‘We’re Trying to Change World History.’

It sounds corny, but it’s true: Bishop William Swing is a man on a mission. His goal? To change the relationships among the world’s religions, from hostility to harmony.

William Edwin Swing, 64
Episcopal Diocese of California
San Francisco, California


It isn’t as unusual as it sounds: The Episcopal Bishop of California traveled all the way to Wisconsin to address a group of high-school students. Regardless of the audience, be it fellow clergy, interfaith groups, venture capitalists, Rotarians, or curious teenagers, William Edwin Swing rarely turns down an invitation to share his vision for groundbreaking cooperation among the world’s religions. His grassroots campaign is relatively young, with more seeds to plant and more souls to stir. He can’t predict if the reaction will be favorable, but he can usually count on this: It will be impassioned.

Wisconsin didn’t disappoint. Following Swing’s talk on the United Religions Initiative (URI), an international interfaith network inspired by the United Nations, one of the students chased down the bishop as he was leaving for the airport. “My father thinks you’re the Antichrist,” the boy said.

“Well, what do you think?” Swing asked.


The student said that he didn’t agree, even though his father was an Episcopal priest.

“Well, good.”

“I just think you’re nuts.”


A “head case.” A “heretic.” An “egomaniac.” During the seven years since Swing began pursuing his vision of religious unity worldwide, he’s heard his share of insults and accusations. Of course, it helps that he receives encouragement too. Numerous interfaith groups, as well as luminaries like Nobel Peace Prize-winner Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama, have embraced his ideas. Naturally, his supporters call him names at the other end of the spectrum, praising him as a “visionary,” an “inspiration,” and a “devout servant.”

After 21 years of overseeing the diocese of California, which once included the entire state but now covers only the Bay Area, Swing, 64, is not only one of the longest-serving and most-respected Episcopal bishops in the country, he is also one of the more outspoken. During the early days of the AIDS epidemic, he says he was the first bishop to speak publicly on behalf of victims and the first to organize a conference exploring how the church could support those victims. (Conservatives called him the Antichrist then too.) So as Swing set out on a new cause to unite the religions of the world, religious and interfaith communities took notice.

In a sense, he’s an unassuming activist, a man whose gentle ways belie passionate beliefs. He doesn’t raise his voice, fidget, or rush his thoughts. He lingers in the moment, never glancing at his watch — because he doesn’t wear one. He has a quick wit that he doesn’t show off, and he has an 8 handicap that he doesn’t brag about. (If you press him, however, he will tell you about the time that he shot a hole-in-one in the Pebble Beach National ProAm.) He looks like the last person who’d want to shake things up. And yet he’s very much a change agent in a field that seems impervious to change. It sounds corny, but it’s true: He’s a man on a mission.


As far as he can tell, there’s never been a group quite like the URI — a global, grassroots religious network. Unlike interfaith organizations that only admit the most well-established religions, the URI includes every spiritual expression on the planet. Unlike groups that meet just once a year and whose members rarely interact, the URI develops an ongoing conversation among its interfaith members through steady email and frequent small-group gatherings.

It’s no great mystery why such an organization never has existed before, Swing says. Since 1893, when the idea for an international interfaith body was first broached at a meeting of the World’s Parliament of Religion, a dozen similar attempts have failed to get beyond the proposal stage. No matter how many times that religious leaders have expressed support for meaningful cooperation, they’ve been unable to overcome profound theological differences or deeply conflicting opinions about how to run such an unusual assembly. Too many divisive questions tripped them up. How can religions that feel threatened by the existence of other faiths sit at the same table as people who represent those faiths? Who gets to join — and who doesn’t get to? How do members agree on anything when they disagree on so much? Who’s in charge?

Swing still is figuring out many of the answers, but he believes that the URI will succeed where others have failed largely because of how he and his colleagues are building it. A radically new group needed radically new thinking, so they sought solutions outside religious circles. “Religions know a great deal about competition, but they don’t know much about cooperation,” Swing says. “If it were left up to religions, they wouldn’t get together. They would keep right on doing their own thing. It’s like Albert Einstein said: ‘Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.’ You have to rise above them to the next level.”


The bishop found that “next level” of ideas in the business world: in the ideas of David Cooperrider, 46, an associate business-school professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and of Dee Hock, 71, the founder of Visa and a world-renowned organizational-design guru. Cooperrider helped participants at the URI’s early gatherings avoid inflammatory dogma and endless debate, and instead helped them engage in constructive dialogue. Hock convinced Swing and the design team to abandon hierarchical thinking in favor of a flat organization with an evolving architecture.

Consequently, Swing doesn’t run the URI. Neither does anyone else at the top — because there is no top, per se. There is no centralized authority. The people who join the URI organize themselves into “cooperation circles” and then decide how best to serve the group’s overarching purposes of promoting daily interfaith cooperation, of ending religious violence, and of creating “cultures of peace, justice, and healing for the earth and for all living beings.”

The results? Swing’s vision is becoming a reality, even though that reality bears little resemblance to the United Nations model that he originally had in mind. In June, after several years of networking, fund-raising, designing, and redesigning, the bishop addressed more than 275 people — Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Sikhs, among others — who came from five continents to participate in a charter signing, the group’s official kickoff. The site was Pittsburgh, for symbolic reasons: That city has more bridges than any other city in the United States — and the URI is devoted to building bridges across spiritual boundaries.


Swing also points with pride to the 72 Hours Project, which was carried out at the beginning of the year. In its first global peace-building effort, the URI invited religious communities around the world to perform an interfaith activity focused on peace during the 72 hours from December 31, 1999 to January 2, 2000. More than 400 communities in 60 countries conducted peace marches, prayer vigils, and interfaith services on Australian hilltops, in Sri Lankan villages, and in California prisons. Afterward, local organizers emailed descriptions of what they’d done to the URI’s San Francisco office. Many of the missives sounded like those of the Reverend James Channan, OP, who coordinated a 1,500-mile “Journey for Peace” across Pakistan. “What happened in Khyber Pass was something that never, ever happened before in the history of Pakistan,” he wrote. It was just the kind of message that Swing was hoping to hear. After all, he says, “We’re trying to change world history.”

One Message, Many Cultures

William Swing started out with far more modest ambitions. He was a small-town priest who simply wanted to serve his congregation. After graduating from Virginia Theological Seminary, he was assigned to two churches in West Virginia. Both were located in mill towns — one steel, the other pottery — and on Sunday mornings, he drove back and forth between the two. One day, he stopped at a local racetrack and volunteered to lead a weekly service there. Those three congregations were a blend of nationalities, denominations, and personalities. The jockeys and trainers, for instance, preferred a lively debate to a sermon. Swing enjoyed the give-and-take. Among the three, he says, “I learned how to translate one message into different cultures.”


When he became rector at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, the challenge was to energize a suburban congregation that numbered around 90 people per Mass on Sunday. He took a chance and completely revamped one of the weekly services for the youngest members of the congregation. There were more songs, a shorter sermon, and Bible stories acted out by adults and children. It was unorthodox, but Swing didn’t ask anyone’s permission. He just did it. And it worked, filling the pews with children and their parents. The congregation swelled to about 600 at that service.

Swing insists that the United Religions Initiative came out of the blue and not out of some lifelong commitment to interfaith work. But it definitely tapped into the compassion and the devotion that he has applied to other ministries over the years. When Senator Dianne Feinstein was mayor of San Francisco, she asked Swing how local churches could help to address the city’s homeless problem. His solution was to put 40 beds in the basement of majestic Grace Cathedral, located in Nob Hill, that very night. It was the beginning of the church’s homeless ministry, which now provides 950 beds per night in various San Francisco shelters. “If you do it one night, it’s romantic,” he says. “If you do it every night, it’s hard work.”

Swing is a masterful fund-raiser. He knows that without money the most ambitious social ministries fail. Last year, his diocese had $50 million worth of projects under way. “We’ve got a hospital in the poorest part of town, eight health clinics, six alcohol-rehab and drug-rehab centers, seven life-care facilities, four facilities for the developmentally disabled, and two facilities for Hispanic immigrants,” he recites, pausing to catch his breath. “And we’re building a residential facility for homeless families.”


Connections that go back 21 years help. Far more critical, though, is Swing’s ability to win people’s trust and then persuade them to buy into his vision. “We’re giving people an opportunity to be as alive as they can be,” he says. “To heal the sick, to give shelter to the homeless, and to improve lives. That’s pretty compelling.”

Imagine All the People?

The United Religions Initiative began in 1993 with a phone call. An official at the United Nations asked Swing to organize an enormous interfaith worship service at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco as part of an upcoming 50th-anniversary celebration of the signing of the UN charter. The historic event had taken place in 1945 right across the square at the Fairmont Hotel.


The invitation got the bishop thinking. He was troubled that countries around the world, including countries that had been at war against each other, had managed to achieve what the world’s religions had not: unity, dialogue, cooperation. If nations could peaceably convene, Swing thought, why couldn’t religions?

Initially, Swing hoped to discover that a UN-style body of religions was already in the works. But it wasn’t. If the URI was going to exist, it was up to Swing to get it started. Thinking that he’d model it after the UN, with an assembly of religious leaders, he traveled around the world in 1996 pitching it to religious and interfaith officials and scholars. Mother Teresa vowed that she and the nuns in her order would pray for it. The Dalai Lama pledged to participate. The Shankaracharya of Kancheepuram, one of the Hindu gurus, giggled. “I found out that with these gurus, if they hear something that’s true, it elicits joy, so they giggle,” says Swing. The Vatican was more cryptic. “If this is of God, no one can stop it,” one of the Pope’s right-hand cardinals told the bishop. “But if it is of man, it will fail.”

According to prevailing opinion, it was a nice idea that didn’t stand a chance. The chief obstacle, Swing realized, was that the religions didn’t know how to have a dialogue with one another. Swing didn’t know how to start that dialogue, but David Cooperrider did.


Cooperrider teaches at Case Western’s Weatherhead School of Management and runs an organization called Social Innovations in Global Management (SIGMA). After reading about the URI in a newspaper, he called Swing and asked if he could study the organization. The bishop had a better idea: Why not help build it? Cooperrider, who specializes in “appreciative inquiry,” an alternative to traditional problem solving, was more than willing.

Instead of focusing on problems, appreciative inquiry explores positive outcomes, what Cooperrider calls “moments of highest engagement or passion.” At the URI’s organizational summits and regional conferences in Africa, Asia, Europe, and the United States, participants would interview each other — Jew and Muslim, Buddhist and Baha’i, Christian and indigenous believer. They would ask each other questions like “How did you come to embrace your faith?” and “What’s the greatest gift that you’ve received from your religion?” The idea is to develop a mutual respect, says Cooperrider — to appreciate what’s important, even precious, to someone from a different faith. The participants consider what they’re trying to create, not what they’re trying to eliminate: Imagine the world 30 years from now and describe three positive changes that have occurred.

Appreciative inquiry proved to be a powerful communication tool. “To this day, it astonishes me,” says the Reverend Canon Charles P. Gibbs, 49, the URI’s executive director in San Francisco. “We’re bringing these improbable groups of people together. They’re usually uneasy and, in some cases, fearful about being in the same room with one another. Yet, in the space of a few hours, they come to see one another as folks who have much in common, instead of seeing one another from across irreparable gulfs.”


Going In Circles

William Swing and Dee Hock were a pretty improbable pair themselves: a bishop and a former banker. But they hit it off immediately. Based on the URI’s brainstorming meetings, Swing and the design team realized that traditional models wouldn’t work. Since they couldn’t rely on the participation of religious leaders, they needed to build the URI from the bottom up, creating a grassroots organization where members, not an executive committee, are in control. Swing didn’t know it, but they were speaking Hock’s language.

“Our existing institutions are totally irrelevant to complex, systematic, highly diverse problems, which are all we have now,” says Hock. The alternative to these top-down institutions is what he calls the “chaordic organization,” a marriage of chaos and order. The result is a highly adaptive organization whose members work toward the same overall goal. (See The Trillion-Dollar Vision of Dee Hock, October:November 1996.)


After three years of hammering out the initiative’s purpose, principles, and design, the URI now consists of self-organizing cooperation circles, which include seven or more people who represent at least three spiritual expressions. Although each circle agrees to abide by the URI’s 21 guiding principles — such as no proselytizing fellow URI members — the circles are self-governing entities. The members decide which issues to act on, how to support the circle financially, and how to make decisions. If a circle chooses to, it can team with other circles and form a multicircle around one of the URI’s core themes: conflict resolution, social justice, and the environment. The circles aren’t building blocks, Hock says — that’s the old metaphor. Rather, the circles are part of a living system. “It’s exactly what your body did when its cells divided and multiplied and organized themselves into organs,” he says. “And the next thing you know, you have a human being.”

Currently, there are more than 100 circles around the world, in places such as Quezon City, the Philippines; Woodstock, South Africa; and Johnson City, Tennessee. In Israel, there is a multi-circle made up of five smaller circles. Many early circles consist of interfaith groups that had been eager to be part of a larger network.

The URI has been around for 7 years, but no one knows what it will look like a year from now — or 50 years from now. That’s the beauty of a chaordic organization, says Hock. “It’s a living, breathing, adaptive thing, and living things are never finished. They keep learning and struggling. The more they grow, the more questions you’ll be puzzling over.”

Swing is already wrestling with such questions. “How do we keep the authority from rising to the top in the future?” he asks. “What happens if someone goes on a power trip? What happens to our integrity if some politician comes along and wants to give us money? How do we find a collective voice? And who gets that voice? I don’t know, but we’ll find the answers as we go along.”

In the meantime, the bishop mentions the URI in his daily prayer.

Letting go of an organization and allowing it to organize itself requires a leap of faith. Who better than the bishop to make that leap? “He has a totally clear and absolute sense of direction,” says Hock. “The goal is to end religious violence. You can’t get any clearer than that. But he is totally open to how he gets there.”

Chuck Salter ( is a Fast Company senior writer. Learn more about the United Religions Initiative on the Web (, or contact William Edwin Swing by email (

Sidebar: What’s Fast

How do you unite parties as different and as disharmonious as the world’s religions and spiritual expressions? That’s an ongoing challenge for William Edwin Swing, founder of the United Religions Initiative (URI). Here are some of his answers.

New ideas come from new sources. Swing couldn’t count on religious leaders alone to solve a problem that had plagued organized religions for hundreds, even thousands, of years. He had to be entrepreneurial and had to look elsewhere to find a fresh perspective on collaboration and on organizational design. He got that perspective from a business-school professor and from a former banker, both of whom were tackling similar challenges with other highly complex global organizations.

Appreciate what others hold sacred. Debating who’s right or who’s wrong about creation, about the nature of God, or about salvation isn’t the least bit constructive. But exploring what’s meaningful to someone is. Through dialogue that is based on “appreciative inquiry,” people of different faiths can focus on understanding the positive aspects of one another’s faith. That leads to mutual respect, which makes collaboration possible.

Amateurs attract experts. Swing believes in the value of experimentation, even if it means failing. When he started the URI, he didn’t know much about creating a global organization. But once he started trying, people who knew a lot more than he did came forward to help. His inexperience worked like a magnet, he says. Experts like to practice their expertise — so let them.

Connect, don’t compete. When Swing looked at international interfaith groups that existed, he discovered that they were inclusive of different religions but often exclusive of one another. “The attitude was right out of a big-business model that says you’ve got to corner your market,” he says. “They were saying, We’ve got to corner the interfaith market.” The URI is designed to be a network so that organizations can leverage one another’s resources while pursuing their mutual or individual goals.

Build from the bottom. Groups that may seem similar to the URI have failed over the years, says Swing, because they’ve tried to organize themselves around religious leaders. He tried that too — before he realized that authority belonged in the hands of the smallest unit of the organization, the URI’s cooperation circles. The United Nations, which inspired Swing when he began his efforts, offers abstract representation. The URI, on the other hand, gives its members tangible power to self-organize and self-govern.


About the author

Chuck Salter is a senior editor at Fast Company and a longtime award-winning feature writer for the magazine. In addition to his print, online and video stories, he performs live reported narratives at various conferences, and he edited the Fast Company anthologies Breakthrough Leadership, Hacking Hollywood, and #Unplug


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