four-page newsletter that began to evolve [into] eight pages, 16, 32, that kind of thing. As it evolved, people were like, “Score, what is that? Was it baseball? What was it?” All of that…. People weren’t getting it. Then it was just like, okay, what’s really this thing? You know, what is this about? So it [became] Gospel Today, and that name just kind of rang the bell…. And from there, it was on.
What was the inspiration and motivation for you? Because you tell your story about working two jobs, being a single mom with three kids, and you managed to raise $300 to get this dream started. What was pushing you and motivating you?
Well, actually, I was a part of the gospel music industry. I grew up playing and singing gospel music in the church. [I] love gospel music, and love the ministry, love church. But what I noticed was that there was nothing that connected us with information and inspiration in any format that was tangible. So I would go to the Gospel Music Workshop of America [founded in 1967 by the Rev. James Cleveland]. I would connect with people in the industry and that kind of thing. And [it] would all just be like a family reunion every year. But what was in between that?
So when I started working in the industry in New York City, I started a newsletter there at the company. It just went like wildfire. They loved it. But then they came back and gave it to another division to take forward. And I came back to my company and said, “Well, hey, do you mind if I do something like an independent newsletter on my own?” [They said,] “Oh, yeah, yeah, no problem.” And it started. And eventually, it became my full-time gig. So that was the inspiration. Of course, gospel music has so much that is the embodiment of our culture, our lifestyles, and all the stuff that we do. We need to write it down, people need to know some of the great things that are happening in that genre.
At its height, Gospel Today was everywhere. You were in the White House on a few occasions, you were on the board of the Gospel Music Association, and you had the “Gospel Today” show also on mainstream TV for a while. So, Gospel Today was big. For those of us removed from the immediate situation, how influential was this magazine to the industry and beyond?
Well, I was acknowledged as one of the top 10 influencers in the world of gospel [at] certain points. It was great, because a lot of the people that were influential, we were all friends, we were all colleagues. So we just kind of flowed together. And things…were happening. We wanted to see gospel grow, we wanted to see the church respected. We wanted to see this whole thing be bigger. And we did our part to do that.
What are some of the most memorable moments for you throughout that journey, from struggling in the beginning, finding the finances, and getting staff on board? And then, finally, having it all run like a well-oiled machine with everything in place?
You know, you never really get there. It’s like growing in Christ, you never are there, you just keep on evolving. It’s like the journey from the outhouse to the White House, you know, literally. I was in an impoverished situation as a young girl growing up and we didn’t have anything, so you just learn to make it, wherever you get in, you fit in. You just make it happen.
So when you say “well-oiled machine,” it’s like you keep putting in the oil, you know. You keep going and buying more oil, you can figure out where you’ll get the oil from, yes. So you just keep moving. There’s something that continues to push you forward, when you have a passion about what you’re doing and you know you’re called to do it. You can’t just say, “Well, I didn’t sell enough ads so I can’t do this.” No, you gotta keep going. You gotta make it happen. So that’s just what I had to do.
It was wonderful. To be invited to the White House, to be a host in front of the President (George W. Bush) and the first lady (Laura Bush) and those officials, and to share gospel music at that level was amazing. But you know, that’s what we’re about. We’re about sharing the good news, sharing the gospel in whatever format we can. So for us to do our part while we are doing it is just a reasonable service.
Were there any particular interviews or stories that just really stuck with you? Anything that made you go “Wow, we’ve done this.” Or, “This is one for the books?”
There [are] some great, great memories I have. I remember going to Nigeria, and Pastor Paul Adefarasin in Nigeria invited me over for his…he has a big event called The Experience [gospel concert]. I mean, I think it was like 200,000 people there. You know, when you know that somebody who has something of that magnitude has called you to come and cover it, it’s like, wow. He respected the influence of Gospel Today to that level. When Bishop T.D. Jakes invited me to come to the first MegaFest, and Gospel Today was acknowledged as the official magazine for MegaFest. For four years, you know, it was just an amazing experience to see people all over the Georgia Dome with copies of Gospel Today magazine in hand. I mean, it’s like the dream has come true. To see Bishop Paul Morton on the floor of the New Orleans Superdome saying subscribe to Gospel today and having thousands upon tens of thousands of people know what Gospel Today is and respect its power, it’s just an amazing thing. So I’m really grateful for the journey, grateful for those who have been a part of the tribe, you know, the village, because it’s not just me by myself. I really acknowledge that and support and salute all those who have been a part of this because it takes all of us, it takes that village, and it still does.
I think that in this season we have to really do extra because we’re so separated by this, you know, internet. We think we’re friends, we call ourselves friends, but do we really know each other? So I think now it’s really a great time for us to reconnect, which is, again, why this book, I think, is important. Because it is the story of how a village came forward to push a product, to push a person, to push a philosophy. And we all were better because of it.
So you’re leading Gospel Today magazine. You’re a woman, you’re Black, and you’re trying to do something new, in a sense, and you’re coming up against certain challenges. How did you personally navigate through some of those walls and maybe break through some of those ceilings?
It’s difficult and, you know, there’s no recipe. You have to know, at a point, [believe] that what’s in you is greater than what’s outside of you. So you keep on tapping into that inner reservoir. What I have learned over the years, is that you’ve got to surround yourself with strength. A lot of times, we have people who suck the life out of us around us. What happens is, they keep sucking and sucking and sucking, and you think you’re strong, you think you’re resilient, you think you’re all that. And at a point you find out oh, I’m dry, the well has run dry. That’s a very dangerous place. So what I did through many years, many seasons was continue to try to operate with the glass half full concept. You know, I can do this, I can go here. And then, you know, sometimes you get a little tired, but you keep going. So literally sometimes I’d be on “E,” dragging, tired, all of that. But I never gave up, I never quit.
Did you have any other women who you felt were breaking down barriers, that made it possible for you then to do what you were doing?
There were great women out there. Some of my colleagues, Vicki Mack Lataillade, who started GospoCentric Records and introduced the world to Kirk Franklin. Lisa Collins, who wrote for Billboard, as well as was a publisher of Gospel Industry Roundup. Juandolyn Stokes, a pastor here in Atlanta who was an industry executive. Many, many other women…. Then there were artists like Pastor Shirley Caesar…Albertina Walker, who was a mentor to me and also was the first artist to record one of my compositions. So, I mean, it’s like all of those people that surround you, support you and push you forward are part of what makes us us.
We can’t talk about Gospel Today’s journey without also talking about the incident that contributed to its eventual decline. In 2008, you published the female pastors issue, a big issue, an important issue. But one of your main distributors, LifeWay Christian Bookstores, because they had doctrinal disagreements on women as pastors, pulled the magazine from shelves.
What really is so weird about that and then is telling, is that you have a story about something wonderful, something that is groundbreaking. I mean, there was no other magazine or periodical out there that was talking about this. And it wasn’t just Black women. It was a very mixed kind of thing…women from all around the country, and who were doing great things. No scandal. And you have that particular issue that is pulled off and censored, basically like pornography or something. And it’s like, What? So at that point, you’re looking at this from a doctrinal disagreement kind of perspective, as another Christian entity, has then done something to damage you and has no concern about any restitution, any reparations, nothing.
Did you even get a conversation? Did someone pick up the phone to talk to you about it from a doctrinal or business sense?
No. Not only did they not approach me, they would not accept my call or take a meeting with me.
Wow. What were the personal lessons for you out of that?
What I learned was that nothing can stop you, unless you let it stop you. Nothing can distract you, unless you let it distract you. That was a big distraction. It was a big wall because I let it be one. And then it also showed me that sometimes our community doesn’t get it. When we wanted to push back on that, there were leaders around me who said, “Well, just keep moving.” You know, “Oh, just do another magazine.” It’s funny, in this Black Lives Matter season that we live in now, we have people who are sitting on national television talking about their incidence of abuse, and the same thing was told to them—“Oh, you’ll be fine. Oh, you know, just get over it. Don’t say anything because you don’t want to damage people.” I heard all of that: “Well, we don’t want to air our dirty laundry in public.” And, you know: “We don’t want Christians to think Christians can’t get along.” Really? So I think it’s a lesson to those of us, those of you who are out there now, we cannot be silent. We cannot sit back. We have to demonstrate, we have to be vocal, we have to be on the front line, we have to be willing to fight because nobody’s giving us anything. And nobody’s going to replace what people take from us.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently? You’re speaking now like you would have dug your heels in a bit more. Or maybe wouldn’t have listened to some of that advice about “let it pass.” Is there anything you would have done differently?
Well, I think when you’re in a whirlwind, it’s almost like there were literally hundreds of calls, emails, and just…it was just like a tornado…. I think that what I would have done differently was, I would have had an agenda that was quickly formulated and I would have probably taken legal action. Because it was really something that I didn’t know the far-ranging consequences that would happen from there financially, that would become crippling.
There were a lot of things going on. My brother died within a few months, and so there were some things that really ate away…. But ultimately, and this is what I really want people to take away, is that when the enemy comes in like a flood, then the Lord will lift up a standard. And that standard is the banner of prayer. That standard in the Bible means a banner. Okay, that’s what it literally means. And we have a banner of prayer that we’re supposed to waive when the enemy comes in and tries to defeat us and discourage us and destroy us. But many times we don’t lift up the banner like we should. We begin to talk to this one and that one, which is fine. But we’ve got to really surround ourselves with prayer. Which is why, again, the first story that led to Unstoppable is the journey of having learned that lesson now. I probably would not be here physically on earth today without that prayer covering, that prayer banner being waived in my life, even just a year ago.
You’re still actively involved in the industry through the nonprofit you have, the Gospel Heritage Foundation. What’s the purpose of that foundation? What are you trying to do there?
Well, it’s twofold. First is to preserve and perpetuate the gospel heritage and legacy. And then secondly, it is to teach the ideology that worship is a lifestyle, not just a musical style.
What do you make of the industry today? A few years ago, you had Kirk Franklin and the Winans and today, they’re still among the leading artists. So how do you gauge the changes we’ve seen in gospel music over the past couple of decades?
I think that we’ve seen a lot of change. And also, gospel music is still the music that communicates the good news of Jesus Christ. We’re seeing gospel on the big screen, we’re seeing gospel on television now. So we’re seeing a lot of evolution that we worked hard in the time I was really involved intricately in the industry, we’ve seen a lot of evolution. We’ve seen a lot of artists with songs that [are] being some all over the world. We’re hearing Richard Smallwood, “Total Praise,” you know, in all kinds of mainstream environments. So all of that, I think, is the expansion of gospel. But I think what we’re seeing also is that the industry has taken a big hit from the digital world. So they’re still trying to grapple with that, figure out that new space. Yet, I think what we’re called to do is still minister to people through the medium of gospel music. That hasn’t changed. But what we have to do is catch up with the technology that makes that an experience that everybody everywhere, whether they’re young or old, rich or poor, Black or White, musical or nonmusical, all of that…they can all experience God through the music.
What’s your take on the Christian publishing industry? There’s nothing like Gospel Today magazine out. Could or would Gospel Today magazine, or something like it, still be thriving today?
It could be. I think that the community that helped me to be successful in the beginning, and the middle stages of Gospel Today’s life, that community is replaced now by a new breed. And that breed has to come together to make something like that work, which is a coalescing of, you know, a force in the realm of media, that would have to pull them together and say, “Listen, let’s do this.” And they’d have to want to do it. It could be done. You know, nothing is impossible.
When you have 40-some million African Americans, who 70 percent of that demographic say that they’re Christian. And all of them in that whole space of Christendom, they want news, they want information, or they want inspiration, they want empowerment in that faith space, then, yes, there’s a gaping hole. But you got to have people who want to fill it and people who know how to do what it takes to make something like that work. People ask me, “Why don’t you go back and publish the magazine?” Well, yeah, it’s a lot of work. And it takes a lot of money and finances. You know, there’s no shortage of money. None of it has left the earth. So it’s here. It’s just a matter of how are we going to access it and, you know, how are we going to really prioritize the goals of what we spend our money on.
So I think that the goals have changed in this demographic of Christian leadership. It used to be that the goal was having something that could speak to all of us that was bigger than any of us. But now, I think that there’s been a kind of a disillusionment where we build…certain ministries build their ministry, as opposed to having a Kingdom mindset. So I think we’ve got to look at that and examine, are we Kingdom?—big “K” or small “K.”
Unstoppable. What do you want people to take away from this book documenting your journey, not just with Gospel Today magazine but your work in the industry and personal struggles and victories?
It is pretty succinctly put like this: When you have a God-inspired vision versus a good idea, you are unstoppable.
Editor’s note: Gospel Today’s former URL, gospeltoday.com, redirects visitors to faithfullymagazine.com. Its former publisher, Roland T. Hairston, II has served as an advisor to Faithfully Magazine.