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.  


  1. It struck me that this situation might be emblematic of a deeper anxiety in our church. Like 410 or 1071, hindsight being what it is...

  2. Certainly an interesting possibility, Pierre -- but so soon to tell. After all World War I was the "war to end all wars."

  3. Thank you, Tom, for a calm and rational commentary. I have no connection to GTS (other than with friends and colleagues who are alums) but what seems to be going on there troubles me as a microcosm of the church -- especially that tendency to hierarchical centralization and high-handedness to which you refer.

  4. Thank you, COD. As a GTS graduate from this past May I've been thinking and pondering along the lines you describe above.

  5. As an alumnus of ETS (as it then was) I wonder if you could comment on what appears to be a similar situation (with similar dynamics) there. Is it just a case of too much pressure on vulnerable institutions, or have Boards of Trustees made some very unfortunate personnel decisions, I wonder? (Obviously, I don't expect you to answer that last question!)

  6. The best commentary I've yet read on this situation. Thanks.

  7. Well said, COD. My first thoughts were questions, "What about the students?"and, similar to Eric's concern, "A microcosm of the church?"

    Prayers all around.

  8. Robert, for once Crusty isn't being coy -- I honestly do not know enough about the EDS situation to be able to comment on it in a helpful way. Like Tolstoi's famous line from Anna Karenina, "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

  9. I was especially taken by this part of your post: brilliant and profoundly sad.

    "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 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."

  10. This is similar to a blow up in a parish. In that instance, inevitably the Rector and those who are unhappy would need to leave in order for any healing and rebuilding to take place. That's probably what needs to happen at General Seminary: the Dean and the eight faculty members will have to leave. I say that because both sides have closed out any options for reconciliation. The eight faculty members have delivered an ultimatum to the Board of Trustees (and apparently had the help of a lawyer to write it) and have essentially said, "It's either the Dean or us." The Board, rather than ordering a "cooling down" period and working the issue behind the scenes (or maybe they already have tried), has pulled the trigger and said essentially "the Dean is our guy and we're sticking with him." The eight faculty are probably shocked that the Board called their bluff. The Board probably sees this as having a gun put to their head and simply wish to be rid of these faculty members. In their mind, the faculty "abandoned their posts" and have by default, resigned. The Presiding Bishop will probably have to impose an interim solution to buy time for things to get worked out. A long term solution might be to merge General with another NYC seminary, like Union.

    1. Yes, except the bishop and standing committee can't say, "By virtue of your letter accusing the suffragan bishop of misconduct we accept your renunciation of ordained ministry." (not a perfect analogy I know) There are standards for due process in addressing parish conflict, and for good reason.

  11. Consider the situation at Wycliffe in Oxford about a decade ago, and at Yale about 20 years ago, when Yale hired a dean to downsize and move YDS. In both cases, faculty who resisted were accused of cruelty toward students, lack of charity, and of fetishizing their institutions.

  12. Indeed, Amy -- Crusty was a student at YDS and graduated with an MDiv 1994, one year after a far more illustrious graduate...and years later a candidate for a position at the same institution.

  13. I'm an alum of Kenyon College and the Episcopal church on campus was an important part of my formation and discernment. I'm now a Lutheran pastor, and in fact, a number of my Kenyon classmates are also clergy or other leaders in our various denominations.

    I also had no idea that there was actually a seminary at Kenyon. Until just now. I literally just learned that right now, when I read the opening to this article. (Okay, probably I heard it before, but it didn't make enough of an impression to stick in my head.)

    This is evidence, first, that your opening metaphor is accurate: the seminary at Kenyon is not there anymore, and hardly anyone at Kenyon remembers it. However, it is also evidence that although the seminary is not there and is barely remembered there, something of its legacy continues. God is still working at Kenyon AND at Bexley (even if it's not AT Bexley).

    I am not in a position to comment on the situation at GTS, but your comparison to the history between Bexley and Kenyon actually gives me a little bit of hope. I'll be praying, especially for the students.

    1. Sarah, your comment is a perfect metaphor, too -- though the seminary is gone, and Kenyon has worked so hard over the past 50 years to downplay if not eradicate any memory of its connection to the Episcopal Church, the parish remains, and has served as such an important place for so many generations of people. So formation and an Episcopal presence has survived.

  14. The most insightful reflection I (a GTS graduate, 1966) have read about this tragic situation. I especially second your concern over the "weaponization" of church procedure, and your illustrative examples. A sign of institutional arteriosclerosis, I fear, as well as insufficiently skilled leadership. But then there is the larger "weaponization" of the culture, political and otherwise.

  15. An insightful analysis on the connection between how we treat our institutions and our perception of them. For educational institutions to survive, there must be a conscious effort from the educational community to contribute in a positive way. Simple garbage disposal is something anyone and everyone can do, and it is one thing that can contribute largely to the growth and expansion of an educational institution.

    Clarence Rios @ Bins By Jo


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.