Too Sacred to Fail?

This week the Alban Institute announced that it was shutting its doors. CEO Jim Wind explained that the Alban Institute was hit by the very same recession as everyone else and during that time the market for their sort of work got more competitive. Between 2010 and 2012 the institute lost about half their reported assets. They were another casualty of the worst economic environment in two generations. To hear Jim Wind’s perspective, this is just the hand they were dealt. This is a sad loss for nonprofit leadership. For those less familiar with the Alban Institute, this is the group that first started applying best practices to congregational life in churches. This is the group that first began organizing resources on leadership for pastors. This is the organization that started an entire industry for nonprofit and church consulting. Cause of death: an unkind financial landscape and losing market share to its own progeny.

Personally, I am seeing a pattern emerge. The article raises some issues for Alban, but when I look at the big picture I see that the recession has revealed a much larger systemic issue for religious institutions and the academy. Many schools, churches and religious nonprofits approached the Great Recession as something to endure before getting back to “normal” business. In fact, this recession has revealed that the status quo itself has changed. Organizations have on one hand either emerged struggling to survive or they have a sharper understanding of who they are. This recession has acted like a blind move in poker.

Let me explain. A blind move is not referring to a moment when someone takes a chance without looking where they are going. A blind move in poker is meant to keep the game moving by forcing them to play the hand they have instead of betting only their best cards. In an instant the risk shoots through the roof and players have to think very critically after the blind to recoup losses. A blind is barely controlled chaos. The players are pushed out of their comfort zones to play before they “know” the hand they’ve been dealt. Players must understand exactly where they stand in the game. Players must remain clear on their strategy. Players must know what chips they hold and how to manage them best. 

 A blind is to poker what a recession is to an economy. It is a very real threat, but also an opportunity. Many organizations tried to weather the recession, hoping to come out on the other side ready to get back to business. Many of these have either failed or are limping along, gravely wounded by the experience. I wonder how many of these churches, or schools, or organizations discussed stewardship beyond fundraising. I notice that many struggling organizations and schools are having a tough time balancing risk-taking with prudent business practices. I’ve even heard some religious leaders say with pride that they have no business acumen; I suppose the idea is that business is dirty, and their ignorance keeps them pure. Business isn’t bad. Business practices help us manage the gifts God gives us so that they can be put to better use. Business practices can express Christian virtue every bit as much as our fellowship, worship, and mission-work; in fact, I would argue that sound business practices allow us to do the rest. The lesson I hope we can take away from all of this is that even in churches, religious organizations and the academic world: nothing is too big or sacred to fail. 

We may be tempted to see the demise of organizations and schools as the loss of important resources – and this is true, but I pray we can also recognize the canary in the mine. The landscape of ministry has shifted and any of us called to lead must have vision – the kind of clear vision to understand the gifts of our communities and how God is calling them into service.

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