Where’s Alban?

by Dan Hotchkiss

The work of the Alban Institute continues—you just need to know where to look for it. Like the rich man’s fortune in the Parable of the Talents, the Alban legacy has been divided into three parts, each carried forward by a different group:

I know all this can be a bit confusing! For 40 years, so many questions had one simple answer: “call the Alban Institute.” For most of that time, the Alban Weekly (under that or prior names) was the best way to learn what Alban authors, researchers and consultants had on their minds. Now there are two e-newsletters: Alban Weekly from Duke and Perspectives from the consultants—each with its own subscription list. Perspectives offers practical, hands-on wisdom that comes from work with clients on their own turf. I subscribe to both, and hope you will, too.

It used to be that if you wanted to read a book by an Alban consultant, you would find it on the Alban website. You still easily find books by the consultants—ten in all—at Rowman & Littlefield, Amazon, and other places books are sold. As authors, we’ve found Rowman to be an energetic and collaborative partner, and I personally look forward to reading many Alban books to come.

As a long-time Alban consultant, I am most excited that my colleagues have stuck together as a group and continue to make our services available to churches, synagogues, and their leaders. For me, the “Consultants’ Table” has always been one of the best things about working at Alban. I remember how privileged I felt when I first sat with Speed Leas, Roy Oswald, Alice Mann, Gil Rendle, Terry Foland and so many others. My colleagues’ wisdom makes me a better counselor, and benefits my clients, too.

For the consultants, the time since the board’s decision to dissolve the Alban Institute has been a little like a change of pastors. In addition to the classic signs of grief and transition, we’ve had to ask ourselves what, actually, the Alban tradition in consulting is. Like congregants on the first Sunday after the old clergy leader leaves, we’ve had to look at one another and ask, “Who are we now?”

On a practical level, we are consultants who help congregations with strategic and financial planning, board governance, staff team design and supervision, size transitions, and conflict transformation. We also offer coaching for individual leaders, Each of us works independently. If you need a consultation, you can contact any of us by way of our shared website. One of us will help you think about what kind of consultation might be helpful—and from whom.

The process of discovering and rediscovering identity is never finished, but I’d like to share with you some of our tentative conclusions—aspirations, actually—about what the Alban tradition in consulting means to us.

We believe in congregations. Alban’s mission was to “build up congregations and their leaders to be agents of grace and transformation…” We affirm this goal and the expectation it implies: that every congregation, by fulfilling its unique mission, can make its community a better place. It is not always easy to discern that mission, still less to find the resources—divine and human—to fulfill it. But congregations, almost alone among the institutions in our culture, gather people of all ages for a dual purpose: to heal and comfort them and then to challenge and recruit them into lives of service.

We believe in your congregation. We work across a wide spectrum of religious groups in North America and beyond. We know that before we can help your congregation to improve, we need to understand and appreciate your culture, your faith, and the trajectory of your common life. The next chapter of your history has to be the next chapter of your history. To help you to accomplish this, we offer a variety of methods, options, and perspectives. The critical ingredient is one that only you can bring: your congregation’s calling and identity. And so we offer, in addition to our skills and toolkit, a fundamental trust that every congregation has a calling and can find it.

People often express surprise that we can work with such a wide variety of synagogues and churches—and it can be challenging. But more often, our work stretches our own sympathies and deepens our own faith in unexpected ways.

We don’t go for simple answers. Too many consultants come into every situation with a hammer and find only nails. This can be useful, and we too sometimes offer proven answers to frequently encountered problems. But when congregations aim to do something difficult, like breaking out of a long-standing patterns or rising to new levels of accomplishment, we’re skeptical of easy answers. Instead, we gather a wide range of data, ask a lot of questions, and work to get the “whole system” into conversation. We have found that while this process can seem slow, it often makes for unexpectedly deep change.

We offer knowledge and insight from outside your congregation. Alban pioneered in using insights from secular organizational scholarship to congregations. We have also always helped each congregation to benefit from the experience of others—especially those outside of their particular faith tradition. When we gather for “community of practice,” we consultants challenge one another’s pat assumptions and pool our joint sense of what is possible. The result places an uncommonly broad base of knowledge, optimism, and creative thinking at the disposal of each client.

These are our values and our way of working. If your congregation has arrived at a point where it could use some outside help—to plan next steps, to assess your processes and structures, to address a conflict or calamity, or to clarify and energize your distinctive sense of calling—we hope you will reach out to us and see if we can be of service.

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