Alban Institute R.I.P.

Congregations have been a big part of my life. I’ve been a member of seven and have worked with hundreds of others as a preacher, consultant, researcher and friend.

Watching people congregate (a word I like even more than congregation) is one of my favorite pastimes and I’ve learned from every encounter. I recall an afternoon in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Driving through a Bedouin village north of the city, my Muslim companions realized it was time for evening prayers. The driver pulled the car off the road alongside half-dozen trucks and other vehicles. I watched as people went to the trunks of their vehicles, removed prayer rugs and gathered together for prayer. Twenty minutes later they returned to their vehicles and we moved on. Or a morning in Baltimore at a historic black Methodist church when a long-time lay member turned to her pastor and reminded him that as powerful as he was in his church and her life, “I was here before you got here and I’ll still be here long after you’ve gone.” Or preaching at a 5:30 a.m. service on Indonesian Independence Day, beginning my sermon with a reference to July 4 in my own country and ways we celebrate freedom and liberty. My translator took nearly five minutes translating my single sentence. Afterwards I asked what had happened at the beginning of the sermon. “Oh,” he chuckled,” It took me a while to explain that in the US people link concepts of independence and freedom in ways we would never do here.”

When I began my career, congregations didn’t get a lot of attention. When they did get noticed at all the attention was pretty negative. I recall some of the popular books of my seminary years: God’s Frozen People, The Noise of Solemn Assemblies, and The Suburban Captivity of the Churches. Even in the churches congregations were often viewed as standing in the way of God’s mission in the world.

Much of that critique was on point. Congregations are as guilty of rotten behavior as any social institution. Frankly, they have done as much to foster the sins of racism, sexism, classism, localism and homophobia as they have done to overcome them. I recall the very hard work of the Congregational Studies Team as we worked to prepare the introductory chapter to our book, Handbook for Congregational Studies. We were trying to make the point that appreciating congregations does not mean adopting an uncritical stance toward them. As we wrote, “There is more often than not a tension, if not a conflict, between faithfulness to the gospel that is confessed in a local congregation and the actual living out of that gospel in the behavior of the congregation as a corporate body or in the lives of its members.”

By the late 1960s taking congregations seriously had become the vocation of a number of pioneers in what is now thought of as the field of Congregational Studies. One of those pioneers is Episcopal priest, Rev. Loren B. Mead. After leading a three-year pilot project known as Project Test Pattern, Mead founded the Alban Institute. Housed in a basement on the campus of St. Alban’s in Washington, DC, the Alban Institute emerged as perhaps the best-known independent resource for U.S. congregations.

As best I can tell, there was never a formal business plan, but Alban was what we would now call a start-up. Loren and his early colleagues had a passion for congregational ministry and a number of good instincts. I don’t know that they ever catalogued those instincts but one could observe them. Congregations could benefit from outside friends with expertise in field like organizational development. No two congregations were exactly the same but they have a lot in common and those commonalities cross denominational lines. Over time, one could learn a lot about how congregations work and those lessons could be helpful to people in other congregations; in the early years Alban often talked about its work as “action-research.”

Those instincts found institutional expression in what became the four main pillars of Alban’s work: consulting, education and training, research and publication. Loren Mead was able to build a team of persons who were able to contribute to all four areas. Consultants worked with local churches, led training events, conducted small-scale research projects and wrote books and articles for Alban publications. Together, people like Loren Mead, Celia Hahn, Roy Oswald, Speed Leas, Ed White and George Parsons built the Alban “brand.” By the 1980s the Institute’s expertise in congregational conflict (Leas, Parsons), congregational spirituality (Hahn), pastoral transition and clergy self-care (Oswald, White), endowed parishes and musings about the future of the church (Mead) was well established.

Alban was born with an entrepreneurial spirit. At the time most church consultants were part-time or worked on their own. A few were based in educational institutions or worked for denominational agencies. Alban began with very little institutional support. It supported itself by selling services and memberships and though a focused but limited fundraising program. Small mall grants supported small-scale research and writing projects.

When I was asked to join the Alban Institute’s Board of Trustees in 1990 it was clear that the Institute was beginning a transition from an informal collection of consultants and writers to a more “professional” nonprofit organization. Up to that point Alban had a minimalist organizational infrastructure. Consultants maintained offices in their homes around the country and gathered a few times a year for mutual support and to share their plans. The board was made up of “Friends of Loren” who met twice a year for two days but provided limited direction for the organization. A series of consultants tried to help the board understand it was time to get serious about long-range planning and to a sustainable organizational infrastructure. These were difficult conversations that revealed genuine tensions between the Washington-based staff, the board and Alban’s consulting team, many of whom felt their role in building Alban’s brand and program was under-appreciated. I remember feeling that in many ways Alban was more like a college or seminary than a typical nonprofit organization and that our consultants failed to fully value the role and contributions of the consultants, who were in effect Alban’s “faculty.”

A few years after I joined Alban’s board Loren Mead announced his intention to step down from Alban’s presidency and to leave the Institute. A search committee was appointed and a national search was undertaken. The committee was divided and the search did not go well. The committee asked to be relieved of its duties but was persuaded to continue its work and later presented a candidate who was rejected by the board. Several committee members left the board. The board decided to honor Loren Mead’s retirement date and an interim president was appointed. Loren Mead retired in 1994

I was asked to chair a new search committee and in 1994 Alban elected James Wind, then of the Lilly Endowment, to be Alban’s president. Jim brought real strengths to the position. He was a Lutheran pastor with a PhD from the University of Chicago and had published significant books in the field of congregational history. From his work at Lilly he also knew the world of foundations and he was familiar with scholars and practitioners in the field of congregational studies.

As I was leaving the Alban board Jim Wind had begun conversations with Lilly about a major initiative to support congregations in the Endowment’s hometown of Indianapolis. This project led to the creation of the Indianapolis (now Indiana) Center for Congregations, a multi-million dollar effort to draw on Alban’s expertise to enhance congregational life in Indiana’s capital city. This was, of course, a big deal for the Alban Institute. For the first time it would have serious financial resources to undergird its work.

After I left the Alban board in 2000 I pretty much lost touch with the organization. I had relocated to the West Coast and had lots of things to occupy my attention. Speed Leas joined Pacific School of Religion as a part-time faculty member and we would talk from time to time but I had little involvement beyond an annual fund contribution. I had heard rumblings about Alban’s having some financial issues and learned a few months ago that Jim Wind was leaving and that Alban’s publications program was being transferred to Rowman & Littlefield, a publishing house. More recently I heard rumor of more changes. Then, this week, I learned in a letter from Alban’s board chair, Case Hoogendoorn,that Alban will be closing and transferring its assets to Duke Divinity School. Some of its consultants will continue to work together as “Congregational Consulting.” Here’s a link to the letter: http://www.alban.org/.

Hoogendoorn’s letter suggests a couple of reasons for the board’s decision to end Alban’s current program. The letter says that in many ways Alban has accomplished its mission of “highlighting the critical importance of congregations in the ever changing religious landscape and modeling means by which the needs of congregations can be addressed.” He cites the changing shape of publishing, a hanging religious scene, economic stress and increased competition in local church consulting. A Religion News Service article by Sarah Pulliam Bailey points to Alban’s slowness to shift to web-based learning and publication and notes that Alban was investing over $600,000 per year in compensation for three of its executive staff. (http://www.religionnews.com/2014/03/19/alban-institute-resource-mainline...)

I don’t doubt that all of these factors played a role in Alban’s demise. Nor do I have any interest in figuring out why Alban has had to close. I do think we ought to be asking what can be learned from the Alban experience.

One lesson, I think, is that passion, values and instinct remain important. They were crucial in Alban’s early years but hard to maintain as the scope of Alban’s program grew. Throughout its history people in local churches, especially pastors, knew that Alban could be trusted. They knew this because its educational events and publications spoke to them and their needs. Members and clients were on a “first name” basis with its consultants. At clergy gatherings in the 80s and 90s I would hear people comment on what “Loren” or “Speed” had to say about a particular issue. Church folks like to be insiders. Unfortunately, Alban was unable to sustain a sense of being a movement and not simply an organization.

Another lesson is that religiously affiliated organizations are different. Yes, they have a lot in common with other nonprofit institutions but ideas, dare I say theology, play a special role. Over the years most of Alban’s consultants have been ordained clergy. They had skills as consultants and writers but they were also preachers and counsellors whose ministry was a form of pastoral care for congregations and their leaders. Those who work with congregations know that strategic planning, conflict management, building new relationships with neighboring communities need to draw on technical expertise but they also rely on a congregation’s sense of spirituality and, ultimately, a dose of God’s grace.

A third lesson is the reminder that organizations do need to cultivate the capacity to face what Harvard’s Ron Heifetz calls adaptive challenges. Alban and its leaders were very aware of this need in the face of a dramatically changing religious environment. Some of its best work was helping others come to this understanding. Looking back, I can’t help but wonder whether the large infusion of Lilly’s cash for the Center for Congregations diverted Alban’s attention from the need to adapt to change. I remember arguing as a board member that Alban needed to develop new “product lines.” The cost of consulting services were moving beyond the financial capacity of most local churches, educational events that involved extensive travel for participants and leaders were getting more expensive and Alban’s publications faced increased competition as publishers like Jossey-Bass entered the field. I encouraged Alban to consider offering assistance to pastoral search committees and capital campaign consulting, neither of which gained much support (probably for good reasons). Major gifts proved elusive and the membership program never took off. Grants from Lilly let Alban off the hook for a while but made the transition even more difficult as support was withdrawn.

I’m grieving the loss of the Alban Institute, not because I don’t recognize that institutions come and go. They do. Alban had a good run and leaves an extraordinary legacy in the form of congregations around the country that are at least a little more faithful and effective than they might have been without Alban’s help. Alban’s consulting work will continue in some form and people will continue to write and publish resources to support congregations in their work. My grief comes from the awareness that one of my favorite examples of the sort of innovation the religious community needs I these times is no longer with us.

Thanks to all the folks whose vision gave us Alban for a time and to those who led and supported it over the years.

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