Demise of the Alban Institute: Jewish Communal Implications

by Linda Rich

Many and varied are the responses to dramatically shifting patterns of religious affiliation in America. Congregations, denominations and related organizations are refocusing missions, revamping fee structures, overhauling programming, sharing resources and more. Recognizing that they were designed for a previous era, some are taking the bold step of pulling the plug, shutting down completely and redeployed their remaining resources to better serve the needs of today’s faith communities. Last week the Alban Institute did just that, abruptly announcing that it will cease operations at the end of this month.

Founded in 1974 as a resource for Protestant congregations, over the years Alban dedicated itself to helping churches, synagogues, denominational bodies and their leaders operate effectively while facing the challenges of a changing society. Through its research, publishing, consulting and educational offerings, Alban developed significant expertise around issues of board governance, clergy transition, leadership cultivation, conflict resolution and more. It contributed significantly to our understanding of how faith communities and their leaders function, and ignited important conversations about congregations and their missions.

While focusing on mainline churches, Alban gave much to the Jewish world not only through the translation and application of its primary work, but also with direct consultations to synagogues, rabbis, lay leaders and denominations. Local federation efforts such as SYNERGY in New York chose Alban consultants, including Dan Hotchkiss, Alice Mann and me, to address issue of strategic planning, leadership/board development, mergers/alliances, and more, with programs for synagogues across the spectrum.

Alban leaves a lasting legacy. In the Jewish community, Alban’s work lives on in the numerous rabbis, lay leaders and congregations touched by its efforts. Its strong tradition continues to inform the work of its former consultants as we move on individually and collectively. This is seen perhaps most notably seen in USCJ’s Sulam leadership training initiative through the work of former Alban consultant Bob Leventhal.

In addition to supporting congregations, Alban described itself as committed to “developing congregational leaders who have the creativity, endurance, and joy to do the work needed to fulfill their congregations’ aspirations.” Whether in synagogues or in other emerging organizational forms, the need for strong Jewish communal leadership remains critical, and we must maintain our commitment to its cultivation.

The other day I clipped a piece that had appeared in Sh’ma Magazine back in 1986 (thank you Berman Jewish Policy Archive!) and forwarded it to a client. The young rabbi responded immediately since it spoke so powerfully to his situation today. And so it will be with Alban. The articles, papers and research will continue to speak to the world of congregations and communities, the imprint will go on, and the work will be quietly mined for its contribution to an unfolding future.

With its shocking suddenness, Alban’s demise leaves many reeling. And while the move at first may seem hard to comprehend, it should also be recognized as both bold and instructive. Alban understood its inability to reverse its situation and chose to pull the plug rather than descend into a slow and torturous decline. The book imprint was sold and the decision was made not to fritter away its remaining assets so that they could be acquired by the Duke Divinity School which will provide ongoing access to previous research and writing.

I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to work with my Alban consulting colleagues, and rededicate myself to the work of building vital Jewish communities. While scrambling to manage my own transition, I applaud the gutsiness of Alban’s move, and consider it instructive.

Linda Rich and other former Alban consultants can be reached at: www.congregationalconsulting.org.