Me and Jimmy Swaggart

When my husband and I were dating, there were certain topics that both of us would tiptoe around when we’d get together for family gatherings. Bunches of his relatives were way, way into televangelists. So the topic of televangelists would come up, and I’d drft into the kitchen to check on the roast, or mention a pear-and-cranberry crisp recipe my mom had sent me. A few of his relatives liked to debate (or just bait) people like me on the topic of religion, and I’d try to be cool, but sometimes my feisty twenty-seven-year-old self would get up in a high dudgeon and then it wasn’t so cool. But for the most part, I viewed those get-togethers as tests of patience and forbearance. As they like to say here in Boulder, “Don’t be attached.”

In 1990 the company I worked for made an acqusition, a software company in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It was a big privilege to go to Baton Rouge on business trips because the people in the software company were the coolest, and of course the food in Baton Rouge is out of this world. I went there a lot. Every time I’d travel to  Baton Rouge, one of the very gracious software folks would offer to show me around, and I’d take a driving tour with them, and I always wanted to go to the same place: the Jimmy Swaggart Bible College. The Bible College was going strong back then. It had neat, modern buildings, albeit poured-concrete and sort of Soviet-looking, and a tidy, well-lit student bookstore, which was my number one destination. The bookstore at any given time would be full of impossibly cheerful, blond and well-scrubbed twenty-year-olds, plus me. I’d stand in line, smiling and trying to blend, like Joe Pesci in “My Cousin Vinny,” with a stack of Jimmy Swaggart Bible College sweatshirts in my arms.

Those sweatshirts were gold! You’d go to a party in Chicago wearing one of these sweatshirts, and everyone would get jealous and want to know how to get one, too. They were the thing. People would say “Where the heck did you get that sweatshirt?” They didn’t believe there was a real Jimmy Swaggart Bible College, but of course there was.

The funniest thing was that when I’d go on my tour of Baton Rouge and stop in at the Bible College bookstore, I’d always see at least one of my Chicago co-workers standing there in line, too, with his or her own stack of Jimmy Swaggart Bible College sweatshirts. We’d have to smile sheepishly at one another because, of course, we were doing our shopping during business hours – we could have been at work – but those sweatshirts were the schwag we had to have. Maybe we intuited that the Bible College was only going to have a brief, shining moment to exist, before its founder found his ignominious destiny.

Something happened to my sweatshirts over the years — I certainly don’t have one anymore. But not long ago I got an email message from a guy that caused me to recall those Baton Rouge, sweatshirt-buying expeditions. I’d written a column for Business Week online denouncing my least-favorite corporate HR practice, namely, forced-ranking systems. These are the disgusting performance-review programs that force managers to rank their employees every year on a best-to-worst scale. Don’t even get me started about forced-ranking systems, which are the opposite of management programs. They’re vile, ineffective, and cowardly, if you want my opinion. But anyway, I said more or less the same thing in this story on the Business Week website, and a gentleman wrote to me about that.

Evidently this guy had written a book about forced-ranking systems, and he wanted to change my negative view. He said “You say that forced-ranking systems depress teamwork. I’ve solved that problem:  you just add a metric in your forced-ranking system that evaluates people’s teamwork!” Oh, Lordy. So even though the whole forced-ranking idea is “dog eat dog, every man for himself” and even though the logic of the thing is that only one person can be in first place, one in second place, etc.., all the way down to Joe the Loser, you can overcome that crushing obstacle by evaluating people on their teamwork!!? How cheery, how chipper, and yet how idiotic. So anyway, this guy is trying to talk me out of my somewhat negative views of forced-ranking systems, because, you know, he wrote a book about ’em, and here’s what he says:

“Now, I don’t expect you to beat your breast like Jimmy Swaggart and say ‘I have sinned,’ but maybe you could say that you were mistaken?”

This is in an email message. Do I know the guy? No. He wrote a book. Has he sold me on his point of view, in his email message? Not in the slightest. So he draws me this word picture — it’s not like I want you to behave like a disgraced evangelical televangelist who was caught with a hooker or anything — nothing like that — just maybe, you could say you were mistaken? Because, you know, I wrote this book, and not only that, I’m sending you this email. So, you see.

Just say “I was wrong.” I was wrong about forced-ranking. A guy that wrote a book, he sent me a message, and he turned me around. Got me pointed in the right direction. Thank you, guy. Thank you for showing me the light. Now, how much do you want for that Jimmy Swaggart Bible College sweatshirt? I know a guy in Chicago’ll pay fifty bucks for it.