Forty years after founding the Alban Institute, the Rev. Loren Mead still believes in the fundamental importance of congregations.

 “I am still stuck on the importance of the local church,” he said.

It was that “monomania,” he said, that prompted him to create the institute in 1974.

“I sort of woke up in ministry with a sense that whatever’s going on, it’s the parish that’s the issue, that the local church is where the rubber meets the road,” he said. “And I focused on that part of the institutional framework.”

At the time, many in the church discounted the life of local congregations, but Mead was “clear that that was not the way to go, that we needed strong local churches.”

Looking back, Mead said he hasn’t been surprised at the track record of mainline and other churches over the past 40 years, and he offered a general critique.

“It feels like we’ve been fighting a defensive war and not shifting our model to understand the power of the laity as the important part of the church,” he said. “We’ve gotten more hierarchical and defensive. We’re worrying about how to survive rather than what we ought to be doing.”

An ordained Episcopal priest, Mead is an educator, consultant and author who has worked to strengthen religious institutions, especially local congregations. He served from 1974 to 1994 as president of the Alban Institute, developing its national, multidenominational work of research, publishing, education and consulting.

He spoke recently with Alban Weekly about the institute and its work. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: You started the Alban Institute 40 years ago, in 1974. Tell us about that. Why did you start it?

Well, a lot of it goes back before Alban. I sort of woke up in ministry with a sense that whatever’s going on, it’s the parish that’s the issue, that the local church is where the rubber meets the road.

And I focused on that part of the institutional framework. I probably discounted a lot of other important things, simply because that was what I felt called to deal with. The parish is what I was about. I expanded to look at other things that affect parishes, but that was my monomania.

Q: What were the issues at the time? What was it about congregations that caught your attention?

What I saw was a church that largely discounted the life of the local congregation. At the time, in the 1960s, clergy were leaving in large numbers to go into all kinds of social work and whatnot. I was clear that that was not the way to go, that we needed strong local churches.

I was partly reacting to the negative image that seminaries and churches had in the ’60s. Everybody said, “You need to go where the action is” — and that was not where the church was. I thought that was just wrong.

I was asked to do an experimental project for the Episcopal Church, Project Test Pattern, and for three years I studied local churches, how to change and strengthen them.

We were beginning to worry about people leaving the church. We didn’t have the data yet, but everybody told me that the problem was evangelism — we weren’t getting people into the church.

I discovered that the problem was that they were leaving the church. We got lots of people into the churches in the ’50s and ’60s. I mean, they flocked in — couldn’t stop them — but they went out the back door after a year or two. I always thought that the issue of evangelism is, “How do you close the back door?” more than worrying about getting them in the front door.

In Project Test Pattern, we experimented with organizational development that was being used then in education and management — industry and universities. We sent consultants in to work with congregations.

Previous efforts at changing congregations were pretty thin. People would tell congregations what to do, and they would or wouldn’t do it. People in the church structures would develop programs for congregations, but they never found out whether the programs worked or not.

What we did was send trained people into congregations to help them make decisions about what they needed to do, what they needed to respond to. And the consultants wrote up what they discovered and what they saw and what happened.

That was the key turning point. We started getting data about what really happens in congregations. Before, most of what we knew about churches was from sermons about churches or proposals that people made for churches. We didn’t know what actually went on in a church board, for example, or what happened when people got in a fight in a church.

These consultants began writing reports of what they saw happen in churches, and what they tried and what the reaction to the trial was. We began to build up a body of information and knowledge about what happens with churches. That was the basic thing we did in that project.

Q: What were some of the most important of those findings? What did you learn in assisting these congregations over the 20 years you headed Alban?

I guess the first thing we learned was that you can learn, that you don’t have to just sit down and accept what happens. We can learn what is going on; we can learn how to change it; we can learn how to plan what we’re going to do and then figure out how to do it.

We learned that every congregation went through crises, and those crises were when they were open to change. Probably the major crisis that happens to any congregation is the change of pastors.

Every time a pastor changes, a congregation has an opportunity to change. We came to see it as the critical point in the life of a congregation.

Pastors didn’t like to hear that, because we pastors think the most important thing is what we help the church do. But the fact is, the biggest change that happens in a church is already over when the pastor gets there. The congregation has had to face the loss of a previous pastor and decide where they want to go. When you come in, if it’s been done well, the congregation is ready to go in some new directions.

So we spent a lot of time working with placement systems and trying to help people learn. We helped develop the concept of “interim pastor” and ways to train and prepare them to go in and help the congregation get over the previous pastor and get ready for the new one.

Q: Do most congregations take advantage of that opportunity for change? Or does it just inevitably happen in any pastoral transition?

We thought for years it just would happen, but we discovered — and others discovered — that paying attention to that change point is a critical, strategic issue for the church. But most churches don’t see it that way. They see it as “an unfortunate time we’ve got to go through before we can get a new pastor.”

But we discovered that often the most creative moments in a church’s life happen when the pastor isn’t there.

That’s true of the interim period, but also, for example, when a pastor’s on a sabbatical, or the pastor is unable to get to a board meeting, and the board goes in a new direction. Sometimes the way pastors relate to congregations makes it difficult for the people in the congregation to have their true authority.

Congregations that go through a long period without a pastor always think everything’s going to hell in a bandwagon or something, but before long they discover that they’re learning new things and doing things in new ways and feeling pretty good about it.

Another crisis point we discovered was church fights. Most people hate the thought of them, and they’re terrible experiences, but we found that a church fight often opens a congregation up to new life. Things that have been neglected have to be dealt with.

Most churches try to squelch fights. And people today think the way to deal with conflict is for some people to leave the church. Sometimes that works, but we felt that it’s possible to learn something from conflict management to make that kind of crisis different.

Q: These discoveries from 30 or 40 years ago seem very relevant to church life today.

Yes, I think they are.

I was ordained in 1955, at a time when the church was on an incoming tide. This was after the Second World War. The strength of the American economy was unmatched; we were getting richer; there was more money; the church was popular. Religion was important in everybody’s life; it was the way we made community in a lot of places.

From 1950 to 1965, we had a massive movement of people into the churches. We built stronger institutions. Our seminaries were made stronger; membership went up; every judicatory, every Methodist conference and Episcopal diocese built a headquarters. People who used to run a judicatory with a bishop and a secretary suddenly had five or six people on the staff.

And about 1965, the mainline churches — and about 25 years later, the evangelical churches — discovered that the tide had peaked. It was 1966, I think, that the Methodist Church for the first time lost members. The tide started going out, and since at least 1970 the membership and strength of the churches has been declining, and the institutional structures we built in the ’50s and ’60s we can no longer pay for. But all of that related to local churches.

Q: If you were launching an Alban Institute today, would you still focus on local congregations or on repairing those larger institutional structures?

I am still stuck on the importance of the local church. And I think that a lot of those other structures came and went.

The structures of the churches think organizationally, but they often don’t see the interrelationship between things. When we started Alban, we discovered that churches of different denominations are dealing with the same stuff, but they do not share what they know with each other.

Our denominations make us siloed, so that each denomination is trying to solve its problem by itself, and they don’t realize other congregations down the street are having the same troubles. We have to relate them to what other congregations are doing.

Q: Has that situation improved over the last 40 years? Are congregations working together a little better?

No.

For example, take the loss of members in a church. In the ’70s, I was consulting with a bunch of churches in New England. And everywhere I went, I found big churches having the same problem. They had built a church for 1,000 members but now had only 200 members. And they were all asking, “What can we do to get more members?”

I remember working with one in Scarsdale, New York. They had lost members and were having a hard time paying their bills, but they were stuck on the fact that they no longer had a strong youth program. So they decided they would raise a lot of money and get a new youth director.

What they didn’t know was that all their young people had moved on and gone to other places. There had also been demographic changes, with a large increase in Jewish residents and a large number of Japanese immigrants. The church was trying to recapture what they had been 20 years before. They didn’t look at what was going on in the world around them.

And then I found that all these large churches were each trying to solve it themselves. They didn’t realize that changes were happening all over New England. They were just looking at themselves. They didn’t know that every church in town had the same problem. [Each denomination was] trying to solve it on a congregational basis, when the problem was a systems problem.

We lost the capacity to look at larger issues. We were structured to deal with things denominationally, when the problems weren’t denominational. We thought the answer was a new program or a new staff person, when first we had to figure out what was going on in the world around us.

Our judicatories really have that responsibility, to look at the larger picture, but they are also siloed. They only see their own churches; they don’t see the larger issues.

Q: Are there any areas where you think the church, especially the mainline churches, have made progress, have done things right?

I think basically they’ve tried to double down on what they used to be and have not looked at the new things that are coming along.

But there are a few areas. When we started, seminaries and the judicatories and most of the congregations were concerned that people coming out of seminaries were remarkably well-educated in theology and denominational matters but didn’t know how to lead a congregation.

We helped do some research on the boundary between the seminary and the congregation in the 1980s and 1990s. A lot of seminaries now have programs to help with the transition from the seminary to the congregation, and that’s helped a lot.

Another thing, when I came out of the parish, there was very little continuing education available for clergy other than book learning. Very few training agencies that worked with congregations helped pastors learn how to lead. Now, a lot of seminaries have some kind of continuing education that isn’t strictly academic.

Also, when we started, it was hard to get good publications about the nitty-gritty of parish life. Now, many publishers are publishing stuff that comes straight out of the life of parishes.

But there are still too many things trying to tell parishes what to do. If there’s one terrible thing the church does, it’s that we believe in gimmicks, that there is a gimmick somewhere that will fix it all. I don’t believe that.

Q: As you look back over the past 40 years, what has most surprised you? Anything catch you unaware about how the church has developed or not developed in the U.S.?

I guess not. It feels like we’ve been fighting a defensive war and not shifting our model to understand the power of the laity as the important part of the church. We’ve gotten more hierarchical and defensive. We’re worrying about how to survive rather than what we ought to be doing.

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