The Ven. Dr Malcolm Grundy writes:
THE death of the Revd Loren Benjamin Mead on 5 May, aged 88, from cancer, will remind many of the immense contribution that the Alban Institute made to their understanding of ministry among congregations.
Remortgaging his house to turn his dream into a reality, Mead created one of the most formative and influential independent church organisations of the 1970s and ’80s. Based in Washington, DC, it examined the nature of congregations from all denominations and related their work to the needs of their community and to the missionary task defined by their denomination.
Mead traced his deepened understanding of the life of the congregation to a sabbatical year, which he spent in a parish in outer London in 1963, away from his congregation in South Carolina. It was the year that President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and he spoke warmly of the support given to him at that time.
Mead said that he saw the churches in Europe surrounded by the ruins of their past, and the churches in the US searching for new identities as their founding energies diminished. While in Europe, he became aware of, and then involved in, the World Council of Churches’ study of the missionary structure of the congregation. After his return to the US, he became director of Project Test Pattern, a three-year programme of the Episcopal Church aimed at finding ways of revitalising congregations. From there, in 1974, with colleagues he set up the Alban Institute.
Mead once described how, when as a minister, he developed an intricate programme for Lent and Holy Week, only to be told by his people that work commitments prevented their participation. He responded by asking them to invite him to their workplace for lunchtime or after-hours discussion.
This experience led him to explore in depth through the years the dynamics of relationships within congregations, worrying continually that they could all too easily retreat into a sub-culture of self-congratulation. In his first and most formative book, The Once and Future Church (Alban, 1991), he saw what he called the end of a hierarchical, dominating Christendom model of the Church and the emergence, from within declining congregations, of a new missionary task.
The old mission task in the days of empire, he said, had been to plant the faith overseas and, in the United States, to subdue native peoples. The new mission task began at the door of the local church and required a different understanding of the structures of society and a stronger sense of the need for congregation members to serve local communities.
In a telling phrase, Mead said that as a consultant he worked with congregations in two ways at the same time: he encouraged them to understand and articulate how they could be, and he then wanted them to search for the type of congregation that God wanted them to be. The consequence of this for a mission-focused church was that the congregation could become an exemplar for their local community of how difference could be tolerated and dialogue and deep listening could transform individuals and communities.
Mead recruited a talented staff who published research in the journal Action Information. Influential editions described life cycles within congregations, by Martin F. Saarinen; the dynamics of small, medium, and large congregations — called family, pastoral, program, and corporate — by Roy M. Oswald; and, among many other topics, staff relationships within congregations, by Celia Allison Hahn.
Influenced considerably by the theology of Jürgen Moltmann, Mead and Alban developed the fundamental idea that it was lay people in their work and then in their congregations who were the theologians and that their learning needed to be transmitted upwards to seminaries and church leaders. This was a turning upside-down of the model in which theology was developed in universities and seminaries and then passed down to the parishes.
Mead saw the position of the denomination and of church leaders in a completely different way. In his Christendom model, he said that leadership had become characterised by dominance and control, and that he was hearing bishops described as “bullies”. In Mead’s new model, money would flow from the denomination to the local congregation. This would resource the places where the need was most felt and affirm those congregations in which creative and innovative work was being carried out.
The world of the Church and beyond has lost one of its most lovable prophets. Mead’s aphorisms live on in the experience of many frustrated by what often seem like overwhelming parochial responsibilities. He spoke of the cleric who walked down to the railway crossing every morning to see “the only thing which was moving at any pace in this town”.
Mead spent his last months surrounded by family and friends in Goodwin House, a CaringBridge nursing home. It has an interactive website for each resident so that, in Loren’s case, friends from around the world would send messages and his family could reply on his behalf. One of the last messages to be posted said: “A weary, battered soldier is grinding out the last few miles of the long march home.”