By Carol Johnston, Ph.D.
In 1996 I was beginning a Lilly Endowment-funded project on faith and giving, and everyone said I should talk to Robert Wood Lynn, former V.P. for Religion of the Lilly Endowment, then long retired in Maine. So I flew out and spent a day with Bob.
He walked me through his research on faith and giving, and a 53-page bibliography he had on the topic. He told me that little of it was worth reading, and maybe six books were theologically helpful. I had noticed over the years that most of what was available to faith communities was mechanical; how to raise money, with little theological reflection on how faith and giving are related. It was also rare to see philanthropy paying serious attention to religion.
So I was excited when Bill Enright asked to meet with me to talk about the new Lake Institute on Faith and Giving. I warned him that he would have to negotiate the cultural differences not only between faith communities, but also between faith practitioners and academics.
Bill put together an advisory board to help him, and wisely included an academic from IU who knew the ins and outs of university politics, was well-respected there, and was also a person of faith. Of course he also brought in well-respected faith leaders from various arenas relevant to the mission of the new institute.
So in 2004, we began to work together to help Bill figure out this new endeavor. Right from the start, Bill was forthright with the board about the challenges and perplexities of the work, and he encouraged our questions and suggestions.
One of the things I learned was what a difference real authenticity makes. Because Bill was open about the issues facing him, we were able to be just as open in our conversation—and we had (and have) lively conversations! Some of our group who serve on many boards often remark on how unusual this is.
I learned a lot about how to serve on a board during these years. First and last, to listen well. This means that, instead of listening just to figure out what you want to say, instead listen to understand the issues being raised (and the ones underneath that are not clear yet). Then, ask questions, not only to help you understand better, but to help everyone get clearer about what is at stake.
Only after spending time on the understanding process is it time to venture one’s own opinion. It’s important to be diplomatic about it but as clear and honest as possible. Where there is disagreement, try to be as clear as you can about your reasons, because that helps everyone think it through better.
It often helps to refrain from saying what you think is the right outcome too soon, and instead try to help lay out the options and reasons for them first. In any case, don’t let disagreements become personal, and always work to keep the purpose of the meeting in mind.
Another crucial lesson was that new work, new approaches, and working with new communities takes time, patience, and a lot of relationship-building. It is important not to push this too fast, but to let relationships ripen into programs.
It was wonderful to watch how this took place, and Lake Institute has kept building out its work to reach more kinds of faith communities, connect with philanthropy, and overcome the academic-practice divide with pioneering approaches to interfacing them with each other.
That work, so well begun by Bill Enright, has been taken to a new level of effectiveness by David King and his team, and I could not be more pleased with the last 14 years.