The Alban Institute is shutting its doors. From what I can tell, it’s doing so wisely, acknowledging that its current structure needs to change.
It was one of the first organizations that addressed the decline of mainline Protestantism and sought to equip pastors with the skills to understand and revitalize their churches.
Most seminaries train their pastors to be good readers, counselors and ethicists. My colleagues are literate and trustworthy, people from whom I seek feedback. I find them intellectually astute, warm and genuine.
But as a collective skill set, we learn organizational development and building institutions on the job. Most of us presumed we came into relatively intact organizational structures, but it has not been the case. Some can learn the skills intuitively, others have learned by participating in the workforce, but some clergy clearly have stronger skills than others.
The Alban institute attempted to introduce sound management into churches, helping us think about the practical challenges of decline and transformation. They covered a broad range – from how to think of a church “system” to board development to stewardship. Their books were focused on being useful to pastors, and very attentive to the detail oriented, toolkits that pastors needed.
What was always remarkable about many of the books Alban published was the repeated acknowledgment that if we really believed all this crap about God and Jesus, we could truly rebuild the church. When Loren Mead wrote about wealth, he put it bluntly. To paraphrase, we have to remember that we are rich, and we have been given a great inheritance. Only about talking about money honestly in the context of Jesus Christ can we rebuild our congregations. And we aren’t doing it. But if we recognized what we do have, we could change the world.
It’s hard to hear. It was hard to say. And it’s hard to do.
But many of us have found it hard to take risks he thought we needed to, and in that it’s harder to ask congregants to take the same leap. In the end, our “decline” has not been because of liberal theology, or of our prophetic witness, but one of leadership. We clergy, cursed with the desire to please and be nice, so that nobody else will leave, end up pleasing nobody.
Which is why I think clergy should take up improv comedy and boxing.
Still, the mainline church is not the only place where the spirit may work. Perhaps it did what it was called to do: in the US mainline protestants laid the moral ground work for important institutions and movements such as the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, and Civil Rights. I believe it sought to hold the country together, in an imperfect way, as we began living into our country’s promise. Now perhaps we need other, more nimble, responses to Jesus’ call. And so the role of priests and professional clergy will change once again. The economics are such that we will have some large congregations, and many house churches.
Thank you, Alban, for your prophetic witness to what the church could be. You gave this priest hope. I didn’t know always how to bring you into my congregation, but God knows, you tried.