Albert Reyes worked in a Sprint call center, then moved up the ladder at the telecommunications company. Since then, as president of Baptist University of the Américas and now at Buckner International, he’s applied what he learned. Leadership, management, budgeting -- none of these were taught in seminary, but all have come in handy in ministry, he tells co-host Bill Lamar. He talks about following the mission of Buckner’s founder, learning to lead, and why he doesn’t have a leadership style of his own. He also reflects on his own spiritual practices -- even for those weeks when he’s not in church.
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More from Albert Reyes
“The Jesus Agenda: Becoming an Agent of Redemption”
Faith & Leadership: “Living into a new vision,” by Lynn Gosnell, on Baptist University of the Américas and Reyes’ role in its transformation
Recommended management books:
“The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter,” by Michael Watkins
“Summoned to Lead,” by Leonard Sweet
“The Way of the Shepherd: Seven Ancient Secrets to Managing Productive People,” by Kevin Leman and William Pentak
“The Advantage,” by Patrick Lencioni
“Helping People Win at Work: A Business Philosophy Called ‘Don’t Mark My Paper, Help Me Get an A,’” by Ken Blanchard and Garry Ridge
“Leading Cross-Culturally: Covenant Relationships for Effective Christian Leadership,” by Sherwood G. Lingenfelter
Bill Lamar: From Faith & Leadership, this is “Can These Bones,” a podcast that asks a fresh set of questions about leadership and the future of the church. I’m Bill Lamar.
Laura Everett: And I’m Laura Everett. This is episode 3 of a series of conversations with leaders from the church and other fields. Through this podcast, we want to share our hope in the resurrection and perhaps breathe life into leaders struggling in the “valley of dry bones.”
Bill, our guest today is Albert Reyes, president and CEO of Buckner International, a global Christian ministry serving children and senior adults. He came to this position through a circuitous route. You spoke with him -- talk a little about Albert’s background.
Bill Lamar: Albert Reyes was born and raised in Corpus Christi, Texas. He said he felt a call to ministry while he was very young -- in high school. His parents had not gone to college, so his first thought was that he would be able to go to seminary straight out of high school. When his pastor told him that he would need a college degree first, he decided not to study ministry but to study business.
That led to a career at Sprint, where he led call centers. And later he ascended to the presidency of the Baptist University of the Américas in San Antonio, where he led a turnaround of that school. And now, of course, Albert Reyes is the CEO of Buckner International in Dallas, Texas.
Laura Everett: Let’s hear more of his story and Albert Reyes’ work at Buckner.
Bill Lamar: You’re listening to “Can These Bones.” This is Bill Lamar, and joining me is Dr. Albert Reyes, who leads Buckner, an amazing ministry that does great work in the world, and we’ll say more about it. Dr. Reyes, welcome to “Can These Bones.”
Albert Reyes: Thank you.
Bill Lamar: Buckner is known, Dr. Reyes, as a powerhouse of global ministry. Can you share with us what it is you share with others when you are seeking to acquaint them very specifically with the work of Buckner?
Albert Reyes: Well, you know, it’s a very complex organization, but to kind of break it down, it really is born out of a scripture that our founder, Robert Cooke Buckner, focused on right after the Civil War.
It’s James 1:27 -- that pure religion that the Father accepts is to serve orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself undefiled from the world. In that verse are the two objects of our mission: orphans and seniors, or widows. And so we talk in terms of vulnerable children and their families, as well as senior adults.
We have a senior adult division that’s primarily -- actually, only -- in Texas, five different cities, and then the children-and-families part of our work is throughout Texas, but also in six countries outside the U.S., primarily in the Western Hemisphere, south of the border. So we would talk about Peru, Honduras, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Mexico and then across the ocean in Kenya.
There are 150 million orphans around the world. And we just -- the need is so great to respond to children that don’t have a family that we do the best we can in the places where we serve through donor support to provide services for children and families that really, really struggle to survive, actually.
Bill Lamar: Tell me what you learned working at a call center for Sprint. What did you learn there that you carry with you into the space of president and CEO of Buckner?
Albert Reyes: Well, that was such a fun experience. We were -- I learned so many things. First, I’m sitting in college thinking, “When am I ever going to use this, Lord?” And just trusting that someday, somehow I would take what I was learning and be able to apply it to ministry.
And so I began with Sprint. And back then, we were just getting off the ground. It was a privately held company, but over the duration of my time there, we became a publicly traded company with an initial stock offering on the New York Stock Exchange.
So just getting a business education in management, at Angelo State, I couldn’t foresee that it would prepare me to be in a startup company that is publically traded.
I started off in sales, and that was OK. I realized -- I learned that that’s not really what I’m good at doing. I know other people that are just fantastic, and they love it, you know; I was really more in the problem-solving side of things. So I migrated over to customer service. And one thing I learned is a lot of curse words that I didn’t know existed.
Bill Lamar: Would you care to share any of those with us?
Albert Reyes: I’ve tried to forget most of them! But people wouldn’t call customer service and say, “I just want you to know today, everything’s working fine,” you know? They only call when there’s a problem. So call after call after call. And it was really a great service, but we had our days where things weren’t working right and customers had a reason to be upset.
But we are the company that did, at Sprint, the coast-to-coast fiber-optic call, the first in the nation. We picked up a telephone receiver in New York and one in LA and dropped a pin, a straight pin, on a desk, and you actually could hear the pin drop, the quality was so good. So I was proud to be a part of that.
And working through customer service, and converting the customers from the rotary dial and all the codes that you used to dial to fully digital fiber-optic network calls was just a really exciting place to be and to grow with the company, and to get involved.
One of the things that we did, if I were to point to something I learned, is -- we called it MBA. Our leaders called it “management by alignment.”
And we would, once a year, get all the midlevel managers all the way up through the senior executives and create a vision and a strategy and the way we were going to take on Ma Bell and knock MCI out of the pack, you know, and just be the winners, you know? And we would have engineering and sales and marketing and customer service and all the major divisions together to agree what each department was going to do or not do in order for our success.
And I really learned a lot from just watching how senior leaders worked and how they would disagree and resolve conflict for the shareholder and for the profit that we would bring forward. And so a lot of things that I learned in my college education I was able to apply immediately.
And actually, the truth is that many of those skills I learned helped me to survive as a pastor. Because in seminary, you know, we studied a lot of disciplines and a lot of important things that helped me to be equipped, but there weren’t courses on management and administration and planning and strategic initiatives, and all the things that I learned in practice after my college education.
I realized that a church is a 501(c)(3); it’s a nonprofit organization, and it has budgets and processes and people and resources and goals, and everything that a business has, except that it’s ministry. And I found that to be a tremendous strength for me, because, you know, you deal with a church council and deacons and conflict.
I know that, at least in Texas, pastors get terminated every week, and the reason -- the top three reasons that I’ve learned are that a pastor doesn’t know how to manage or the pastor doesn’t know how to lead or the pastor does not know how to get along with other people.
And those things you have to do in a business. You have to manage things and lead it somewhere, and you’ve got to get along with people; otherwise, you won’t be there very long.
[Sprint] was not a religious or spiritual or Christian environment, so I got to see the real world as it is, and I thought that was very helpful for me. I’ve been in business before, so it wasn’t really anything new, but it helped me get in touch with what people in the pew go through every week.
I know other peers that -- they went to college and studied Bible, then they went to seminary and studied theology, and then they became a pastor, but they never really got their fingers dirty or got into the nitty-gritty of life and faced having to terminate someone or be terminated or to solve a problem that meant a difference with a company surviving.
So that helped me get in touch with, hey, these are the people that are -- they could stay in bed Sunday, but they’re getting up and they’re coming up here, and this better be good for them. Because they need to be encouraged and learn how to live out their faith in the workplace, and there might be problems at work, at home.
So it was a very good baptism into the pastorate.
Bill Lamar: You mentioned something that I think would be helpful for us. You talked about a number of persons in ministry who are not acquainted with tools of management, dealing with human resources, budgets, finances. For persons who sense that to be a growing edge in their work in ministry, what would you recommend to them that they might gain proficiency?
Albert Reyes: Buckner is a social service missions agency, and for the majority of our time, we’ve been basically social service. So naturally, the people who are experts that come to Buckner to work with senior adults or with children and families are trained in the skill and theories of social work.
The issue that becomes kind of problematic, which I think would relate to pastors and people in vocational ministry, is that once they do a really good job, then we would like for them to be promoted to then supervise people who deliver frontline services where those skills are important.
If they do a good job supervising, then we want them to manage or become a director over people who manage people who deliver services.
And you know, two or three promotions into it -- and of course everybody would like to have upward mobility and grow in their position -- I often point out that, “Hey, you used to deliver frontline services, but now you’re managing people who manage people who manage services to clients.”
And so I tell our staff that once you get into the management ranks, you’re going to have to eat up every book in management that you can find, and here’s a list I’d recommend.
If you can, then I would consider maybe taking some management courses, either not accredited or accredited, you know, continuing education or maybe an MBA degree. Because once you get into -- for example, with Buckner, we have a $115 million budget, you know, we’re in six countries, and 1,400 staff, and whether we’re serving seniors or whether we’re serving children, everything we’re managing requires a skill, a skill set.
You’re managing through people, our greatest resource.
So unfortunately, the social work curriculums that I’ve seen -- and the theological curriculums I’ve actually taken -- do not focus on management and leadership. I think some of the seminaries are starting to offer a course in leadership, but that really hadn’t been the case in the past.
I have 90 hours in an M.Div. degree, with not a single course in leadership or management. There was one in administration. And I’m grateful for my seminary education at Southwestern Seminary; it’s fantastic, and if you want to talk about Greek and Hebrew and preaching and theology and hermeneutics, it’s all good, but management wasn’t part of that.
Then when I took the doctor of ministry, I requested from the faculty to study leadership, and the answer was, “We don’t teach that here.” And I said, “I know; that’s why I’m asking you. Because I think I’m going to need to know more about leadership in a ministry context.”
They did allow me to do an independent study, and I studied leadership styles of Rick Warren and Bill Hybels and tried to do a comparative analysis to study leadership in that context.
So I would say to people, you know, once you start becoming responsible for a business unit or a management group or an area of responsibility, you really need to do some continuing education and maybe even take a degree or learn on the job or somehow be efficient with the assignment that you have and that you’re accountable to the Lord for.
Bill Lamar: Can you say something about transformation? You have participated in the transformation of organizations. What are your thoughts on transformation as you consider that having been a pastor, a university president, and now the leader of a substantial nonprofit? What does transformation mean?
Albert Reyes: I think that as I began to work in organizations, even church planting, and then existing churches that needed to transition to survive and even possibly thrive in the place where God had put them, I learned that I didn’t know much about the complexity of working with an organization to help it transform itself.
I find that if organizations or ministries, churches, institutions don’t rebirth themselves, then the natural life cycle of an organization is to be born, to grow, to hit an apex and then to decline and then to die. And so if a rebirth is not going to happen, then a funeral, for sure, is in the works. And that happens across the board. Regardless of how great the organization was in its heyday, it has to be reborn, like we have to be reborn.
And so I decided that I needed more of that, and that was when I was at BUA, Baptist University of the Américas, and took a Ph.D. degree in leadership at Andrews University, a wonderful program. My specialty was organizational development, organizational transformation. And what I did was I learned, of course, the theory and the different models that are out there.
And I think that Michael Watkins in his book “The First 90 Days” [subtitled, in the first edition, “Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders at All Levels], Harvard Business Press, has an interesting model at the very beginning of the book. The book’s focused on how leaders in any new assignment can secure their success by doing certain things. So he’s got a whole formula that you should apply. And I did that at Buckner.
But what’s interesting is at the beginning he says that there are typically five business scenarios in any organization. So there’s a startup, there’s a divestiture, there is a turnaround, there’s sustaining success, and then there’s realignment. Regardless of the organization, you’re going to be in one of those five situations.
So in some cases, “winning” is going to be to shut the ministry down, or the organization down. That’s a win if that’s what needs to happen. Or in some cases, you have to start one up or you have to put the brakes on before you go over the cliff, and turn around before you crash and die.
And so what I learned is that people talk about leadership style and whatever and say, “Well, this is my style” or, “That’s my style.” Well, the truth is it doesn’t matter what your style is; the demand is that you apply the right style given the situation that you’re in.
So I did a turnaround experience at BUA, but when I came to Buckner, I couldn’t do turnaround behavior, because it wasn’t a turnaround situation. It was actually more like sustaining success and maybe realignment.
So you have to sort of diagnose the context that you’re in and then apply the right leadership skills to what the organization needs. That’s accentuated by a book that I came across that Leonard Sweet wrote called “Summoned to Lead.”
He argues in the book, you know, “Are leaders born, or are they made?” So he argues both sides and then concludes by saying, “I don’t think leaders are necessarily born or made; I think they’re summoned.” It’s like God summons you to a situation -- and he gives some examples -- and then you have to lead out of that situation.
And so when I came to Buckner and when I went to BUA, I didn’t select the context or the dynamics or the situations; I was called to it, and God summoned me there. And so then you have to ask yourself, “Which way is the way forward?” And you guide and lead according to what you see there, and apply the skills that are appropriate for that situation.
I think leaders make the mistake of just saying, “I’m kind of a one-type leader; this is the way I lead.” That’s really not the right approach. The approach is, “What kind of leader does the organization need right now?” And then you diagnose and then lead according to that.
Bill Lamar: Thank you. What about restoration? Is there a difference, or how do you characterize a difference between transformation and restoration?
Albert Reyes: Well, I think that restoration’s important when we think about uncovering and rediscovering the core mission of an organization. I think that’s critical. When leaders are called to organizations, unless they’re starting one, you’re not really called to make it all up and kind of start over; you’re called to recover or uncover and perhaps restore the original mission and the intent of the organization as it was founded.
And so I think a key strategy in developing your plan for leading an organization is to go discover the enabling documents and go read what the founders intended. Get acquainted with the mission itself, and then ask yourself, “How can I be a steward, a good steward, of what God has entrusted in me in this assignment? How can I then manage and steward the mission of this organization and be faithful to what was intended in the very beginning?”
And so I really tried to get to the very bottom of what did R.C. Buckner really intend, and what was he like, and how did he do ministry. And then I’ve tried to align what we do according to that.
Bill Lamar: I was able to read a little bit about your book “The Jesus Agenda,” and it has a lot to do with Luke 4, one of my favorite passages. Can you share with us about “The Jesus Agenda”?
Albert Reyes: Well, yes. “The Jesus Agenda” -- the subtitle is “Becoming an Agent of Redemption.” And as I was digging in the history of our ministry and looking at our mission and our founder, I just felt like there was a theme that was emerging as I studied and began to read -- that really our founder was about being an instrument of redemption for the lives of the children that he encountered after the Civil War, as well as the wives who became widows. Some of them, many of them, struggled, and some did not survive.
I looked at Jesus’ sermon in Luke chapter 4. And as I read his sermon, I thought, you know, that’s his inaugural sermon; it’s the first time he preaches in public. And in that sermon, he outlined what he was going to do.
And I started thinking, prior to the presidential election of 2016, previous years, in previous presidential elections, there’s always an inaugural speech after the president’s elected. And in the speech, they generally outline what they plan to do in the first 90 days and over the course of the tenure as president.
And I thought, “Well, that’s what Jesus is doing.” He’s saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me; the Spirit has anointed me.” And then he says “to preach good news to the poor, to give sight to the blind, and to give liberty to the oppressed and to proclaim the year of our Lord’s favor.” So he outlined what he was going to do.
And then later, whenever the disciples of John went to check and ask, you know, “Are you the one that we’ve been waiting for?” Jesus says back in Matthew, he says to them, “Go tell John” -- you know, “Tell him what you’ve seen. The people who are blind have been given their sight. The people have been healed.” And he kind of goes through what he said he would do at the beginning. And so that’s the mission that he gives us.
And when we’re serving according to those objects and goals, then we become agents of the redemptive work that he wants to do. So when you put a pair of shoes on a child, you’re an agent of redemption. Whenever you open your home and make room at the table for a child who doesn’t have a family, you are now an agent in the redemptive activity of God in that child’s life.
And so that’s what I’ve tried to communicate with our supporters and donors: that with the resources that they give us or the time that they give as volunteers, or the churches that engage with us, we have an opportunity, and with all of redemptive history, to have a key part in what God wants to do in the life of another person.
Bill Lamar: What are the habits and practices that give you the spiritual and physical strength to do the work that you’ve been called to do?
Albert Reyes: Well, I don’t think that you can really be sustained in a ministry unless you’re connected to the Master, to Jesus himself. And so I would probably not be the poster child for daily devotion and writing my thoughts in a journal, journaling.
I have read the book Bill Hybels wrote, “Too Busy Not to Pray.” And so I am too busy that I can’t afford not to pray, you know. I must. I must. But again, I’m not the model or example.
Nevertheless, a day does not go by that I don’t read a verse or two. Nowadays, you’ve got an iPhone; if you have a phone, you can get the Bible app, and it’ll give you a verse for the day. So even before you look at Facebook or Twitter or whatever is happening, you can look at your Bible app for three or four minutes and pray. So sometimes it gets down to that.
And there happen to be 31 [chapters in] Proverbs, and most months there are 31 days, so the reading plan is to say, “Well, what’s today’s date? Today’s the 14th, so I’m going to read the 14th chapter of Proverbs.”
And when you do it consistently, and not in a legalistic fashion where you punish yourself because you missed a day, but you just get in that routine of saying, “Now, what’s today’s date?” and go to that [chapter], you’ll find that over a year’s time, you’ve read through the Proverbs several times.
Proverbs offers wisdom to people. And the opposite of wisdom is foolishness; the opposite of a wise person is to be a fool. And so what I say is, “A proverb a day keeps stupidity away.”
I think spiritual formation is one of the things that I took from seminary that really helped to teach me how to study the Scripture and how to feed myself, right?
And I’ll just be honest. I mean, now that you’ve got -- and I’m not a very good church member. I wish I was there every Sunday teaching Sunday school, but because I travel, it’s just hard to be consistent. But because of electronics, I can access a lot of Bible preachers and teachers with podcasts, like this one, or sermons.
So I’m constantly -- I’m not going to go without a meal, you know? A spiritual one, too, you know? I get hungry spiritually, so I know how to open the Scripture up and just cook up something that nourishes my soul. But I also know how to access a good Bible teacher that I like or, of course, be a part of a group that studies the Scripture. So I think you have to feed yourself spiritually.
And then realize that one of the things that my seminary professor taught me -- you know, I forgot a whole lot of what I learned, but there are a few things I learned. And one is that our professor, and I forget which one now, said, “Just remember …” -- it was a room full of aspiring ministry leaders -- “there’s only one Messiah, and you’re not it.”
And so he said you just can’t solve -- you’re not going to be able to save people and solve everybody’s problems, and if you try to, you may just finish yourself. And so I’ve learned my limitations, and I can say now, “I know the Messiah. I know where you can find him. In fact, I can lead you to him, and I think if you get connected with him he can really help you, but I’m not him,” you know?
And I think sometimes, especially ministers, pastors, just don’t get that lesson, and they burn themselves out. They ruin their families, end up in divorce, and just don’t have the self-care and family care and marriage care that they need, because they don’t sometimes see their limitations.
Bill Lamar: You’ve been very generous with your time, Dr. Reyes. One last question. The title of the podcast, the name of the podcast, is “Can These Bones.” And I know that you are well acquainted with that Ezekiel passage. Where do you see life in the midst of death? Where do you see hope in the midst of despair?
Albert Reyes: Well, you know, I see a lot of churches that are just struggling to be alive and even survive one Sunday to the next. Many churches, probably the majority in the U.S., are declining -- plateaued or declining. Very few are growing. Certain pockets are exploding or growing, but I believe that the church is the cutting edge of God’s redemptive work in history, that he placed his hope and his dream in the church, the local church.
So I think the kingdom of God -- you can see a vestige of the kingdom in the church, wherever it may be found, and I have great hope in the church, if the church, wherever she is, will rediscover her mission, will ask herself, “What time is it, and where are we?” Because it’s not 1950, and we’re not there anymore.
People are struggling for hope, and people need answers and solutions, and they need stability and a point of reference. And I still think that the answer’s in Jesus and his church. And those bones can become alive if revival happens, and commitment, and the church gets to the mission that Jesus intended for her, and that’s found in the Jesus agenda.
Bill Lamar: Well, thank you, Dr. Reyes for your time, your good work.
Albert Reyes: Thank you very much. You’re welcome.
Bill Lamar: Thank you.
Laura Everett: That was my co-host Bill Lamar’s conversation with Albert Reyes, the president and CEO of Buckner International. Bill, it’s so clear that his experience working at Sprint was a huge part of his formation as a leader. What did you notice about what he learned by working at Sprint?
Bill Lamar: Well, I’ll tell you, I would imagine, Laura, that working at a call center is very, very good preparation for ministry.
When I moved to Metropolitan AME in Washington, D.C., Laura, I faced a huge shift in scale and scope. Not only was I the pastor of a local congregation, but was a pastor of a place that has hosted throughout the years persons who are on the front lines of struggling for justice and freedom and equality, those who are asking big theological questions, those who are doing significant artistic work.
And so I had to pastor the congregation, host amazing people doing work that really transforms a community, and also serve as a host for our denominational efforts whenever those efforts would bring our denomination to Washington, D.C. -- which is often.
And so I, in order to be successful, had to seek out the help of many persons who had shifted scale and scope in ministry time and time again.
Listening to Albert Reyes reminded me of what persons whose ministry has shifted in scale and scope taught me. I mean, he has gone from local church settings to the presidency of a university to the CEO of a very, very large international ministry.
And it seems that he was able to do it successfully because along the way he mastered and learned what he needed to learn in the local church, he learned what he needed to learn in an educational institution, he learned what he needed to learn in corporate America at Sprint, managing difficulty and customer issues.
And it just seems to me that though his trajectory may indeed have been circuitous, all of his preparation has led him to being able to lead this multinational organization with a huge footprint that does good work in the world.
So it helps me to not lose heart, that though the trajectory and the path may not be a straight line, if we learn what we need to learn where we are, we may indeed be surprised about where we end up.
Laura Everett: Bill, I so resonated with that, both with your experience and with Albert Reyes’ path in ministry.
You know, I feel like one of the most formative experiences for me in learning how to be a good pastor was by waitressing. I just learned again and again how to notice what people needed, sometimes to anticipate, to respond, to sometimes limit expectations of what was possible.
But that nonlinear path to ministry I’m hearing from more and more local pastors who I talk to -- about how they are following a path that is not maybe what the generation before us did, where first you leave seminary and then you become an associate pastor and then maybe you become a solo pastor and then you become a senior pastor and then you become a senior pastor of an even bigger church. That is just not happening in the same sort of way.
And for me, as someone who leads an institution, a Christian institution, the formation that I got in local congregations has stayed with me. I feel like some of what I learned in hospital chaplaincy has been so important in leading a Christian institution. That every interaction, every phone call, every email, every meeting I am in -- and my God, I am in a lot of meetings -- can be used as an opportunity for care, for edification, for uplift in the Spirit. That I don’t stop doing pastoral care because I am leading a Christian institution, but the way I do pastoral care changes.
I’m so grateful for the ways that Albert Reyes’ story of following God’s call took him to so many different places. I’m reminded of what a colleague said to me recently, that “nothing is wasted in the service of God.” Nothing is wasted in the service of God, and my God, Albert Reyes’ formation in those Sprint call centers comes through loud and clear as he attends to a global institution.
Bill Lamar: You know, Laura, many of our colleagues become frustrated because the path, the vocational path, that they’re on is anything but a straight line. But realizing that we can maximize our opportunity to serve in the future by maximizing every present vocational reality is very, very, very helpful.
And I think that -- I can remember working at a homeless shelter when I was in college, and that was formational for me, because I learned that I had to build relationships, not only with the people that ran the shelter, but with our clients. I learned that there is no job too lowly for any leader, that whatever needs to be done, if you want a team that is motivated to do the work, the leader must be willing to do whatever work needs to get done.
And so I saw that, I modeled that, and I have tried, to the best of my ability, to continue to be that kind of leader.
You know, Laura, one of the things that Albert talked about was restoration: uncovering or rediscovering the original mission of institutions. Like a lot of Christian leaders, he’s in charge of something that has a long history and tradition. Buckner has been in existence for 138 years, but he still goes back to the founder; he still goes back to the founding documents and the work they did helping widows and orphans after the Civil War.
Do you ever revisit the founding documents of the Massachusetts Council?
Laura Everett: Bill, I have. I’ve gone back and looked at some of those foundational documents, and even the predecessor bodies that became a part of the [Massachusetts] Council of Churches.
So my institution, the Massachusetts Council of Churches, was formed 115 years ago. And the way I heard this story was that in 1903, 10 Protestant gentlemen walked into Park Street Church and declared “interdenominational comity.” That’s interdenominational comity, c-o-m-i-t-y.
But they declared this at a time where there were new immigrants arriving in Boston, new immigrants who were primarily Catholic, who were primarily Italian and Irish. And so that story that we tell ourselves about the goodwill and the Christian unity in that founding is also put in the wider context of anxiety about new immigrants.
And when you tell this story and you say that it’s 10 Protestant gentlemen, you notice who’s missing: women were missing, people of color were missing, Roman Catholics were missing, Orthodox Christians were missing. And so for me, to go back to the founding narrative is also to ask, “Who is missing from that foundational story, and how does our work across generations expand to include other people and other perspectives?”
Bill Lamar: You know, Laura, I often go back to the founding of what is known as the African Methodist Episcopal Church. We started in 1787 as the Free African Society. And Richard Allen, Absalom Jones, and others came together as free Africans in Philadelphia, which was of course the capital [around that time], and was really the seat of tremendous intellectual and political activity among free Africans trying to bring about abolition in the United States.
So the Free African Society were free Africans who would give their money to help the enslaved who were coming, searching for freedom in Pennsylvania. They helped to educate their children. They helped to bury the dead. They helped to build economic strength, because Africans were cut out of mainstream political participation and participation in the economic institutions of the early republic.
And so one of the things that I’m clear about is the founders knew that we needed to build institutions that would care for us, and we could not always depend on the broader institutional realities or the political reality to do what we needed to get done.
That inspires me, even in this age, to continue to build a strong, independent institution that will look after those whom our founders cared for up until the time that they died.
And as you mention, I called the names of Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, but also I need to call the names of Flora Allen and Sarah Allen and so many women whose names were not a part of the record, but without their sacrifice there would not have been a Free African Society, nor an African Methodist Episcopal Church.
And paying attention to who is not a part of the document and paying attention to the broader historical reality will help us to tell the truth about our institutions and to strengthen them -- not based on myths that make us comfortable, but on the real challenges of history that can help us to move forward.
Laura Everett: I hear that coming through loud and clear in your conversation with Albert Reyes, Bill, this sense that the founding documents of Buckner International came from a very particular time and place, and yet they have expanded. They have expanded to other parts of the world; they’ve expanded who is to be cared for. But they’ve held constant this commitment to the most vulnerable, from a scriptural commitment, really, to the care of widows and children that they hear in the words of Jesus.
I’m really grateful for the grounding in history, but also that expansiveness of who are the most vulnerable now. Bill, one of the things I heard come through in the end of the interview you had with Albert Reyes is a conversation about spiritual practices.
What did you hear in how Albert grounds his leadership?
Bill Lamar: What I appreciated about Albert was his honesty around the fact that he’s got a lot of things claiming his attention. And that he tries his best to spend some moments in Scripture and prayer every day. Sometimes, he admitted, not so successfully. But he turns himself back to these words, back to these realities that reacquaint him with his past, with his vision of who God is theologically, and how that feeds him as an individual such that he might serve his family and he might serve Buckner.
I try my best to ground myself every day. One of the things that I’m well aware of is that if I do not have anything in me by way of spiritual sustenance, it becomes very difficult for me to provide that for anyone else.
And so I was thankful that Albert Reyes was honest enough to admit that he struggles with this reality but he also knows that he cannot do the work he’s called to do without spending some time in devotion, some time buttressing his spiritual life so that he can lead such a complex institution.
And I think no matter the scale and scope of the institutions that we serve or that we lead, we, like Albert Reyes, need time to center ourselves to be reacquainted with the God of our ancestors who calls us into the service of widows, orphans and the world around us.
Laura Everett: Listeners, we hope that listening to this podcast is part of what grounds you in the Christian tradition, in the transformative call that God has on your life and the work -- and the colleagues we need to do this work -- of transforming our institutions.
We hope that the conversation that you’ve heard with Albert Reyes and myself and Bill Lamar is part of a breath of life into some dry bones.
Bill Lamar: Thanks for listening to “Can These Bones.” I hope that you enjoyed our conversation as much as we did. There’s more about Albert Reyes, including some of his book recommendations, on our website, www.canthesebones.com.
Laura, who are we talking to next time?
Laura Everett: I had a great conversation with Gideon Tsang, a pastor of vision and teaching at Vox Veniae in Austin, Texas.
Bill Lamar: Laura, I’m looking forward to your conversation with Gideon.
Laura Everett: Me, too.
Bill Lamar: “Can These Bones” is brought to you by Faith & Leadership, a learning resource for Christian leaders and their institutions from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity. It’s produced by Sally Hicks, Kelly Ryan Gilmer and Dave Odom. Our theme music is by Blue Dot Sessions. Funding is provided by Lilly Endowment Inc.
We’d love to hear from you. Please share your thoughts about this podcast on social media. I’m on Twitter @WilliamHLamarIV, and you can reach Laura on Twitter @RevEverett. You can also find us through our website, www.canthesebones.com.
I’m Bill Lamar, and this is “Can These Bones.”
This transcript has been edited for clarity.