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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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Courageous Estate Planning

After forty years the Alban Institute is closing its doors. Although Alban’s financial challenges in recent years have not been a secret, and more recent rumors of its demise have been circulating for several months, the news still comes as a jolt. It was not that long ago that Alban seemed to be a dominant force in efforts to assess, renew and revitalize mainline Protestantism. Its work with congregations, judicatories, and national denominational offices was well known, extensive, and highly respected. Its books were in demand and its newsletter eagerly read. What happened?

Radical shifts in the publishing industry have made book publishing less and less viable. Senior consultants who had helped develop the respected Alban brand have been retiring while other organizations have entered an increasingly crowded and competitive church consulting market. Training events struggle to attract participants amid rising costs. And the denominations that have been Alban’s primary consumers have been in decades’ long decline, making the business model less and less sustainable.

While Alban has been criticized in recent years for relatively lavish salaries for its senior executives, the announcement of its closing suggests that, for the most part, Alban avoided the death grip on survival that afflicts so many challenged religious organizations. Instead, Alban’s leadership focused on mission and legacy. How can we provide a meaningful legacy that both accepts the changed landscape making our own institutional continuation unlikely, while stewarding the mission and assets in ways that preserve their value and make them available through new institutional vessels? And how can we do that in a timely way in order to avoid needless erosion of important assets, including endowments?

Alban has signed an agreement with another publisher which will carry its active list and publish new books under an Alban imprint. Alban’s consultants will continue their work either independently or in other church consulting organizations. Alban’s remaining financial assets will be handed over to Duke Divinity School where they will be used to further the congregational and organizational research and learning that has long been associated with Alban.

Certainly there is grief for those closely associated with Alban over the years. Undoubtedly there were missteps, signals overlooked, and bad judgments that contributed to decline. Perhaps Alban could have acted sooner, preserving more of the financial assets to hand on to others. No organization will do this perfectly. But from the reports being written, Alban does deserve credit for attempting to model how an institution can be allowed to die in ways that enable a legacy to endure. In an organizational environment where too many religious institutions squander all their assets in order to squeeze out two or three more years of survival, it is refreshing to see a board of directors put “estate planning” at the center of their strategic planning.

The American religious landscape is dotted with far too many institutions that have little capacity to meaningfully carry out their mission any longer. And yet these congregations, judicatories, seminaries, institutes, ecumenical bodies, and resourcing organizations cling to life at all costs, spending down endowments, devoting an ever higher percentage of their budgets to infrastructure while less and less supports their mission. Each of these institutions is precious to someone; most have contributed significantly to a vibrant witness in the world. But too often we keep the doors open “so my funeral can be held here,” or “so I can make it the few years to retirement,” or because we’ve allowed ourselves to believe “no one else can do what we do,” or because we feel we have some sort of duty to predecessors to preserve the organization we inherited, or in the vain hope that a “miracle” or a leader/savior will be found around the next corner.

Endings are never easy. But they need not simply be death dealing. When planned well, and accomplished at the right time, they can be life giving. But it takes wise and courageous leaders, and that, it seems, is often in short supply.

John H. Thomas
March 27, 2014

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