In January, Alban staff members gathered in our conference room to slice cake and celebrate the thirty-fifth anniversary of the legal incorporation of the Alban Institute. Loren Mead, Alban’s founder, was there helping with the design of a workshop we will give this spring and representing an entire generation of colleagues who brought the Institute to life and committed it to passionate and creative service to American congregations.
As we marked the occasion with reminiscences, I remembered the many people—some of them real characters!—who left indelible marks on our organization. Some of their names—like Loren Mead, Roy Oswald, Speed Leas, and Celia Hahn—are well known to the people we serve. Others made less noticed but equally significant contributions to the Alban story. It would take a hall longer than any in our offices to post the photos of all those who led our consultations, designed our educational events, recruited the authors, did the research, edited the manuscripts, raised the money, paid the bills, wrote the advertising copy, answered the phone, scheduled the meetings, put in place the IT systems, and shaped the plans that undergird our work. Over the years hundreds of people have worked with us in various ways to advance our mission.
As the cake disappeared, we recounted some of the key developments in our life. We retrieved memories from our early years: our first office on the grounds of Washington National Cathedral, the first consulting contract, our first publication—a mimeographed (sic!) article. And the $5,000 check that came just hours before Loren Mead was going to close down the Institute due to lack of funds.
We also noted how we have changed. The founders who set us on the great adventure we call Alban have handed the work on to a new generation of researchers, editors, consultants, and administrators. We now sell thousands of books, both on our own website and through distributors like amazon.com. We have added webinars to our traditional menu of educational events. We have an award-winning magazine, Congregations, and an online publication called Alban Weekly. A new team of consultants moves around this country every day, working directly with an ever-widening range of congregational leaders. Generous funders like the Lilly Endowment have made it possible for us to create major new resources for congregations like the Indianapolis Center for Congregations and the online Congregational Resource Guide. Our research pipeline flows with projects on narrative leadership, the transition into ministry, the new learning needs of practicing clergy, and congregational health and vitality.
Finally, our conversation turned to the people we are privileged to serve —the pastors, priests, and rabbis, the vestry, board, and council members, the folks in the pews and out in the various ministries of congregations we serve. We cannot count all of the people we have worked with over the years. We do know that we have been in more church basements, congregational parlors, and synagogue board rooms than most folks. We have been invited into the real lives of tens of thousands of congregational leaders and thousands of congregations. In each case, we know that we stepped onto holy ground, places where pain was real, where birth and death were happening, where the Spirit of God was stirring. We met success and failure, breakthrough and breakdown. And we learned with and from the people we served.
Just as we cannot count all the people we have worked with—although we are putting in place better ways to track and learn from those we work with—we cannot calculate the difference we made. In some cases, we hear direct reports, mostly of accomplishments but also occasionally of failure. But most of the time we publish a book and never know how many people turned its pages or how its ideas set in motion courses of action in individual lives. We can count how many people come to our educational events, but we do not know how what happens in the sessions spills over into change and growth in individual lives and congregations. We work intensively with a congregation for a few months, but do not know how many people are fed in a community or inspired in weekly worship services because the congregation was able to find a fresh vision and keep going.
But this we can count: For thirty-five years the Alban Institute has been given the great gift of working with congregational leaders across this country and beyond it on the most important matters of human existence. Like so many around the world, we count on congregations to be agents of grace and transformation that shape and heal the world. Because of the people in these fascinating places called congregations, we can count on challenging, at times frustrating, and often stunningly life-giving work to do for a long time. Check in with us again in thirty-five years.
Rev. Dr. James P. Wind is president of the Alban Institute.