In this week’s Alban Weekly, David L. Odom, associate dean for leadership initiatives at Duke Divinity School, discusses the legacy of the Alban Institute and the ways that some of its work will continue. Odom oversees the team developing the resources offered through Alban at Duke Divinity School.

What is your relationship with the Alban Institute?

In my first year out of seminary, a denominational executive asked me what I knew about the Alban Institute. I had never heard of the work. He handed me a couple of copies of Action Information (the forerunner of Congregations) and told me that these people understood congregations. He urged me to join, and I found books like Tony Papapus’ work on the small church, Roy Oswald’s articles on church size, Speed Leas’ seminars on church conflict to be invaluable.

In 1992, I established the Center for Congregational Health at what is now Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. The Center was built as a hub for sharing what Alban had learned in the areas of interim ministry and church consulting. Over the years, we were one of the largest disseminators of Alban resources.

When I came to Duke in 2007 to launch Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, the first institution we sought to develop a partnership with was the Alban Institute. I am deeply indebted to Alban for equipping me for ministry these last 30 years.

What prompted the change in Alban’s direction?

The economics of each of the Alban Institute’s service areas had changed dramatically over the last few years. The individual ministries in consulting and publishing were very strong and profitable, but the parts were stronger than the whole. And the philanthropy that had provided support for the overall organization was ending, leaving Alban in a fragile situation.

One of the issues that congregations, denominations and schools face today is achieving the right scale, for each size comes with its own challenges. Organizations operating on a smaller scale can achieve many things but they often experience isolation, which can choke innovation. Large scale is often difficult to attain, and it requires constant attention to synergy between ministry activities and a careful attention to keeping overhead costs low. The Alban Institute was a mid-sized, independent organization. This is the most dangerous place for sustainability over time. Mid-sized organizations often have more “overhead” expenses due to the increased need for the coordination of services. This means that the services must be more expensive or risk being offered at a financial loss.

Alban found itself in a situation in which its costs had risen too high – the congregations they served could no longer afford them. Ultimately the board of trustees decided that the work of the Alban Institute would best be continued by going small and dividing the ministries into various pieces. It was a difficult decision.

Duke Divinity School was not part of the decision for Alban to close. The school was approached by the board after plans were in place. Personally, I was heartbroken by the news and concerned for the employees that supported Alban’s publications and infrastructure, all of whom lost their positions in the closure.

What has happened to what was Alban?

The legacy of Alban’s books and its electronic publications, including Alban Weekly, will be continued by Duke Divinity School. Duke Divinity will work with Rowman & Littlefield to publish new books with the Alban imprint. Rowman & Littlefield purchased and will manage the sale of previously published Alban books. Our new Alban website provides access to back issues of Congregations magazine, Alban Weekly archives and the like.

The consultants who were working for Alban in early 2014 are continuing their ministries. Each person has unique gifts and is continuing to develop a practice that suits the consultant’s situation and gifts. Several are continuing as full-time consultants. Some are moving to do part-time consulting combined with related work as a judicatory leader. A couple are retiring. Most have formed a network to make access to their work as seamless as when they worked at Alban, called Congregational Consulting. We hope to feature their writing occasionally in Alban Weekly.

Why did Duke agree to accept part of the Alban legacy?

Duke Divinity School’s highest commitment is to prepare pastors for congregations. Most of our graduates’ first positions are in congregations. Over the past 20 years, Duke Divinity has launched ministry centers to help the church address critical issues in medical ethics, reconciliation, clergy health and institutional leadership. More recently, Duke has added new degree programs to prepare for the expanded variety of ministry opportunities. Today, Duke Divinity has 650 students in seven degree programs led by 50 faculty members and supported by more than 80 staff.

Early in 2014, Dean Richard Hays asked me to coordinate the Divinity School’s efforts to serve congregations, with the goal of making it more readily apparent the wide range of offerings we have for congregational leaders, both clergy and laity. Alban approached us just after Dean Hays gave me this assignment. All of us wanted Alban to continue in a sustainable form. Our experience with publishing and convening seemed like a good match for Alban’s need, and Alban’s stable of resources complements the array of services the Divinity School currently offers. The focus will remain on creating practical resources that help congregations.

What is the plan for the future?

We believe that a critical shift has occurred over the past 40 years. When I encountered Alban as a young pastor, I needed access to expertise in how congregations operated. As Alban’s founding president, Loren Mead has observed, the early Alban consultants helped congregations understand what was happening in their congregation. Today, congregational leaders are hungry to learn what is effective and fruitful in other congregations. With its extensive connections to congregations, Alban can facilitate the gathering up of what congregations are learning and share it with others. This congregation-to-congregation learning will be a key emphasis over the next few years.

One of the signature strengths of Leadership Education’s work is our design process. It is modeled on what we have learned from Duke Corporate Education and my experience in as a church consultant in the Alban tradition. The process begins with listening.

We see Alban as a critical node in a network of individuals and organizations that support congregations. Unfortunately, the network is hidden to many in congregations that might be seeking encouragement, support or guidance. We hope Alban can help illuminate all the elements in the network so that more congregations can access it.

Our first step was to ask the 38,000 Alban Weekly readers some questions about their needs and the contexts in which they serve. Their answers are helping shape our plans, and we expect to continue the dialogue in other ways as well. We know that Alban will need to continually incubate services and partnerships in order to remain a valuable service to congregations. We are at a critical stage of determining how to create and sustain new services and hope that Alban supporters will join in the discernment.

How will Alban be connected to the web magazine Faith & Leadership?

Alban and Faith & Leadership are distinct services that complement each other. Alban will continue to focus on the flourishing of congregations. Faith & Leadership, as the most visible service of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, will continue to encourage lasting change by strengthening the ecology of Christian institutions that enable U.S. congregations and pastors to flourish. With the teams that support each publication now working under the same roof, we hope to build on the natural connections. Alban will also seek partnerships with the Center for Congregations, the Pastoral Excellence Network and all kinds of denominations, consultancies and theological schools.

How will Alban be funded in the future?

Alban’s previously developed resources have come to us as a gift, and we intend to make those resources available to all online. We are not accepting new or renewed requests for Alban membership.

Instead, a new restricted endowment established by the Alban Institute at Duke Divinity School will provide ongoing funding, and this, combined with royalties from books and the savings from sharing infrastructure costs with Leadership Education, will provide for the publication of Alban Weekly and new Alban books. We will seek grant funding for the congregation-to-congregation learning on a project-by-project basis. The core operations of Alban will be very small, less than 5% of the annual budget of the original Alban Institute. The remaining services will be scaled based on the support we receive.

How does it feel to inherit a legacy?

In some ways, we feel like every pastor does stepping to the pulpit for the first time in a 50 or 150 year-old congregation. We want to honor the people and the work that went before us. Yet we are called to provide services in the current era…a very different time indeed. We want to honor the traditions of Alban by providing innovative services and encouraging others to do likewise. We need each other in this work.

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