Dave Odom: Remembering Loren Mead and his love for congregations

Photo courtesy of the Mead family

The founder of the Alban Institute, who died May 5, led a 40-year crusade to encourage the church to recognize the significance of congregations.

The first time I had lunch with the Rev. Loren Mead was in late 2013, just hours after I had left a presidential search interview with the Alban Institute board. He counseled me not to take the job.

Loren, who died May 5, founded the institute in 1974 and served as its CEO for 20 years.

He had retired in 1994 and stayed busy writing, speaking and consulting. He had been living in a retirement community and caring for his ailing wife up until early 2013, when she died. He had had little contact with the institute’s leadership since retirement.

I was stunned that he would advise me not to take up his work.

As Loren talked about the institute, it became clear that although he had had several partners in developing Alban -- including Speed Leas and Roy Oswald -- he himself had felt a heavy burden to sustain the organization during his 20-year tenure. Loren had concluded that Alban was not financially sustainable. He did not think anyone should take the job.

Before that lunch, I hadn’t known Loren personally, but he had articulated insights and developed resources that had guided me at every stage of my ministry. When I graduated from seminary, a friend counseled me that Alban was the best resource for a new pastor. I paid for a membership and started reading the newsletter, Action Information, from cover to cover. I bought Alban books and attended several Alban seminars.

I learned about how a congregation’s size influences how it behaves. I learned skills in managing conflict and leading planning processes. When Loren retired, there were 8,500 people like me who paid for memberships to receive practical guidance in how congregations work. Later, I led one of a handful of regional consulting and training organizations that provided Alban-style services. Our organization was not part of Alban, but we depended on Alban’s consultants and books for training and inspiration.

It is a bit difficult to imagine now, but Loren led a 40-year crusade to influence the church to recognize the significance of congregations. When he started Project Test Pattern, the research project for the Episcopal Church that preceded Alban’s founding, most religious leaders had an instrumental view of congregations. They believed that these local units exist to support the important work of denominations. Because of Loren’s widespread influence, many denominations have flipped the script and now see their work as supporting the vitality of congregations.

Congregations, too, now have a different view of themselves. They steer their own courses. They look to other congregations for resources and insight. Loren was one of a handful of people who helped congregations learn from their own work.

Loren pioneered the use of organizational consulting as a tool to understand and strengthen congregations. He knew that congregations are very complex social systems that deserve careful study. Alban Institute consultants put social science and business frameworks to use in helping congregations. Loren and his colleagues reflected theologically and practically on the insights gleaned from theories like polarity management and models of strategic planning. Loren cooperated with scholars in establishing the field of congregational studies to increase the number of theologically sound tools that congregations could use.

Loren was also concerned about the larger systems in which congregations often live. When I arrived at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, which focuses on strengthening Christian institutions, a handwritten letter from him was waiting on my desk. He wrote that such work is just as vital as directly serving congregations. In more recent years, he continued to believe that congregations are the key organization in the church, but that other organizations and resources are needed as well.

Recently, I have realized that Loren did not champion congregations as an end unto themselves. He had seen the devastating impact, for example, of white supremacy in the congregations of his youth. He was concerned that all people flourish. He believed that healthy families and congregations are vital to human flourishing.

In 2014, the Alban Institute closed and gave Duke University its legacy. Over the years, Loren visited with my colleagues and me to advise us on Alban’s next stage and challenge us to dive deeper to understand congregations.

Six weeks before he died, I visited him for the final time. He was frustrated that the church has so much important work to do in this moment and yet is distracted by focusing on organizational survival. He saw the increasing challenges congregations face and worried that he was leaving too much undone.

Loren is not alone with such worries. Many Christian leaders, including me, see the significance of Christian witness for this time. But the intensity of his emotion was striking; he continued to love congregations and push them -- and all of us -- to be more of what God intends. I am grateful for his witness and advice.