Fired GTS Professors Go Back to Work, For Now

When a seminary is in the news, two truisms apply: one, it is often bad news, and two, it will quickly fade from view.

Late last month when I saw General Theological Seminary in the Huffington Post, I knew something had gone awry. I also suspected it was a flash in the pan and public interest would soon fade, as indeed it has.

Last week the Episcopal News Service reported that the eight faculty members who had been dismissed had accepted “provisional reinstatement.” In a letter on October 20, they refer to a “cooling off period,” and add, “If, God forbid, at the end of the academic year we find that the collective process of reconciliation has not worked well, we ask that there be some understanding that appropriate severance will be made available…” The story is not over.

Having found myself in a similar situation at Nashotah House nearly ten years ago (on a much smaller scale), I have been pondering the quiet fate of seminaries.  I may know the Episcopal seminary scene most intimately, but I also know many denominations support seminaries and many of them are struggling. Should we even care? After all, this is post-Christian America!

Seminaries tend to be invisible to the media until a new ancient artifact or forgery claiming to have some connection to Jesus or David appears and an expert is required. Or a scandal occurs. (No expert required.) Since most seminaries are quiet institutions with modest student enrollments, the higher eduction community frequently overlooks the stand-alones as outside the mainstream.  Many academics in religious studies, however, pass through seminaries at some stage in their careers and the steady influence of seminaries has been a kind of stabilizing influence in the give-and-take of academia in the area of religion.  They are a vital part of higher education. It might come as a surprise that the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) lists 267 member schools for 2013, (down six schools from the previous year after a period of growth).  ATS is a player in the larger story as well.

Most people have little idea what life is like in a seminary environment—perhaps imagining realms of ethereal piety and much diligent prayer and study, but little else. The mystery of how clergy are made. As one of the rare, but rapidly increasing, species of cast-off seminary professors, I hope I might offer a little insight to those who might be wondering, “why all the fuss?”  Or, perhaps like the larger society, have already forgotten about the plight at General Seminary. Think of this as an insider’s brief introduction to Episcopal seminaries. Or a crash course in institutional dysfunction.

The HuffPo headlines dramatically blared, “The Madness of Rev. Kurt Dunkle and the Trustees of General Theological Seminary” and “What the Hell is Happening at General Theological Seminary?” Letters from aggrieved trustees quickly appeared online lamenting that the state of affairs had grown so far out of hand. How could an educated faculty have acted so rashly? There could be some answers in Wisconsin, although what happens at that small seminary tends not to garner media attention—too few souls are involved.

Nashotah House was founded before Wisconsin became a state.  At my time there it was one of eleven Episcopal seminaries—seen as overkill by some, given that the Episcopal Church is among the smallest of “mainstream” Christian denominations. Our much larger neighbor down the Anglican genealogy, the United Methodist Church, had thirteen seminaries.  The number is now down to ten for Episcopalians, and the clock may be ticking for some of the remaining decad.  Possibly even General, the first seminary of the Episcopal Church.

In good, corporate style, seminary governance is overseen by a Board of Trustees. These boards, like most governing bodies, do not involve themselves in the day-to-day operations of the school, as long as accreditation, usually overseen by ATS, remains secure.  The Dean, in some instances statutorily a priest, is also president of the institution. S/he has the title of Very Reverend, and, should s/he be so inclined, may run the school according to her or his vision, without input of students or faculty.  Faculty may find themselves alienated from what may seem important decisions.

All of that is pro forma. Corporate academia is nothing new. What is missing from the picture is the intentionality and intensity of communal life where the future of the church is daily at stake. Required communal worship, classes, and in some cases, on-campus residential requirements and communal meals, keep seminarians of all ranks in very close contact. I’m tempted to call it crowd-sourcing theology. Only, in this setting one person in this crowd may speak for all. Tensions naturally build, but Episcopalians respect hierarchy.

If something goes wrong in paradise, few options for collegial dialogue exist in such a setting. An unevenly balanced, tenuous power structure makes the Dean a fulcrum between the Board (his or her only true boss, or better, absentee landlord) and the faculty (whom s/he outranks, but by which s/he is outnumbered). If goodwill or trust breaks down between Dean and faculty (and it does) apart from invoking the Almighty, the faculty feel their only recourse is the Board.  The Dean and President does not have to listen. The Board, not regularly involved in the intensity of day-to-day life of the school, often doesn’t see the warning signs.

In retrospect, some of the issues that arise may seem rather pedantic, in the cold light of rationality. I remember a professional conflict resolution consultant asking me under a blue Wisconsin sky why I was so concerned with what I had to wear in chapel. I’m not even a priest. In hindsight, he had a point.  Those expensive garments haven’t been out of mothballs since I left Nashotah House.

ATS, with its accrediting standards, is sometimes seen as an ally to stressed faculty. It is, however, unlikely to use its weight to smooth over bumps in the theological road. A life in ministry isn’t easy, why should a life in the preparation of ministry be any different?  In the final analysis you have an emotionally overwrought, often exhausted, highly educated faculty in a state of desperation.  By the time the Board steps in Daniel has already finished pronouncing upharsin.

The situation at General is deeply troubling, and it should be for anyone concerned about the academic study of religion. Seminaries are a crucial part of the overall academic mix in the field.  I am not privy to the details of what happened at General, and I have little data to assess how it came to this unfortunate climax. I do know that a cast-off seminary professor is no hot commodity in today’s market. And watching the market performance, I’m afraid this commodity is one that is set to be on the increase. The second truism has already settled in: did something happen at some seminary in some large city?  Why should we care?

In Post-Christian America it is an stupendous irony that those working for the destruction of church institutions are often those on the inside, and not the dreaded secularists from without.

Photo: “Wise men making their way toward the Chapel of the Good Shepherd at the General Theological Seminary, New York...” Fr. Robert Solon, Jr.