As the world was mourning the loss of Pope John Paul II, evangelicals received word of the untimely death of one of our own. Diane Knippers, named this year by Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America, was a woman for this season in the life of mainline Protestant churches. As President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD), Diane had been in the forefront of church-renewal efforts since 1993.
I knew Diane Knippers long before people recognized her significant leadership capabilities. For five years, Ed (Diane’s husband), Gil (my husband) and I were “young turks” on the faculty of a small-town liberal arts college while Diane was an editor for a church renewal magazine.
Those times together began an enduring friendship.
Gil and I left for university administrative positions the same year that Diane and Ed moved to D.C. Diane began her leadership career at the Institute on Religion and Democracy and Ed began his career as an artist. Years later, when we moved to D.C., Ed and Diane offered their home during a month when they would be out of town so that we’d have a base while we got settled. That type of generosity was typical of how the Knippers lived their lives. Diane remained the same warm and generous person even as she began to rub elbows with the nation’s intellectual and political elite.
In fact, the characteristic about Diane that stands out most, looking back, is her generosity. I remember especially the risk she and Ed took on leaving the security of his tenured faculty appointment. Diane believed in his extraordinary talent and was convinced that he needed to devote full-time to his art. Ed’s highly acclaimed one-man exhibits at major venues around the world would not have been possible without Diane’s belief in his extraordinary talent and their mutual support for each other’s very different gifts.
It is impossible to think of Diane without thinking about Ed; they were inseparable even though they moved in very different spheres as they each profoundly influenced the culture and the church. Theirs was a symbiotic relationship of deep respect and a commitment to cherish each other. Not least among Diane’s impact will be her modeling of Biblical marriage.
While I worked alongside Diane on numerous projects and while we shared a commitment to church renewal, orthodox theology and women’s issues, for now, I’ll leave it to others to write about her professional accomplishments. Because of our long-standing friendship, I worked frequently with Diane behind the scenes. From that perspective, I know first hand the validity of her personal devotion and the consistency of her personal faith. I also observed the wisdom that undergirded her leadership.
Diane was a leader who focused on “getting the job done.” She was a visionary who was willing to work with her staff’s unique circumstances as she inspired them to do their best in exercising their creativity, assuring their depth of thought and checking the validity of their scholarship. When a staff member’s baby required surgery and special care, he continued making an invaluable contribution as he worked from home. When her assistant showed special interest and commitment to human rights around the world, Diane encouraged her to work full-time with IRD’s efforts toward universal human rights. Such generosity in focusing on IRD’s effectiveness and mission instead of her own personal and professional needs was typical of Diane.
When a declaration or other major policy document was drafted, Diane was at the brainstorming sessions and edited with a fine understanding of the nuances of meaning and a deep appreciation for the significance of clear analysis. Diane was fearless, incisive and energetic in confronting theological heresy and political conflicts within the church. She had sure instincts when it came to strategy and a special talent at building coalitions and networks for maximum effectiveness. She helped to establish the Association for Church Renewal, a coalition of renewal leaders from the mainline denominations. Her convictions and consistency inspired activists in church renewal even as her wisdom influenced them to greater sensitivity and savvy in strategic encounters.
Diane recognized the necessity to address the feminization of the church through radical feminism, the Re-Imagining movement and the United Nations’ Beijing Conference on Women. IRD’s Ecumenical Coalition on Women and Society provided leadership through the Christian Women’s Declaration, the annual Washington Summit to train women leaders on contemporary church and political issues, and delegations that reported on official and unofficial meetings of church women.
Though she was Episcopalian, she was just as devoted to renewal within the other mainline denominations, just as faithful in monitoring the progress of their church reformers, and just as devoted to mentoring their new church-renewal activists.
Diane’s keen insight is obvious in her writing published in major newspapers and journals; she has been a major influence on contemporary Christianity. She will be sorely missed by those of us who worked with her and are counted among her friends. Her passing is a deep personal loss to many of us and I am among those whose heart aches at the loss of her friendship and the significant loss of her leadership among orthodox believers in the mainline denominations.
Janice Shaw Crouse was president of Crouse Communications when she worked on church renewal projects with the Institute on Religion and Democracy. She currently serves as senior fellow of the Beverly LaHaye Institute.