Loren B. Mead — priest, educator, author and founder of the Alban Institute — died at his home in Alexandria, Virginia, on May 5, 2018. In 2016, he was interviewed about his life and ministry by Alban. In that conversation, he returned to the themes that marked his life, his ministry, and his teaching. What follows is an edited transcript.
The title of your book is The Parish is the Issue, and the first line says, The real church is the local church. For folks who haven’t read the book, tell us what you mean by that.
What I mean by that is people who are in the church are always talking about church, but if you’ve been to a theological seminary you think of something big, the United Methodist Church, or in my case the Episcopal Church, or the Anglican communion or something, but the functioning church, for me, is that local place where people meet, talk, have arguments, and yet understand that that’s where, as I say, the rubber hits the road for them, in terms of learning how to be a faithful Christian. And they don’t all do it well — I’ve been to a lot of congregations and some I would say are not very pleasant, but I’ve never found one that doesn’t have some people in it who really are trying to be disciples of Jesus and who care about the biblical story and are trying to find a way to live it.
You call the church the most important social institution in the world after the family. Why is that?
It’s just where we all draw our breath. It’s where we all go back to, where we all start from. And there just isn’t anything else. I mean, the American Association of Psychiatric Doctors, that’s a wonderful organization, but it’s not central to your life the way a local church is or your family is.
And what led you to this conviction about the local church?
I honestly don’t know. I somehow knew it when I grew up. I grew up and I went to a small church, Sunday school and all that in South Carolina, which I would say now is a terribly conservative church. I never had a pastor, for example, who believes that people of different races ought to be treated the same, that there should be equality. I never had a pastor who thought men and women should be treated equally.
But I learned that there was a truth deeper than what any of them actually was preaching. And that’s the heart of my hope, that I really think the local church stands for much more than what anybody articulates about it. It’s not limited to the minister, there is more there than you expect.
The Parish is the Issue happens to be the title of an essay I first wrote 50 years ago when I was starting a project for the Episcopal Church. We were trying to figure out how to make parishes more effective, a project called Project Test Pattern. And I was trying to convince my board of directors what I wanted to do, and I wrote a thing that was called The Parish is the Issue. I haven’t gone back and reread that thing, but that’s the title and that’s the theme of what I‘ve been doing.
When and where did you grow up?
I grew up in 1930 which was Depression time where we were in South Carolina. I had a little bit of perspective on that because I had a father who went to medical school in New York and a mother who came from Gloucester, Massachusetts, and they moved to South Carolina. He was the first internal medical specialist in the state of South Carolina. So it was really kind of a long time ago down there, it was very much an ancient world. And I grew up in a doctor’s family, went to public schools, and lived in a segregated — I lived in apartheid — and thought it was what we were supposed to be.
People often talk about a sense of calling to ministry. Would you talk a little bit about your sense of calling? Why did you go to seminary?
Church was important to me from when I was young. I intended to be a doctor but found out I didn’t like chemistry and got into teaching, teaching adults who hadn’t finished high school in a special school in South Carolina. Loved it, but I realized very quickly that people needed something deeper than that, and just went back to my love of the church.
I think one of my best stories about calling is my friend Charlie Horn who was in college with me, and he went in to see Tudor Long who was our English professor. And Tudor said to him, “Charlie, what are you going to do when you finish college?” Charlie said, “Well I guess I’m going to law school.” Tudor said, “Well, you don’t sound very enthusiastic. Why not, don’t you want to be a lawyer?” He said, “Oh God no, I don’t want to be one, but my daddy’s one and I figured that’s what I ought to be.” Tudor said, “Well what do you want to be?” He said, “Well, I really would love to be an Episcopal minister. I love the church and I really feel I could do a job there.” Tudor said, “Well why don’t you do that?” He said, “Well I’ve never been called.” And Tudor said, “I’m calling you.” And he went to seminary and became a very fine clergyman. [Laughs]
What was your experience with seminary?
It was interesting. I loved the people. The area of seminary that made the most sense to me was the pastoral theology area. I learned the most probably in biblical stuff. I grew up a fundamentalist, that’s the way you do in the south. And it helped me see the scriptures better. The thing that changed my life in seminary was clinical training. And after clinical training five couples of us decided on our own to continue clinical training kind of learning with each other and we hired a supervisor. One of those people was Jack Spong, who a lot of people know, but the five of us for another two years continued meeting and learning. And it was that meeting on the edge of the seminary that really was what I found most challenging.
Once you graduated and after serving a parish in South Carolina, you came to Chapel Hill to begin a church …
It had already begun a year or two before, but it was very small and just beginning. And Chapel Hill was bursting with the post-Second World War growth, particularly in medical people, and the Research Triangle was starting. And all of a sudden, I began to be interested in how a church relates to its community. I think what I came out of seminary basically thinking what a clergyman does mostly is find people who have difficulties of one kind or another and help them put their lives together, and families together, discover what they’re supposed to be doing, all the kind of stuff.
And I learned, sort of had a revelation once talking to a woman — I got to be a pretty good counselor and I understood that’s what I was supposed to be doing, and this woman was sharing problems with her marriage and I was trying to help her with it. I was doing a pretty good job.
And all of a sudden, I realized Chapel Hill had more good people, counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, all kind of people, who really knew how to help people solve their problems. And this town was turning out sick folks faster than we were getting them well. [Laughs] I said, “Oops, that individual therapy model isn’t adequate.” And that’s when I made the flip in my mind that what we need a congregation to be is a center of health, spiritual health, all kind of health.
And to try to infect the community with health, because the things that were going on the community were basically communicating illness and trouble, but we needed to form a community that was a healing community. Not just health, but personal being. And dealing with these people who were systems engineers, and people dealing with systems, I began thinking of congregations as a system.
Earlier, you mentioned Project Test Pattern. What was the felt need that led to Project Test Pattern?
Into the ‘60s, we were beginning to see the thing I was saying about how things have kind of topped out. Instead of hearing about all the great growth going on, some people weren’t able to get the money to do the new things in the church, it was just on the edge of things. A bunch of people in the Episcopal House of Bishops decided something’s wrong with parishes. And they did a study on evangelism and a guy went out and got all the data he could, came back and said we don’t need any program in this area, he said, we got people coming into the church all the time, they’re coming in, you can’t stop them. Said the problem is, after they’ve been there a couple of years, they leave.
And I got the realization that what we need in evangelism is somebody who closes the back door, that would help the congregation. We had no idea how to make people come to a congregation, but a lot of people started doing it. And somehow we were damaging them. They came in hoping for something and well in a couple of years they were gone. A lot of statistics were around. People didn’t pay attention to it, about people leaving, because none of the churches really then or now pays much attention. All we want to do is get those people coming in.
But this group of people in the Episcopal Church, a bunch of bishops said, we need to do something about evangelism. And they came to me because I’d ben messing around with churches and written a few things, asked if I would start a project to learn how to turn this loss of membership around, make congregations more effective. And they had an idea I knew wouldn’t work, which was basically to redo the Billy Graham thesis is just motivating a lot of people to come to church, and I knew that wasn’t the problem and I didn’t think that method of motivation was going to work in the current years.
So I took the job to do it but that’s when I wrote a thing called The Parish is the Issue to my board to try to interpret to them what I was going to do, which wasn’t what they wanted, and so I took the job, a three-year job, and started a project called Project Test Pattern. Basically what we did, the important thing was we invented the use of organization development consultants. I was learning about organization development in consultancy from people like Rolf Lynton and the people in the Research Triangle area. And it had been invented actually by people in churches to help organizations learn how to do their work better.
The first effort was called leadership development. We’ve got to get good leaders. That was the idea, that’s what you did to make them think better. But we were learning, it wasn’t the leader; it was somehow building a group that led and building a community that was a leadership community. That was the key issue.
But the other secret, nobody had ever gone into congregations much before to learn about them. They’d gone in to try to fix them but they didn’t know what to do. I made all those consultants write me what they did and what they saw. And so, for the first time, really, we had data about what goes on in congregations. How people make decisions in congregations, how they put themselves together to do things.
And as I said when I first saw what was happening, we were rolling across a river in a boat and all of a sudden we discovered there was a glass bottom in the boat, we could see stuff that were there and we could help train people about how to respond to things differently. So we learned about consultancy and began to use it.
And out of that we learned a lot. That’s where all our publications came from, but basically it was looking at what’s going on and what goes wrong and what goes right, looking at the data, this is the inductive side of it, instead of in seminary you’re told what ought to happen and you try to train people to do what ought to happen. We were looking at what the hell happens and trying to see how can that be done better, that was a key turning point and that’s what Project Test Pattern did. It wasn’t perfect but we found out a lot of things.
We decided we’d try to find out, maybe if we could figure out how to start a ministry better so that you could go six months or a year and building a healthy relationship between a new pastor and congregation we might really learn to do this better. And we learned something about that.
We started learning about interim pastors. In some churches there’s blood on the walls when one pastor leaves and you need to put somebody in there at least to clean up the walls before the next pastor comes in. But a skilled one can go in and really help unpack some of the time bombs that are around there. So the new pastor comes in and he has a lot easier chance getting going. So that’s what interim pastors were for. There is now a national network of those people.
I guess one of the things I wanted to do was get things in there and let them go rather than try to control them. So the interim pastor network we helped them get started; let them go. They’re doing it now. Don’t do it well everywhere, but somewhere it makes a big difference. Endowed parishes, we got them started and they’re going and it’s making a difference.
In the book, you tell the story of how the name Project Test Pattern came about. It was to communicate an impermanence?
So, at what point did you realize that the questions you were asking needed an institutional structure? At what point did you shift from this is a temporary thing to this is an organization?
I needed a salary. [Laughs] And I knew the issues weren’t denominational that we were learning. Indeed, I had a wonderful Presbyterian on my board, Robbie MacFarlane, who said we’ve got to use those things in the Presbyterian Church. And so, I started trying to let other people know about it. The studies we did about how you change pastors, a line behind us transforming ministry, I got a contract with the Baptists, because they were having trouble firing pastors and whatnot. And I went around and did workshops around the country. I got a contract with them to do this.
And I told you in the book about the money. I figured what we did; we’d get a big bunch of money and run an organization. Well, we didn’t get the money and I had to change the whole model of what we were doing from being an institution that somehow independently funded to do something good; we had to change it to an institution that sold you ways to help what you want to do. And that put us in the business of selling but also having to please customers. In other words, when we did something, we had to do it so that it felt good, that it worked for them, so they’d come back more.
That’s a dimension that’s left out of our denominational systems. Bishops send you somebody to help you with a problem? Well you got to do what he says, because that’s what the bishop said. I tried never to let a consultant go out there if a bishop hired them to come. I said, no, the people they serve have to have the right to fire them. And if it’s somebody from the bishop you can’t fire them. But they’ve got to buy in, they’ve got to have some skin in the game. And I learned that the hard way. I wanted somebody to give me a whole lot of money so I could do all of this, but because they didn’t, I had to learn another way of doing it. And I had to say I can’t come there if you don’t pay me.
That’s the reason the Episcopal network of endowed parishes works. These three ministers, I had the idea that we ought to get these churches together. They were a special kind of church, and they had something to learn from each other. These three people had new endowments out in Indianapolis; Eli Lilly died and left them money. And I said to them, you know, I think you’ve got a problem as well as an asset. We ought to get some people together from churches like this. And they said, yeah, that’s a good idea. I said, I’ll do it for you, but you’ve got to pay me. And that was the key thing.
I don’t know what I charged them, but I had to make money to eat on and so I think it ended up every time we had a three-day meeting it cost maybe $1,500, $2,000 for me. Well, they had to figure out where the hell the $2,000 was coming from. And they realized to have this thing go on would cost them something. They had to choose did we want to do this or not, and if we do this we’ve got to raise some money for it.
So by the time we’d met three or four times, it was generating energy and people were seeing it, but they had learned that if you want to change you’ve got to make some commitment to it. You can’t just have somebody in the bishop’s office say oh wouldn’t it be nice if you do this? Oh sure, it would. You pay my way and I’ll do it. It was no, you’ve got to want it enough to pay for it.
And that change is one of the critical problems that judicatories have. They can figure out the right answer but if the people aren’t willing to pay for it, they’re probably not willing to use it.
And I think that’s a serious problem for our denominational systems.
Do you think that there is a greater appreciation for the local church now versus when you started Alban in 1974?
No. I think it’s lost a lot of its zip. I used to say that when I came into the church — I was ordained in ’55, and that was high tide for the church. The tide had been coming in and we had people coming out the doors, we had money, we had ideas, we had remarkable leadership in all of the churches. And that topped out somewhere around 1965 for us in the mainline churches. I understand that, in the United Methodist Church, 1966 was the first year that they had a drop in membership, but somewhere along there things slowed up and sort of flattened out. I think it did not flatten out that fast in the evangelical world, but that’s what they are facing now. And then there has been a sharp decline, and with that decline has gone our place in the public world; we’re not as prominent.
When I was growing up, the Episcopal Church, by golly, bishops say something and it is front page of the newspaper. Now the bishops say something and there’s a big yawn. It just simply is not the thing people are thinking about now; doesn’t mean it’s not just as important.
What about within the church itself? You talked about denominational leaders not appreciating the local church. Do you think that’s changed?
No. I say that awful quickly. In my feeling, a lot of the people have gotten disconnected from the ordinary life of the church. A guy named Weeks in the Presbyterian Church talked about the two church theory of the Presbyterian Church. He says, there’s people who are in the local church and people who are in the institutional church. The local church are the people who go to the local church, sit in the pews. The people in the larger church are the people who read diocesan or Presbytery publications, who are interested in the fact that we have meetings of that sort, but most of the people, like maybe 90 percent of the people, that’s not a real world. But bishops, executives, theologians talk about that.
I’m working with somebody who’s making a speech to the Episcopal bishops who talked about what we really need to emphasize is the ministry of reconciliation. Well, that doesn’t speak to most people in a church. It is an exciting idea to theologians. It says something really important, but ordinary people when you say what we need to do is the ministry of reconciliation, they have no idea what you’re talking about. And we haven’t crossed that gap in understanding.
What do you think Christian institutional leaders should know or learn about the local church?
They should know some people there, they should spend some time and listen to them, not tell them what to do, but ask what they need to have done. The churches are very much telling you what to do. Clergy are that way about their people. Basically the organizational church is a deductive organization. It assumes a certain truth and reality and it tries to communicate that. Inductive organizations go out and try to find out what the data is and try to draw learnings from that. We approach people deductively. We’ve got the answer. We haven’t really heard the question very much.
Obviously anxiety about the mainline church continues today, hasn’t changed since 1974, or hasn’t been resolved since 1974, let’s put it that way. How do you feel? Do you feel with your perspective hopeful about the church?
I don’t think God’s going to forget the church at all, but I have an illustration that’s come to me in recent months. Have I told you about the Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay? Chesapeake Bay is just wonderful life, except for two, three months of the year. It’s a wonderful little place, people catch crabs and oysters and it’s a bucolic kind of wonderful. And people live there and love it. And what they don’t realize is that every time there’s a high tide about 20 square yards of Tangier Island washes out and goes out to sea and people move their stuff back and just go on living.
That’s my image of what’s happening in the church, that everything on the edge of the church is eroding and often falling away. We worry about it but we don’t know what to do about it. Every bishop, every district superintendent has a whole bunch of churches, maybe a third or even a half of their churches that are just barely surviving. And they’re not getting any better, and in two or three years they will be a little bit worse, but they go away quietly. Our seminaries are graduating lots of seminary students and we don’t have enough jobs for them, we don’t have enough income to give jobs for a lot of them. But from our seminary point of view, what’s going on is we’re not doing it well enough, we’re not looking at the larger picture. I think we all need to think about Tangier Island a little more.
I believe in the church and I’m going to work for the church till I die, and I believe there’s a chance that the tide may come back, but I don’t know what to do about it and I don’t know anybody who does. I know a lot of people who say they know what to do, and they’ll sell you what they know, but I don’t see much real turn around.
The real turn arounds in the church have been in places that are very different, some places in Africa, Asia. And I don’t think if we do what they do it’ll work for us. So I guess I’m not enthusiastic about the future of the church I see now. I’m very enthusiastic and excited about what God may have in his plan book which he hadn’t told me about yet about what the next stage of the church is going to be, but I plan to be there.
In your book you talk about an emerging age that we’re entering. In some ways you talked about that, but do you see exciting aspects of this emerging age?
I’m excited about all the things that are changing. I think it’s like being in the United States in 1880 or 90 when 75 percent of the people worked on farms and they were happy with it and wondered what was going to happen and the farms collapsed and we didn’t know what was going to happen. What came next was the age of automobiles and railroads and the whole society changed. I think we’re on one of those kind of moments of history.
I have a telephone that I do not know how to use; I’m too old to learn, maybe. But we have a generation of people coming along who have different ways of relating to reality than I do, and maybe they’re going to lead us to some new places.
I’m going Sunday to the baptism of my fourth great grandchild. She’s likely to know things I will never know. I have one grandchild who was born in 1998 and she’s probably going to live in three centuries and that’s — I’m very hopeful about what may happen, but I don’t have the answer.
Talk a little bit about your decision to retire.
I hit 60, 62, 63, somewhere along in there, and my hair was getting gray. I loved what I was doing, but I looked around and I saw almost everything that started by an initiator falls apart when the initiator leaves. And I said well maybe I can design it better so that when I leave it’s able to go on without me. One thing I needed to do was build a strong board. Board I had, they couldn’t fire me, but they needed to be a strong enough board, both to choose somebody that would lead them but also to fire them if they didn’t go in the right direction.
And so I worked hard at that for a while and we didn’t have any reserves so I tried to raise some extra money so they can — we never had money to make mistakes, and I figured anybody starting an organization needs to be able to make some mistakes. And so I raised about a third of a million, not a lot, because I found out people don’t want to give to something who’s losing its leader. I thought people would be so grateful for what I’d done, “oh man we’d put up a lot of money for that,” but it was very hard.
And the board had a hard time replacing me and they actually came to me and said, “would you stay on another year?” And I said no, which I hated to say, because I didn’t have anything else to do, but I knew they had to face that they had to have a new start.
And they looked hard, they got Jim Wind, and Jim was a magnificent choice.
So how did you hear the news in 2014 that the Institute was changing?
Well, I knew that Jim had retired, or was getting ready to. And so I went to Jim and I said, “Jim, is it time to quit?” And he and I had a long conversation, and I guess I gave permission because I just didn’t see any way he was going to get out of the [financial] bind he was in, but it burned me to my soul, cause as I read through the magazines and so on, it clearly was very different after I left. Particularly the shift to inductive to deductive had kind of happened, and the newsletter, which for me was Action Information, it’s information you can do something with, became a magazine with articles, and that was a change of orientation. But I think Jim did a remarkable job. Maybe you can’t do a thing that way in times when the budgets are hitting the wall. I think the times changed and the situation changed and it had to go down.
I need to say that my wife died in 2013 and this went down in 2014, so I had a bad time with all of that. Been married to her for 63 years, been married to the Alban Institute for 40, and both came to an end. So this has been a good therapy session, I hope, and I guess it probably needs to be in the body of knowledge about what happened here.
I would love to see Duke pick up and do something with some of this, but it’s not in the DNA of theological education the way we understand it now to follow the kind of path that the Alban Institute followed, but there sure as hell is a need for something like that.