Senior Fellows bring a diversity of cultural, geographic and theological experiences to Newbigin House. These Fellows offer not only their knowledge, but also their passion for seeing the gospel shared in life-giving ways throughout urban contexts. We are excited to partner with these individuals and will be introducing them to you over the next few newsletters. Some will be familiar and others new, but all of them add vibrancy to the Newbigin House community.
Alana Ackerson is full of surprises. The Senior Fellow with the Newbigin House of Studies and Managing Partner and President of Signum Investments also has a Masters degree in Philosophical and Systematic Theology from Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union. Ackerson previously worked as CEO of the Thiel Foundation, where she lead its efforts to support the next generation of entrepreneurs. At the same time, she is working on her Doctor of Ministry degree from San Francisco Theological Seminary, and has completed a certificate in spiritual direction. Ackerson has seamlessly woven faith and work together in her life, so that it’s impossible to understand the role one plays for her without also acknowledging the other. In her role as Senior Fellow at the Newbigin House of Studies, Ackerson is focused on spiritual formation for leaders and fellows in the Newbigin Fellowship.
We sat down with Ackerson to learn what her journey of faith and work has looked like. “In our work,” she says, “we are expressing a spiritual hope for a better future for humanity.”
What are one or two examples of how you’ve navigated conflict in your work? How has your faith influenced that?
I have been fortunate to work with some absolutely brilliant individuals. But we’re all broken people, and that inevitably comes through in conflicts. You come to an understanding that many times conflicts stem not only from brokenness or sin or ego, but are also fueled by different lived realities. We are all the sum of our experiences, our aptitudes, and our personalities. Of course everyone will see some things differently, because they have different vantage points.
From my background in spiritual direction I have learned to listen actively and to look for these moments of understanding – how people’s journeys have impacted them, and how that impacts me, and our team as a whole.
The other key part of navigating conflicts is understanding yourself. As a discipline it’s important to focus more broadly than simply on what you believe is best, or your own agenda. The first question I always ask is “does this need to be my Alamo”? This is particularly important when I’m confident in my position. In my experience, a lot of heartache can be avoided by simply understanding which issues are truly important, and which are actually distractions. And in some ways, I see that in my faith as well. The most important aspects of faith are often the least dramatic and the least public. So you have to regularly reflect on what matters, and frankly, what actually doesn’t.
What do you love about your job?
Some days nothing, some days everything. As an investor, I am blessed to get to spend a great deal of time professionally thinking about what has real and durable value. And this is a question that has always resonated with me in a number of contexts. I also have spent a lot of my career building businesses. And that’s exciting because you get to find ways to engage in problems in a creative and collaborative approach. It’s stressful and chaotic at times, but it’s rarely boring. There are very real problems in this world And whether we’re solving big ones on a big stage, or small ones for one person in one moment, the solutions are needed.
Finally, I think if you have a divine vision of work, you can begin to think about how your efforts contribute to bringing healing into the world — not simply by what you do, but by how you do it. I love the opportunity to look out for the good in the people I engage with, to understand not simply how they fit into my professional context, but to recognize their humanity.
What do you think about when you hear the word “calling?”
I think about discerning one’s vocation. If we believe that God is a builder and a designer, then the desire to be the same is in our DNA. We seek to co-create, to be active in the unfolding of the universe. Too often we get hung up on the details of one particular path, as if there’s only one expression of what we are “called” to do. Whatever you choose, if you pursue it faithfully, God will work through it. In our work, we are expressing a spiritual hope for a better future for humanity.
How has being involved with the Newbigin House of Studies given you the ability to do your job differently?
I’m really excited about what Newbigin is building. There are a lot of voices and perspectives on Christianity these days. But in my mind, there’s a lot of unreality and nostalgic thinking in discussions on faith. So I love the opportunity to think about Christianity in an urban context. Because it’s hard. The city is where the conflicts are, it’s where the messiness is. We have poverty, we have crime, we have ethnic and cultural issues, we have identity issues.
It’s a lot easier for people to paint their faith as exclusively academic and their reality as primarily homogenous. It’s also easy to paint our faith as something that’s reserved for Sunday. But that’s not real. We spend the majority of our lives at work, and a significant part of our identity and our contribution to this world is directly related to our professional existence.
So I love that Newbigin is creating space for the questions that exist beyond suburbia and Sundays. I love that they are tackling the search for meaning from an understanding that life is complicated and reality is complex. How do I make meaning? How does my role further more than my own agenda? These are critical questions that we should be actively discussing, and for me it brings a great vibrancy to my working life.
What are unique challenges for the topic of faith and work for those of us who live and work in the Bay Area?
Ego, for one. If you’re successful, it’s incredibly tempting to over-inflate what you’re doing, how important it is, how cool it is, and so on. That’s a bad lens. The reality is that tons of things are important, but many of them are not particularly glamorous. Seen through a spiritual lens, many of the world’s priorities are well compensated but not terribly important.
The other side of this principle often doesn’t get considered, but I think it’s also really important. There are a lot of huge success stories in this part of the world. But there are also a lot of failures. Depression is rampant in Silicon Valley. Suicide is a very real problem. San Francisco’s values leave a lot of people on the outside looking in. It can be an incredibly hard and lonely place, and often our mindset and misplaced sense of meaning can make that much worse.
I’m working on a doctorate right now and a major part of my research is around the issues of faith and technology, and specifically how a hope for the future expressed through innovation can be deepened into a spiritual hope for oneself and the world expressed through salvation and spiritual renewal. I think too many of us look for spiritual salvation from work and success, instead of finding inspiration and strength for work from our own spiritual foundation. Finding that success can lead to one form of spiritual death, and losing success can lead to another. Both are dangerous.