The Interfaith Conference combined choir performs in this file photo. (Courtesy of The Interfaith Conference)

The Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington is known as one of the country’s early multi-faith groups, and its executive director’s nickname is the “dean of American interfaith.” Yet as it approaches its 35th anniversary in November, the group is fighting for survival, down to two full-time staff members and facing more than $100,000 in debt.

The conference, which has a major fundraiser planned this fall and aims to restructure the organization and sharpen its mission, is hardly alone. Some of the oldest and best-known names in interfaith, including the National Council of Churches and the Chicago-based Council for a Parliament of the World Religions, have slashed staff as their revenue shriveled.

The Interfaith Conference is struggling, experts and some group leaders say, in part because it relies too much on clergy and religious denominations for participation and money at a time when many traditional faith groups are losing members and status as more Americans drop or switch spiritual affiliations and are less committed.

But in some ways, the challenges now faced by traditional interfaith organizations can be seen as a good thing, some interfaith experts and participants say.

Since the Interfaith Conference was founded in 1978, religious minorities have grown significantly in size and stature, and Americans now interact more easily with people of other faiths in their schools, offices, neighborhoods and even immediate families.

In other words, more than doing interfaith, many Americans are living interfaith. This culture change has given rise to a burgeoning number of smaller, activist interfaith groups, some of which are only very loosely identified with faith traditions, if at all.

“The old model was institutional bigwigs talking carefully to one another about theology. The understanding of what ‘multi-faith’ is and how to organize around it has broadened tremendously,” said David Roozen, director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, who has focused on interfaith research. “The dominant American attitude toward other faith traditions is indifference. . . . It can be a challenge for interfaith” institutions.

Activist groups

Younger interfaith types today are more interested in activism and often focus on particular policy issues. For example, some of the newer, small groups in Washington are Interfaith Youth for Climate Justice and Shoulder to Shoulder: Standing with American Muslims.

When these new, more activist groups are taken into account, the interfaith movement as a whole appears to be thriving. The Rev. Bud Heckman, who has been a leader of several key interfaith groups, said his research shows there are twice as many interfaith groups nationally as there were a decade ago. A recent Hartford Institute survey showed congregations are twice as likely to engage in interfaith worship today as they were 10 years ago.

“There’s a generational thing here. A lot of people are quite happy to be eclectic and take their insights from various sources. The interfaith councils we have now [the more traditional ones] solidify: ‘I’m no longer Heidi, I’m Heidi the Christian.’ I don’t think youth are interested in those boxes,” said Heidi Hadsell, who is president of Hartford Seminary and has led several international interfaith organizations.

There’s less need for the kind of dialogue that has formed the basis of many traditional interfaith institutions, and it can be more challenging for traditional groups to organize action given the often divergent belief systems and goals of their members.

“It’s tricky; we have to ride it out to get to the other side to know what the next generation will do with this,” said Jack Gordon, a 30-year-old regional Bahai representative on the Interfaith Conference’s executive committee.

So far, the transition has been chaotic.

In a March essay titled “Why the ‘interfaith movement’ must rebrand,” Heckman wrote that there is confusion — and, thus, trouble organizing efforts — because people have different goals. Some want to focus on clarifying and honoring the distinctions between religions, while others are “multi-spiritual” and just want to find like-minded seekers. Still others are aimed at some secular public policy change.

“Some people working squarely within the movement actually even giggle a bit when I try to even use the term ‘interfaith movement,’ ” he wrote, because the term implies a common purpose.

But Heckman sees reasons for optimism. For one, some of the newer, highly focused interfaith groups are more easily able to attract funding. These include the 24-chapter Interfaith Alliance, which was founded in 1994 to focus on church-state boundaries, and the Interfaith Youth Core, which has a staff of 25 and works on dozens of college campuses.

A focus on dialogue

Interfaith Conference leaders say they believe there is still a need for the group’s unique strength — it connects local leaders from 11 different faiths, including Mormons, Catholics, Buddhists, Jews and Muslims.

In its very earliest years, the conference was an engine for social justice efforts. It founded the Capital Area Food Bank and helped establish a local branch of the Women, Infants and Children program for at-risk pregnant women and children.

“That was amazing, it was such a time,” said the Rev. Clark Lobenstine, the Presbyterian minister who has been the conference’s sole executive director. Part of the group’s transition is looking for a new leader when Lobenstine retires next year.

As the group has grown more religiously diverse, Lobenstine said, it has focused more on dialogue and less on action. It’s harder to rally 11 faith leaders around any given topic. Some group leaders said there was a recent struggle over whether to take up the issue of gun control because members disagreed on the topic.

The conference is best known lately for two key publications: one used in area schools that talks about various faiths’ beliefs, and one that serves as a directory that faith-based groups can use to find shelters, food and clothing for needy congregants.

“It’s one thing to have an interpersonal relationship with someone of a different background,” Gordon said. “But on a community-wide level, how do you build coalitions together? How do you advocate for one another in times of crisis? In a systematic way? We’re building on the great advances the previous generation made.”