Friday, October 17, 2014

Requiem for a Seminary? Requiem for a Church.

As Crusty writes this blog post, the Board of Trustees of The General Theological Seminary are having their regularly scheduled fall meeting, which will include a meeting with the eight faculty who have been terminated from their positions by wrongful means.  COD still hopes for a spirit of reconciliation and compromise to prevail, and is holding the Board, Dean and President, all the faculty, students, and staff in prayer at this time.  Depending on the outcome of this meeting, the end of this column could be very different from the one it has right now.  And I pray that it does.

Crusty has just now read the statement from the General Board of Trustees, which may be found here.

The following post was written over a week ago, as COD expected this outcome.  What is truly sad is that Crusty has only had to change about 10% of what follows.

A few weeks ago, Crusty offered some thoughts on the situation at General Seminary.  It has turned out to be far and away the blog posting that has had the most views in the illustrious history of Crusty

Betcha didn't know Erasmus said that.
Old Dean -- nearly double as many hits as the second highest of all time.  When Crusty told someone this, they replied, "Guess you've tapped into some important issues here."  COD was less sanguine about his own brilliance.  "Maybe," Crusty replied, "but maybe it has more to do with the deafening silence in the Episcopal Church on what is happening. If Crusty is one of the few writing on it, then I guess people will read it by default."  While there have been notable grassroots groundswells of protest and concern about the situation, the has been a preponderance of silence from many in positions of power and authority in the church.

Silence is not necessarily a bad thing.  Scripture says even fools who keep silent can seem wise, lest they open their mouths and dispel that notion.  COD discussed this in his previous column, noting that often with regards to intense conflict, only those persons directly involved can really know what is happening, and at times it's wise for people to hold off on speculating who are not involved.  That's part of what is happening, Crusty supposes, with the silence in the church around what is happening at General Seminary.  COD is sure many are waiting to see what emerges -- which, BTW, is an easy thing to do when you're not the one who is no longer being paid and whose health insurance is no longer being contributed to by those claiming to be your former employer, and probably only New York's robust tenant's rights laws are keeping you from being evicted.

But it needs to be named that discretion is not the only reason for silence.  Though the exact situation is still unfolding, and not all the facts are known, there is still one very clear issue which is before us:  the weaponization of resignation by the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees, and now by the full Board of Trustees, which was used to wrongfully terminate contractual employees.  For much of what follows, Crusty will be focusing on this particular issue: the manipulation of the Executive Committee of statements by eight of the faculty to interpret those statements as resignations.  This is to put aside other matters, like the question of the dean's misconduct or the decision by the faculty to move towards declaring a hostile work environment -- all of those matters are complex, and involve back-and-forths that not all of us are privy to. 

But of this weaponization of resignation, there should be no concern about the facts involved, no need for discretion, on this particular aspect of this controversy.  We have the letter from the eight faculty to the Board dated September 17, expressing their concerns; and their statement of September 25, where they claim they will not teach or attend worship or meetings.  We have the terse statement from the Board of Trustees accepting their resignations.  We have the adamant reply from the faculty they in no way, shape, or form submitted their resignations.  While many aspects of this conflict are unknown or in dispute, the content of none of the preceding is in dispute by any of the parties involved.

The fact we are being asked to accept this bold faced manipulation is an insult to the church, let alone the gospel.  It is nothing more than a violent attempt at restructuring an ecclesial institution through falsehood and deception.

The silence in the church around this unconscionable manipulation by the Executive Committee, confirmed by the full Board of Trustees, to terminate employees without due process is what truly saddens Crusty Old Dean.  The silence around this cannot be from discretion, since the facts are all in the public domain.  Perhaps the silence is from fear: fear from people that those with the power who have manipulated processes to strip people of their due process and terminate them; fear
Also, @KanyeHauerwest will not play scheduled concert on the Close.
that those who raise these concerns might find themselves subject to the same intimidation, since if the Executive Committee gets away with this it will surely embolden the church to intimidate others.  Perhaps it is cowardice.  Perhaps it is from ignorance.  Perhaps it is from avoidance of conflict, which only permits those who court conflict to run roughshod over those who avoid it.  What little comment there has been has come from without, not within, the church.  World-famous ethicist and theologian Stanley Hauerwas from Duke Divinity School has withdrawn from the endowed lectures series, the Paddock lectures, that he was to give.  The Jesuit magazine America has run an article expressing concerns about the situation.  

Because of this silence, Bishop Mark Sisk's question, as quoted in The New York Times and found here, remains unanswered: "I think the trustees felt, who are these people?"

Since this question has been echoed throughout the church, unanswered, to our collective shame, allow Crusty to offer a few replies.

--Who are these people?  

They are people who were employed under the conditions of their contracts.  If the Executive Committee and Board of Trustees feel they are in breach of contract, and are failing to perform their duties, they could have proceeded along those lines.  But they did not proceed in that manner, because, you know, that would take a long time and be messy and involved following procedures and policies, so they are seeking to remove them without due process.  Perhaps it is because they have been bleeding money for a good decade or more, and this is a way to avoid paying severance, or even permitting them to receive unemployment.  Or, even worse, a naked and cynical effort to dangle a sword of Damocles above them, permitting those that dance to the tune they pipe to rejoin the faculty but being rid of the meddlesome ones.

The statement from the Board of Trustees reveals the naked, blatant, manipulative reality here: the farce of resignation was created to allow the Board to decide, on what terms, they might or might not permit the faculty of their choosing to return.  Faculty are invited " to request provisional reinstatement as professors of the seminary."  

Further compounding this injustice, the statement from the Board then somehow has the gall to  proceed to state: "The Executive Committee stands ready to meet next week to hear requests of any of the eight former faculty members for reinstatement and to negotiate the terms of their provisional employment for the remainder of the academic year."  The same body that invented their resignations is now the entity that will determine, based on no basis or grounds laid out, the conditions of their provisional employment?

The Board of Trustees has laid waste to the whole notion of contract.  The reason this is important, lest we forget, is not just because of models of best practice, or our commitment to fairness and justice, but because of the way covenant reflects the fundamental nature of our relationship to God.  From the covenant of Noah, to the covenant with Abraham, to the covenant with Jacob, to the covenant with Moses, to God's chosen people, to the new revelation in Christ Jesus, God has been in relationship with humanity, promising to be our God if we will be God's people.  The Board has laid waste to covenant.  This is why this matters, and why this is not just an ivory-tower academic squabble.  If we, in the church, are going to make contractual relations entirely dependent on the definition of those in power, then we have defouled a core principle of how the church reflects, at its best, the divine relationship.  

--Who are these people?  

They are faculty members at a seminary authorized and accredited to operate by the Association of Theological Schools and the New York Regents.  National and state authorization and accrediting agencies have standards governing employee termination.  The Executive Board and Board of Trustees may feel they have the right to do what they have done, but that doesn't mean they have the right to be a licensed and accredited institution.  Crusty certainly hopes that the New York Regents and Association of Theological Schools will investigate this matter, now that the Board has made "provisional" employment dependent on whether you dance to their tune.

--Who are these people?  

They are professors at an Episcopal seminary, which purports to "respect the dignity and worth of every human being," a church with a long and sustained engagement with the labor movement, a church with numerous resolutions from General Convention taking stands on fairness and justice.  This has become yet another chapter in the hypocrisy of the church, eroding any credibility in speaking to labor issues and fairness in the world.  Let the world see how we treat our own employees, and let them judge as we deserve to be judged.  Instead, in something reminiscient from The Grapes of Wrath, the Executive Committee has decided to bring in replacement faculty.  Crusty comes from Boston, and we have a word for people brought in to replace those wrongfully terminated.   They are scabs, and this is a scab seminary.

Since nobody has bothered to answer the question, "Who are these people?" those are just a few thoughts on who they are.  But some other questions remain.

The question still remains: Who are the Executive Committee and the Board of Trustees to think they can get away with this blatant misrepresentation so as to deny people due process?  Again, this is why the situation at General matters: if due process depends on the largesse of those in power, if we are to weaponize dissent, what's to prevent any Rector who fails to follow a rubric of the Book of Common Prayer to be summarily charged with abandoning the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the church and be deposed until Title III, Canon 12, Section 7, without any due process and completely circumventing the Title IV disciplinary process?  Crusty has had several friend elected bishop, and, when he asks them how it is going, many roll their eyes and say, "I just need to turn over about half of the rectors in my diocese."  Well, problem solved, if due process is no longer in effect in The Episcopal Church.  Find a way to depose them.  It'll be fun, like "Where's Waldo?", except with real people.

The question still remains:  Who are we as a church to sit by and let something like this happen?  Are we even capable of being shamed by our own silence, the only critique coming from without instead of within?  If we are to accept these "resignations" by the Executive Committee, then we live in
Wonder if Terry Gilliam is an Episcopalian.
an Orwellian church akin to the movie Brazil, where those in power can warp reality, to suit themselves and we acquiesce.

The question still remains:  With all this talk about restructuring, is there a church left to save? 

Requiem for a seminary?  Requiem for a church which calls white black and black white, and calls things resignations which are not resignations.  Shall we be a church where petty oligarchies can run roughshod, whether in seminaries, or dioceses, or parishes, divorced from their constituencies?

Get thee behind me, Episcopal Church.  You're not worth critiquing anymore.  

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Requiem for a Seminary: Or, Piling Up the Garbage Bags

The image to the right was taken in the summer of 2012.  These are blue garbage bags stuffed with carpeting and other interior debris from a building renovation.  Old, broken-down office furniture is stacked amidst the piles of garbage bags.  The building that was being
Stay classy, Kenyon College.
worked on (still is, BTW) is Bexley Hall, a structure on the campus of Kenyon College that served as the home of an Episcopal seminary from 1839-1968 (the seminary was founded in 1824 but moved in 1839 and eventually took its name from the building in which it was located), and after the seminary's departure served as home of the studio art department.  The place where these garbage bags are stacked is Colburn Hall, located directly behind Bexley Hall, and which served as the seminary library.  In a place where generations of theological students studied for the ministry, garbage bags were unceremoniously heaped and cheap, broken desks and chairs stacked.  Crusty somehow found it a fitting metaphor for Kenyon's relationship to the Episcopal seminary it housed for so many years. COD is currently Academic Dean at the institution which is the successor of Bexley Hall, Bexley Seabury Seminary. 

I have come back to this image in the past few days, reflecting on the situation at General Theological Seminary.  This may seem an odd image at first.  The reason this photo has been in my head is this: The one thing we should never presume is that our institutions are somehow existentially inviolable and immortal: we have opened and closed and merged seminaries, parishes, dioceses throughout the history of The Episcopal Church.  Bexley Hall Seminary left its home of over 144 years and in 1968 moved to Rochester, New York, to join the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School consortium.  And here's the rub:  this was not done out of a position of weakness.   The Seminary's enrollment was good, it had a full faculty, finances were OK, not great but not terrible.  Having read through much of the correspondence from the time, it became pretty clear that a major factor in relocating the seminary was that Kenyon didn't want an Episcopal seminary anymore.  Sometimes circumstances beyond our control impact our institutions.  Sometimes factors of our own creation do. Many times, it is a combination of both.  But whatever the case may be, we should not presume that General Theological Seminary is somehow destined to be on the landscape of The Episcopal Church.  In fifty years there may be a small plaque, hidden somewhere, obscured by an overgrown shrub, which notes "On the site of this [name of deluxe condominium and private park] was housed the campus of The General Theological Seminary."  

OK, before proceeding much further, some disclaimers.  If you're looking for some kind of insider take on the situation at General, go somewhere else.  Here's why (disclaimers follow):

A)  COD will not be going much into the details of the Board/Dean & President v. Faculty conflict. Crusty has been involved in a few situations of intense church conflict and has made difficult personnel decisions.  In situations of intense conflict, and in personnel disputes, often only the persons intimately involved in these situations truly know the depth of the situation: and that often discretion does not permit a public conversation even for those who are privy to the whole story.  COD is not on the faculty nor on the Board, so therefore does not feel it would be beneficial or helpful to be sucked into the maelstrom of statement and counter statement, and thus will offer no insider insights and will make no effort to adjudicate certain aspects of the conflict.

B)  Second disclaimer:  another reason this won't be a screed on the General situation is that Crusty knows and respects persons on both sides.  COD has friends and colleagues on the faculty whom he respects enormously.  COD has friends and colleagues on the Board whom he respects enormously.  For this reason Crusty will not be weighing in on certain elements of the situation.  My conversation with my son encapsulated this dynamic.  On Monday night I picked him up from rock climbing practice and he said, "Dad, you look sad."  I replied, "It's been a hard day."  Him:  "What happened?"  Me:  "Well, some of Daddy's friends apparently fired some of daddy's other friends, from what I can tell."  Him:  "Huh?  That doesn't make much sense."  Me:  "I know." 

C)   For reason #B above, and because Crusty is an academic dean of an Episcopal seminary (COD does have a day job), I will need to continue to be in relationship with General Seminary.  Because Crusty knows people on both sides, and is part of the system of theological education in The Episcopal Church, hence he is rife with potential conflicts of interests.  So Crusty won't be devoting attention to the back-and-forth of the conflict itself or trying to uncover the truth behind all the statements.

What Crusty would like to do is two things:  first, provide some broader historical perspective on this event and potential implications;  and secondly, note some concerns about several aspects of what has unfolded, all of which are in the public sphere.

Crusty is also aware that there undoubtedly numerous shoes still remaining that will drop, and that this post will probably be outdated by new statements and counter-statements as soon as it is published.  Consider it, then, a snapshot of where COD was late in the evening of September 30, 2014.

1)  First off, Crusty is shocked at the weaponization of resignation.  In its official statement (found here), the Board stated that: "the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees of The General Theological Seminary voted with great regret to accept the resignations of eight members of the Seminary faculty."  This, in turn, was based on its interpretation that the letter from the faculty (found here) was, in effect, a letter of resignation.

Contrary to popular belief, there are ways to fire tenured faculty.  For instance: failure to perform duties, ending a degree program, or declaring a financial emergency.  However, these all involve procedures of due process.  This action by the Executive Committee (not even the full Board) is shocking, and to Crusty smacks of nothing but an effort to subvert due process and to terminate employees serving under negotiated contractual conditions.  Crusty will bet you any amount of money you that the faculty hired to replace the current faculty will not be tenure track. 

Then again, we also have precedent for this.  The Presiding Bishop accepted the renunciation of ordained ministry of the Bishop of South Carolina in 2012 under Title III, Canon 12, Section 7.  Despite the fact that the canon in question specifically said that a bishop must state, in writing to the Presiding Bishop, the wish to be relieved of the duties of a bishop in this church, the Presiding Bishop accepted the oral address given to a diocesan Convention (the announcement of this may be found here) as sufficient renunciation of ordained ministry under Title III, Canon 12, Section 7.  No matter that nothing was given in writing and the bishop did not specifically ask to be relived of the duties of bishop, which are two pretty clear provisions in the disciplinary process outlined in Title III, Canon 12, Section 7.  Now Crusty is under no illusions that the situation with the former Bishop of South Carolina was going to end well; however, there were a number of other disciplinary processes which might have followed.  Abandonment of communion (Title IV, Canon 16) would seem to have been the most appropriate   Indeed, had they simply charged him under any disciplinary process (refusal to follow the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer!), and he refused to comply, he could have been disciplined by his refusal to comply! Instead the renunciation canon was weaponized to circumvent any kind of ecclesial trial or due process and the bishop simply released, removed, and deprived.  

Here is what is terrifying, and why this is more than just a seminary squabble: as a church, we already can have tendencies towards centralization, clericalization, and hierarchy.  Yet we have a new disciplinary process in Title IV which places great emphasis on reaching agreements or accords, and we are enmeshed in various legal protections.  If we are beginning routinely to combine legal and canonical sleights of hand to circumvent due process with those tendencies towards hierarchy and centralization, then we are in for some very dark times. 

2)  Crusty is also surprised by the way this seemed to escalate so quickly.  Crusty is no attorney, but his grandfather was a union steward, his great-uncle was murdered for organizing a railroad union, and his mom was a union steward who negotiated two contracts with management. What Crusty learned from his mom returning home from late-night union meetings was this:  labor negotiations involve proposals and counter-proposals, often proposals offered for the sole purpose of giving back in future negotiation; and, always be willing to cool off instead of escalating to something you cannot step back from.  Where we the counter-proposals?  Who was counseling stepping back before escalating to a place one cannot easily walk back from?   For many outside the institution, we were introduced to the conflict by the wholly unprecedented event of the overwhelming majority of an Episcopal seminary faculty going on strike followed by the wholly unprecedented dismissal of the majority of a seminary's faculty, all within a 72-hour period.  COD finds himself wondering if
My feelings exactly, Ron Burgundy.
there was any in-between from "long-term, simmering conflict" to "that escalated quickly."  
Crusty also thinks the faculty did themselves no favors by including boycotting of worship in their letter, though he suspects it may have something to do with legal counsel, since the faculty were charging a hostile work environment (with worship be part of the workplace by that understanding).  COD's first thought was, when do we need to be in agreement to worship?  In the Russian Orthodox Church, they prayed for Stalin, for f**k's sake, the single greatest persecutor of the church since Maximinus (look it up!) because the liturgy included prayers for the governing authorities.

3)  Crusty keeps coming back to the students, caught in the middle of all of this.  Seminary is one of the hardest, most anxiety-producing things Crusty ever experienced.  One is constantly being assessed and judged, on some of the deepest and most personal elements of one's life, with absolutely no agency in any of it.  COD was once doing a bible study on there anything it can't fix?
the Prodigal Son, asking each member to share with whom they identified -- the older son, the younger son, or the father, and why.  One person had not shared, so Crusty invited her to speak. "No," she said, "what I have to say is stupid."  Crusty assured her that it was not, and her reflections were as valid as anyone else.  "I identify with the Fatted Calf," she said.  "Think about it:  the Fatted Calf is the only one in the story that didn't do anything.  The younger son ran off, the older son was resentful, the father gets to be the good guy.  The fatted calf was happily eating his slop one day, next thing you know, he's dead.  He suffers because of the decisions others have made."  At the time COD thought, "That may be the most profound insight I've ever heard on the parable of the Prodigal Son."  It came back to COD in reflecting on the students at General Seminary:  the students are the fatted calf, those who have done nothing to contribute to the situation, but nonetheless the ones who are suffering because of it.

4)  COD wonders how General Seminary can recover from this.  The Seminary has been struggling for more than a decade with financial crises, including deferred maintenance on its campus.  It had just restored a modicum of financial equilibrium, at the cost of selling roughly 60% of its property (this is a guess, COD doesn't know the actual square footage, but all that is left is the 21st street side of the block).  What of the potential of a cascading effect of drops in giving from alumni, who may react negatively to these events; bishops reluctant to send students to an institution in turmoil; and foundations who would not give grants to a place in this kind of conflict, among other factors?  Add to this the inevitable cost of legal fees from what could be numerous lawsuits? Depending on what develops, the seminary could possibly be put on probation by its accrediting agency (if it turns out accreditation guidelines were violated) or be cited by the federal government for other potential infractions.  How goes General whether another storm after barely making it through several in the last decade? There's nothing left to sell other than the reduced footprint of smaller seminary.

5)  It continues to erode what little credibility our church can claim in areas of economic and labor justice, because of our perceived and real double standards.  We have a two-tiered compensation system for full-time lay and clerical employees (you know, other denominations don't) and it unbelievably took us until the late 2000s to consider requiring pension benefits for lay persons working more than 1,000 hours a year.  Our governance often allows only those who have the work flexibility to participate (how many people can take off 10 days in the summer to go to General Convention?). Many congregations' budgets seem to rely on burning out volunteers, then replacing them with others to burnout.  How can we speak to the world on issues of labor justice and fairness, given some of the models operative in our church? Crusty can only imagine the indignant platitudes coming from various quarters of the church if another institution fired employees who claimed to be whistleblowers and were forming a union.  

6)  There may be ripple effects through theological education for the next 10-15 years, perhaps in ways we cannot yet know or understand.  After all, the sack of Rome in 410 and the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 were important events in their own time, but in hindsight they came to be understood as emblematic of signaling much greater change: the sack of Rome eventually linked to a "fall" of the Western Empire (though no one understood it that way at the time) and Manzikert as the starting point to an irrevocable erosion of the Byzantine Empire (though no one understood it that way at the time).  What has happened at General is so unprecedented, and potentially touches on so many issues the church is struggling with -- authority, governance, restructuring, theological education, the role of institutions, our relationship to the wider world -- who knows how this may be seen as emblematic of some kind of deeper shifts?

To be sure, these are difficult times in theological education.  One thing COD has said to his Board of Directors is this:  there are massive changes sweeping over the landscape of higher education that are going to impact all institutions.  You think seminaries are in trouble?  Look at law schools, who ask people to take out enormous sums of money for a three year program that still requires them to go learn how to be a lawyer after graduation.  Look at mid-range four-year liberal arts colleges  that are tuition-dependent and who know damn well the future
Apparently the war has started, Rhett.
demographics of 18-22 year olds.  On the other hand, we have sweeping changes in North American Christianity:  the rise of the "nones" which no affiliation; changing demographics (the Episcopal Church is overwhelmingly white in an increasingly non-white country); increase in secularization; and so on.  Well guess who is standing at the nexus of these two seismic shifts?  Theological education: buffeted by both the changes in higher education and in North American Christianity.  Of course it's going to be hard.

This is, in part, why the conflict at General is so galling.  As Crusty noted above concerning the fate of Bexley Hall, sometimes events beyond our control impact us, and sometimes event of our own doing.  At a time when events beyond our control are going to be impacting seminary education, how can we have a seminary implode from its own doings?  It'd be hard enough for a stand alone denominational seminary (in a church where the denomination provides not a shred of financial support for its seminaries) to make it as it is in these times.  To be dragged down by systemic conflict is to make a difficult situation even harder.  At times in the past few days Crusty has felt like Rhett in Gone with the Wind, after the battle of Gettysburg.  As people of Atlanta react to news of the Southern defeat and the sheer scale of the casualties involved, Rhett looks over the crowd and says, "Look at them...the South's sinking to its knees. It'll never rise again...The cause of living in the past is dying right in front of us."  Scarlett says, "I never heard you talk like that."  Rhett replies, "I'm angry.  Waste always makes me angry, and that's what this is, sheer waste."

As I mentioned above, we should not presume our institutions are somehow indestructible; nor should we want that for them even if it were a possibility.  The church is, after all, a
I said New Jerusalem, not Asgard from Thor comic books.
temporary institution: we supposedly await the day when it will no longer will be needed and we will be restored to relationship with God.  The vision of the New Jerusalem in the book of Revelation includes no Temple, because the people will need no intermediary and will know God.  Bexley Hall no longer occupies the physical structure Bexley Hall, but it still exists and is still forming people for ministry.  Should our seminary system as we know it cease to exist, then theological education and formation for ministry would continue as surely as it did before any of our seminaries were formed.