“At this church, unlike any church you may know, we really love each other.” Each time that I have asked congregational leaders to introduce their church, someone always makes this statement. No matter the very difficult situation facing the congregation, these leaders experienced nurture in this body of believers that was so profound that they could not imagine it possible to have this experience elsewhere, especially given what they heard about the problems other churches were experiencing.
This belief also illustrates a paradox: we deeply appreciate the institutions that formed us in the faith—including divinity schools, campus ministries, and youth camps; yet we also distrust institutions in general, even those of the same type that nurtured us. Some of that distrust is because of how institutions and their leaders have failed us in the past, but some of that distrust is also because we have not paid sufficient attention to the importance of institutions for our lives and for the fabric of life together.
The importance of vibrant institutions is even more critical given the rapid changes occurring in the United States and around the world. Times of rapid change provide enormous opportunities for new possibilities, but they also provide substantial threats and potential for crises, fragmentation, and polarization. In the midst of such change, we yearn for life-giving institutions that support and encourage faithful community. We also yearn for entrepreneurial people of character who will find solutions to some of our most pressing challenges; help us overcome the increasing polarization in families, communities, and broader organizations and cultures; and develop catalytic strategies to renew and found critically important institutions.
In 2008 Duke Divinity School committed to a new initiative to address the importance of vibrant Christian institutions and the leaders who serve them: Leadership Education at Duke Divinity (LEADD). It built on the work of both Lilly Endowment Inc. and The Duke Endowment, including the Pulpit & Pew project, Sustaining Pastoral Excellence, and support for rural churches. Over the past five years, Leadership Education at Duke Divinity has convened hundreds of Christian institutional leaders to identify and nurture the practices that create, support, and sustain their institutions. In partnership with these leaders, we have identified and trained younger leaders in critical practices and developed theological reflection on the significance of Christian institutions as bearers of tradition, laboratories for learning, and incubators of leadership. We have told countless stories in our online journal, Faith & Leadership, about vibrant institutions and how they contribute to thriving communities that are signs, foretastes, and instruments of the reign of God. Our work has sought to address the rapid changes occurring in the United States and the world, and to cultivate a deeper sense of trust in the life-giving potential of faithful and effective institutions.
Yet we have a long way to go. As former dean L. Gregory Jones was planning the launch of this effort, he talked with a Duke colleague and friend who studies social entrepreneurship. This professor wondered why, over the course of the last couple of centuries in America, the best socially entrepreneurial organizations had consistently been faith-based, especially if they developed significant scale and scope. The scholar had in mind organizations such as Goodwill, Salvation Army, and Habitat for Humanity. He was thinking of faith-based hospitals, schools, and, more recently, hospice organizations. Only in the last 25 years, he noted, had social entrepreneurship become relatively secular. What has happened in the church?
In focusing on connecting with leaders who are cultivating thriving communities, we have discovered countless innovative congregations and ministries that feed the hungry, provide medical care, and build or repair housing. But serving large numbers of people and sustaining the work across generations requires institutions. Christianity Today’s Andy Crouch, who studies current trends in Christianity, told us that he admires mainline Christians for their ability to sustain ministries across generations. Many of these institutions are now much weaker than they were. Significant effort is required to design their ministries to be sustainable in the current economy and to encourage the experimentation that leads to founding new institutions.
Word Made Flesh exemplifies such a vibrant Christian institution. Its executive director, Chris Heuertz, began working at this international ministry with the poor by establishing the first pediatric AIDS home for the south of India, in Chennai. In 1996 he was called to the ministry’s headquarters in Omaha, Neb., when the founder resigned. Heuertz intently studied healthy organizations and became an expert in effective boards of directors, a gift that he shares with the Divinity School’s Center for Reconciliation as an advisory board member. Heurertz led Word Made Flesh from near financial insolvency to revenues of nearly $2 million, with affiliated ministries in 11 countries on five continents.
All of this has been done with small donations. Word Made Flesh is grounded by the seven points of its mission statement, which begins with Jesus and the kingdom of God and includes a commitment to the most vulnerable of the world’s poor. In both good and bad economic times, donors have responded to support the commitment and work of Word Made Flesh.
Heuertz and many others we have met are both doing good work and serving as signs of hope for those who are discouraged by the challenges. Our mission has two facets. We want to cultivate leaders like Heuertz by providing the resources that they need to create, renew, and sustain vibrant Christian institutions. And we want to cultivate the Christian institutions needed in order to cultivate thriving communities that are signs of God’s reign.