(RNS) As mainline Protestant denominations continue decades of decline, one of the main institutions helping educate its leaders announced Wednesday (March 19) that it will shut its doors.

 Alban Consultant Ed White, left, and David Pratt, a former Alban Director of Marketing, work during a meeting. Photo courtesy of West End Strategy Team

Alban consultant Ed White, left, and David Pratt, a former Alban director of marketing, work during a meeting. Photo courtesy of West End Strategy Team


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Since it was founded four decades ago, the Virginia-based Alban Institute has guided mostly mainline congregations through consulting and publishing. Its founder and former president, the Rev. Loren Mead, became well-known for his speaking and writing about the future of U.S. denominations and was one of the first to predict denominational decline.

“When I started as a parish pastor, I found there wasn’t much help or continuing education,” said Mead, a retired Episcopal priest. “I am glad I have been able to contribute to the church, but I have not been able to solve its turnaround.”

Many mainline churches looked to Alban to provide literature and consultants for maintaining their institutional life, on everything from finding a new pastor to strategies for growth and financial health.

But as more publishers and consultants got into the business that Alban paved the way for, the institution found it difficult to continue its niche. Like other nonprofits during the recent recession, it also lost revenue.

“The Alban Institute went through the great recession just like everyone else,” said Jim Wind, who retired as president of Alban earlier this year. “The market got tougher to thrive in.”

Total assets from the institute fell from $5.1 million in 2010 to $3.2 million in 2012, according to its most recent financial disclosure forms. Alban is in talks with Duke Divinity School to assume the remaining assets of an estimated $300,000 to $500,000, with the possible creation of an “Alban Endowment Fund.” Duke will also acquire Alban’s intellectual property and mailing lists.

A letter from the chairman of Alban’s board, Case Hoogendoorn, said the changes will allow Alban’s mission to continue, “albeit in a different form.”

Wind earned more than $300,000 in 2011, according to Alban’s financial filings with the Internal Revenue Service. The same year, Alban’s director of institutional advancement received a salary of $155,214, and its chief financial officer received a salary of $152,540.

Some critics have questioned Wind’s hefty compensation package. Hoogendoorn said Wind’s salary was appropriate because he was also involved in overseeing the separate Indianapolis Center for Congregations, which spun off as an independent organization in 2003, with a combined budget of about $10 million.

In 2002, the Alban Institute had 40 employees before it downsized to 12 employees in 2013. Six employees remained when the organization shut down. Hoogendoorn said the board then cut Wind’s salary by 10 percent after the employee layoffs. He said the board compared Wind’s salary to seminary leaders in the Washington area.

Alban’s total expenses in 2012 were $2.8 million. The nonprofit reporting company GuideStar recommends that the CEO of an organization with a budget between $1 million and $5 million make an average of $154,572 in salary, about half of what Wind was making.

In 2011, Wind received a $100,000 loan from the Alban Institute “to alleviate housing cost differ. between DC and president’s former city,” tax documents state. The nonprofit watchdog group Charity Navigator states that while loans to charities are permitted, it can create conflict of interest issues and can be “an indicator that the organization is not financially secure.”

Alban’s publishing program has been acquired by the Rowman & Littlefield publishing house, which will continue to publish books with the Alban imprint. The books will continue to focus on church governance, leadership and development with editorial oversight from Duke.

The purchase includes about 270 active titles from authors such as Diana Butler Bass, Peter L. Steinke and Roy M. Oswald. The publisher’s CEO told Publishers Weekly it will produce 25 to 30 books a year alongside its other religious imprints.

Alban was a significant resource for some clergy who sought more resources than what seminaries were providing several decades ago.

“The Alban Institute is a huge symbol of continuing education and refreshment for me,” said the Rev. Ed Bacon, the rector of the 4,000-member All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Calif. “It was bringing in the very best practices of organizational development and applying them to church organizations.”

Alban was sustained largely by money from the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment, as well as its consulting and education services. But ultimately, it wasn’t a sustainable model, said Kirk Hadaway, research director for the Episcopal Church.

“They weren’t driven by profit in the same way that other parachurch organizations could tend to be,” Hadaway said. “The lack of profit motivation may have been a problem in their long-term survival.”

As the finances of mainline Protestant congregations have been deteriorating, it’s no surprise that an organization such as Alban would close, said David Roozen, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, who studies organizational change.

“I wasn’t aware that they were this close to closing, but on another level, it doesn’t surprise me that they’ve been feeling some real stress,” Roozen said. “The electronic world isn’t the natural gift of religious systems yet.”

The institute was effective during a particular time, but the culture shifted as people identified less with denominations, said Doug Pagitt, a church consultant and executive director of the CANA Collective Action Network of America Initiative.

“The stylistic brand of a denomination is not as attractive to an uncommitted population unless you grew up in it,” Pagitt said. “The denomination now functions as a heritage rather than a calling forward. It’s a contextual role rather than a defining role.”

The Center for Congregations in Indianapolis, which was launched under the Alban Institute name, will continue as an independent venture. Some of Alban’s consultants will continue independently, while eight others work together under the “Congregational Consulting” umbrella.

KRE/MG END BAILEY

 

20 Comments

  1. How sad! Alban was a voice of sweet reason in a wilderness of religious rancor. Despite ideological differences, people are the same, and ministers require objective guidance. I believe this is another example of “Killed by the Web, with the Best Intentions.” They will be missed.

  2. I, for one, am very sorry to see the Alban Institute close, but I am thankful that their resources will continue to be available through other avenues. I do think that this is also a bellwether for churches struggling to make it into the 21st century – not just mainline. The landscape is shifting faster than it was when Bob Dylan sang, “The times, they are a changn’” (as one who came of age in the 60s that seems almost impossible to imagine). I note with some sadness the observation in the article that being non-profit might have been part of their problem. Perhaps so, but I grieve deeply how much that goes under the name of ministry is more of a profit center. Yet, I am an optimist about the Church, believing God has and will sustain and reinvent as God has been doing for two millennia.

  3. When I began in ministry 20 years ago they had the best education and books available. About 10 years ago everything changed and went down hill. The last 2 courses didn’t have the foundation and completely lost the Judeo-Christian base. Part of this was driven by turn over in consultants after James Wind became CEO. I found I wasn’t interested in biometric stress reduction. I was seeking hands on skills I could use in leading congregations in the changing landscape.

  4. Richard Goodman

    Who built this little Alban house
    And shut the windows down so close
    My spirit cannot see?
    Who’ll let me out some gala day,
    With implements to fly away,
    Passing pomposity?
    — Emily Dickinson, ‘Bring me the sunset in a cup’, 1896

  5. Martin Ericson

    Great resource for my whole professional career. Great stable of gifted writers, thinkers and consultants. A true loss. Blessings and best wishes for Duke, Rowman&Littlefield and others as they pick up the pieces.

  6. Over $600,000 in salaries for 3 employees? No wonder it went broke, which is a real loss. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who only is tasked with the defense of the United States, didn’t make anything near the salary of the head of Alban.

  7. walter hudson

    How sad and yet entirely appropriate for Alban to go down like this
    —The outrageous salaries mimic their corporate masters in overpaying the top while starving the grassroots teachers & organizers who might actually be able to help local congregations.
    —they are going down like their “chief client” because they have adopted the business world as their leadership model, dumping the “pastor of souls” approach for an org chart spirituality.
    most of all Alban is dying because it has tied itself to the American culture and not to the radical discipleship of that guy from Nazareth.

    • Amen, Walter. I have a long comment coming, here, which echoes some of what you’ve written, but is much harder on not just Alban, but the oldster-operated (and I’m an oldster, so I get to criticize) mainline denominations, and how they’ve neither gotten it, nor kept-up with the shift from an industrialized America to a knowledge worker one; and so the predictable is happening. I also hit hard on Alban’s obvious mismanagement.

      It’s awaiting moderation, apparently because I put three or four links in it. Hopefully it’ll appear here soon.

      __________________________________
      Gregg L. DesElms
      Napa, California USA
      gregg at greggdeselms dot com

      Veritas nihil veretur nisi abscondi.
      Veritas nimium altercando amittitur.

  8. James Ellison

    Early in my career as a pastor in DC, Alban was a resource that helped me survive. It offered a great yearlong course for beginning pastors. At my 7-year mark, I was renewed by a continuing education offering about long-term pastorates. Roy Oswald was a wise, kind, firmly gentle mentor and guide, a great resource for Alban. A few years ago, I was in some meetings with Mr. Wind and could not believe how much Alban had changed from my early experience. I am not surprised that Alban lost its soul.

  9. I am sorry to see Alban closing, it has been a helpful center for resources that I have used both as a pastor and a faculty member. It is unfortunate that the wisdom of a Loren Mead who could see ahead of the curve for the church in North America in the end failed to inform recent institutional decisions and priorities at Alban.

    The top administrator salaries are embarrassing. I believe that church and para-church institutions should pay a living wage, but we have lost memory of our origins when we benchmark with executive salaries in business – while we seek to serve congregations whose members too often struggle to provide shelter and food for their families.

    Christendom has passed and church-related institutions have to stop acting as though it continues.

  1. […]  Hoogendoorn’s letter suggests a couple of reasons for the board’s decision to end Alban’s current program. The letter says that in many ways Alban has accomplished its mission of “highlighting the critical importance of congregations in the ever changing religious landscape and modeling means by which the needs of congregations can be addressed.” He cites the changing shape of publishing, a hanging religious scene, economic stress and increased competition in local church consulting. A Religion News Service article by Sarah Pulliam Bailey points to Alban’s slowness to shift to web-based learning and publication and notes that Alban was investing over $600,000 per year in compensation for three of its executive staff. (http://www.religionnews.com/2014/03/19/alban-institute-resource-mainline-institutions-shut-doors/?re…) […]

  2. […] are at or nearing the end of an era.  More specifically, he mentioned two recent news stories: (1) Alban Institute’s decision to shut its doors and (2) the Unitarian Universalist Association’s decision to sell its historic […]

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