Where is Jesus

by George Clifford

In the recent dispute between eight faculty members and the administration at General Theological Seminary (GTS), where is Jesus? In asking that question, I intentionally echo the desire of a group of first century Greeks who approached the disciple Philip saying, "We wish to see Jesus." That desire encapsulates the hope that both inquirers and communicants still bring to the Church and seminarians bring to their years in seminary. Where is Jesus in the dispute at GTS?

On the one hand, I am dismayed that the dissenting members of the faculty refused to attend community worship services at GTS. Praying together defines who we are as Episcopalians. I don't understand their decision not to teach classes. GTS is presently a rather fragile institution, both in terms of its enrollment and finances. Declining to teach seems a last ditch measure, akin to a strike that poses an existential threat to a business. Clearly, the dissenting faculty members appreciate the significance of their refusal to teach and believe that they have good cause for taking such a dramatic action. Is there really no way to speak prophetically, effectively, and pastorally? Regardless, I remain dismayed by their decision not to join in corporate worship. Jesus teaches us to pray for our enemies, those who hate us, those who persecute us, and even our fellow Christians. Surely, all parties to this dispute are Christians who can pray together, so that in the midst of the conflict, they might bear witness to Jesus and the watching world might see him.

One of the valuable characteristics of our corporate prayer is that our worship is scripted, mostly in the Book of Common Prayer. This makes it difficult to use the words or forms of prayer as a cudgel with which to beat persons with whom we disagree. I understand people declining to receive Holy Communion, if one does not feel in a state of grace. But disputants refusing to pray together? In our various ministries of reconciliation, do we not encourage alienated parties to pray together, to seek God's presence and wisdom?

On the other hand, I am dismayed by the public actions of GTS's administration, both its Dean-President and Board. My concern is not primarily with the details of the dispute or potential solutions, but with seeing Jesus revealed in the actions of GTS's leadership. Although I have read with interest the statements issued by the Board and Dean, and those issued by the dissenting faculty, I remain largely unaware of specifics. I do not know enough about GTS and its problems to speculate intelligently about possible, let alone preferable or optimal, ways to resolve the issues.

Leadership consists of persuading other people to join in achieving the leader's goals or vision. Jesus practiced servant leadership, a leadership style marked, in part, by humility, honesty, genuine concern for others, healthy relationships, and reconciliation. If the public statements of the Board and Dean express humility, I confess to having failed to recognize that sentiment when I read the documents. Relational difficulties usually entail missteps on both sides. Servant leaders appropriately take the initiative (i.e., they lead) by honestly acknowledging their missteps. Again, if communiqués from the Dean and Board acknowledge missteps, I confess to having missed it. Healing broken work relationships often begins by identifying common ground, e.g., a shared commitment to Jesus, to GTS, to theological education, etc. Identifying common ground does not involve hypocritically ignoring differences; instead, finding common ground helps to build the trust and mutual respect vital for people to cooperate in spite of sharp disagreements. Reconciliation—a reuniting that presumes forgiveness and amendment of life—is a longer-term endeavor that rests on a foundation of humility, honesty, and healthy relationships.

The GTS disputants appear to be polarized rather than reconciling with one another. Of course, it is possible that GTS's leadership has been humble, honest about their missteps, sought to heal broken relationships, and taken the first steps toward reconciliation in private communications with the dissident faculty. However, all I can see, and all that most Episcopalians and most people to whom we are to show Jesus can see, is the public side of the dispute. I wonder how many other observers are asking, Where is Jesus?

As I wrote the first draft of this post, The Most Rev. Frank Griswold had agreed to mediate at a meeting between the GTS Board and dissident faculty members. That meeting has now occurred. The Board, in a statement issued following its October meeting, emphasized that forming leaders for the Church is GTS's priority, reported that an independent investigation found insufficient justification for terminating the Dean, invited the dissident faculty to reconsider their position, and identified scriptures for meditation.

If the Board's statement represents an early step in a long process toward healing and reconciliation, I can see a trace of Jesus. However, that hope may be unduly optimistic. The statement seems short on humility, acknowledges no missteps, and does not highlight any common ground with the dissident faculty. In what is now a very public dispute, at least some elements of those moves need to be public in order to achieve reconciliation, healing, and show Jesus to a broken, skeptical world.

Perhaps what ails The Episcopal Church in general, and GTS in particular, is that we are dim mirrors or poor imitators of Jesus. Replacing biblical literalism with a progressive interpretation that incorporates advances in human knowledge from the sciences, social sciences, and humanities has let the light of God shine more clearly and fully in our lives. However, that shift has diminished our use of explicitly biblical images and Christian theology, the language and concepts that define Christians as a distinctive people. An invitation to meditate on texts, included at the end of a statement and with no indication of how God's light shining through those windows has changed the Board's thinking, can easily appear as window dressing rather than as a substantive engagement with scripture.

Switching metaphors, maybe we (and I include myself in that we) are no longer very skilled at separating the wheat from the chaff. We value the wheat of inclusivity and welcoming all, but confuse it with the chaff of relativism. We value the wheat of rights, participatory democracy, and community, but confuse it with the chaff of individualism. We value the wheat of integrity, but confuse it with the chaff of unresolved conflict. We value the wheat of loving others, but confuse it with the chaff of self-fulfillment.

My hope, my prayer, is in time we, and non-Episcopalian Christians and non-Christians, may all see Jesus in the dispute at GTS and in its ongoing resolution.


George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

Power and authority--at GTS and in the church

by Jesse Zink

On June 6, 1952, the trustees of the University of the South considered a report urging them to admit black students. By a vote of 45-12, they declined. On June 9, the dean of the School of Theology, Francis Craighill Brown, and seven other faculty members sent a letter to the trustees asking them to reconsider the decision. The letter included the sentence, that if the trustees did not change their position, "We are without exception prepared to resign our positions."

The trustees denied the request. The faculty resigned (though not until the end of the academic year).

As an historian, I am always looking for precedent and parallel for current events. The Sewanee example came to mind as I read of the awful conflict at The General Theological Seminary, if for no other reason than the numbers. Eight GTS faculty members have "been resigned" as part of a dispute with the dean and board.

Although I have no special knowledge of the GTS conflict beyond what everyone else is reading, it seems safe to say it involves at the least a breakdown in relationship between a dean and the faculty. But I think we can gain insight into the state of our church by a (no doubt premature and definitely imperfect) comparison between Sewanee 1952 and General 2014.

The Sewanee conflict revealed an obvious fault-line in the church over the issue of race. There are many other examples of such conflict in the church in that period. Like American society as a whole, church members were torn about how far and how fast to go with racial integration. (Lest we forget, two Episcopal bishops were among those who wrote to Martin Luther King, Jr. in Birmingham in 1963, urging him to slow down. He responded with "A Letter from a Birmingham Jail.")

So what fault-line does the General conflict reveal in the church? It seems to be part of a broader concern—anxiety even—about how Christians wield and exercise power, authority, and leadership in this day and age. The response to the recent report of the Task Force to Reimagine the Episcopal Church was notable for the way it focused, in some quarters, on the amount of power given to the presiding bishop, as if the Task Force had talked about nothing else. Not long ago, the pastoral relationship between a bishop and his diocese completely broke down over the wielding of authority. Anecdotally, there are no shortage of stories of serious and sustained conflict in congregations. In the last decade, the church has invested huge energy in revising its disciplinary canons. Individually, there is good reason to focus on all of these issues. Taken together, they are an indication of where we are investing our energy.

The anxiety about power and authority comes at a time when these ideas are very much under stress in society at large. Congress, one major source of authority in this country, fails to function. Institutions with authority of various kinds—banks, sports leagues, municipal police forces—are all being revealed to have feet of clay. The organizations that do have authority—tech companies, advertising agencies, shadowy "Super PACs"—seem more like amorphous networks than formal institutions. Power is (at least appears to be) more diffuse than ever before. People feel like they have less control over their own lives.

These anxieties are particularly acute in mainline denominations, which are seeing a vast shrinking of our power and resources. (Most, if not all, of the Sewanee 8 were hired at other Episcopal seminaries. It's hard to see any seminary having the resources to hire the General faculty if they wanted to.) We have constantly tried to theologize this—the post-Constantanian church; the opportunities that come from being peripheral not central—and there is merit to this. But that doesn't address our uncertainty, nor does it address the fact that some kind of authority still needs to exercised. And then General happens—and the conflict over differing models of authority, leadership, and power is laid bare for all to see.

The thought I am left with in these last few days is that conflicts over power, authority, and leadership are signs of an institution in decline. (I don't mean General, per se; I mean the church as a whole.) This is not always the case, of course, but the trend lines seem clear: when an organization is growing and confident, there is more to share around; when not, not. It may be that some of our church institutions need to decline—but let’s talk about that openly, rather than launching hugely destructive battles with one another. (Again, I don’t mean General but the church as a whole.)

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the General conflict (as I understand it) is its lack of theological edge. It appears to be entirely about authority and leadership. Imagine, for a moment, an explicitly theological conflict at General of the same intensity, say about the Incarnation or the Resurrection. Historically, these are the big questions seminaries fall apart over. (If you are having trouble imagining a genuinely theological conflict in the Episcopal Church, well, so am I. And we should think about what that says about the church.)

As a church, we are still looking for productive ways to acknowledge not only the opportunity the future holds for Christians—and I believe along with many others that the future holds great potential for the church—but also the very real anxiety many people have about how that future will unfold. One step in this direction would be to begin to talk about these issues in a genuinely theological way. What do Christians mean when we talk about authority? How (for instance) does the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection inform our understanding of Christian leadership? What does it mean to have power in the church? How is it wielded? When I served as a student representative on the board of an Episcopal seminary, we had lots of conversations about how the seminary needed to train “entrepreneurial leaders" for the future. We never once considered how leadership in the church might be different than leadership in the business world, the world with which so many of my fellow board members were familiar. The General conflict exploded into public view on the same weekend that Paul’s hymn to Christ’s kenosis (Philippians 2.1-13) was the Epistle reading in church. Surely we can find some wisdom there?

In the face of mounting pressure from across the church, within a year the trustees of the University of the South had changed their mind. The most embarrassing moment came when Jim Pike, then dean of St. John the Divine, refused an honorary degree. We can pray that the disaster at General may one day be a footnote in a fine institution’s history. In the meantime, I hope that it may be an opportunity at last for fruitful and honest conversations about how as Christians we confront the anxieties about power, authority, and leadership that exist in our church and in society at large.

(Too little about the Sewanee resignations is available online. My source was David Sumner's, The Episcopal Church's History 1945-1985, now sadly out of print.)

The Rev. Jesse Zink is a priest in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts, a doctoral student in African Christian history, and the author, most recently, of “Backpacking through the Anglican Communion.”

Leadership, community, and the current crisis at General Seminary

by Andrew Gerns

On Friday, the news broke that most of the faculty at the General Theological Seminary in New York City have decided to refrain from teaching classes, attending official seminary meetings, and attend Chapel services until they are able to sit down and have a conversation with the Board of Trustees.

Despite a follow up letter from the faculty to the students describing in more detail what it going on, there is still some question as to what is going on.

The conflict has nothing to do with pay, hours, job description, benefits, or perks. There is none of the traditional pocket-book labor issues at stake.

This is not a disagreement over the need for change to they way we do theological education or the way we prepare clergy for ministry. So the Wisdom Year (where in students spend their third year in parishes, particularly those that are small, in distressed communities, or who have lacked regular, full-time priestly ministry, doing and learning parish ministry in "a real-world setting") is not at issue. The faculty have been supportive of the concept both in theory and in substance.

As far as I can tell the real issues have to do with the leadership style of the dean and his tendency to "Lone Ranger" decisions--even correct ones, but also dubious ones--without debate, discussion or buy-in.

In speaking with, or reading things written by, various stakeholders--some who support the action and some who do not-- I have learned the following:

The main issue has to do with the relationship between the faculty and Dean & President especially the consequences of his style of leadership. In particular, those who chosen to take part in the job action cite the apparent tendency of the Dean to hear questions as dissent and to assign hostile intent to those who disagree with his approach.

Dunkle makes no secret of the fact that he is a person who does not believe in collaboration but rather that he prefers to be a leader who keeps and articulates the vision with the expectation that the leaders in the middle will use their talents and skills to carry out his central vision.

The line in the faculty statement about "maturity" has to do with the fact that the Dean has told the students that protest is a form of immaturity and that the problem is that the faculty will not do what they must do to accomplish the mission as he sees it.

So the Dean does not like to waste too much time in listening to or compromising with other stake holders. Especially when that dialogue might delay or temper his vision. He wants to dive right in and get on with it.

Related to this is the fact that he has gathered all authority to himself. So he has final say over both curriculum decisions as well as the conduct of worship in the chapel. The problem is that--like many Rectors who find themselves in trouble--he apparently has lost the balance in leadership between direction and influence that is essential to function effectively in an environment where checks and balances exist. In a parish, the Vestry holds the purse-strings. A priest can choose to make that relationship essentially adversarial or essentially collaborative. In a parish, congregants can come and go. A rector can choose to write off those who don't follow as recalcitrant folks who dislike change, or the rector can choose to work the process knowing that most will come along and some won't but that the community is working together for change--and this takes time, patience, and finesse.

This comes into play in the Dean's public discussions about the so-called "Wisdom Year." For him, "Wisdom" comes from the experience of enduring conflict. He has said that what students need to experience in the Wisdom Year is "being beat up." While he has publicly and repeatedly apologized for using that image, it reflects a bias that "wisdom comes through struggle."

Add to that the idea that theological knowledge is secondary to practical skills. He has also publicly told people in public forums that a priest's education is incomplete unless the cleric learns in the "real" world she or he must be able to "fix the toilet." His perspective is that unless the cleric learns practical considerations of institutional management, the priest will not be successful.

We in this see two different visions of theological education at odds with each other.

The tension comes when those practical considerations are cut loose from theological reflection. Basic questions about how the parishes that are supposed to benefit the most from the wisdom year--marginal, struggling and moribund congregations in various states of transition--can afford and pay for the seminarians sent to them for a year; of how those students will receive useful supervision, peer support, and theological reflection; and how the congregations will both get necessary sacramental ministry and live with the decisions these students make from year to year have not been effectively answered. In the haste to get this model up and running, fundamental questions of both process and mission are left unanswered.

A third perspective the Dean brings is that it appears that the success of the leader can be measured by the resistance he experiences from the system. From this stand-point, collaboration can be dangerous because it allows the leader to live at the mercy of the anxiety of those threatened by change. Again, I hear in his comments about wisdom coming from "being beat up" and protest arising out of "immaturity" as indicative of a perspective that assumes that when people are fighting back, the leaders must be doing something right.

Lastly, Dean Dunkle believes that the Seminary must align itself to be responsive to the general attitudes and trends of the church at large. To be relevant to the culture, the seminary must dare to jettison some long held traditions. So he has ended the practice of daily morning and evening prayer and daily Eucharist in favor of a schedule of alternate morning prayers and Eucharists over a few days a week. He has removed some of the pews to make for a space for people to socialize after chapel. And he has discouraged the use of words like "Mass" in describing the Chapel Eucharist or "Solemn" in describing a sung liturgy (in favor of the friendlier "festival") because, in his view, that's not now the culture at large speaks about the liturgy.

In the process, the focus on worship that was once the hallmark of life at General changed. Because most parishes don't worship on a daily basis and most don't have daily Eucharist, and since the student body is more and more dispersed, the pattern of worship has been changed.

But with this decision, the idea that formation happens in community and that the rhythm of daily office and daily Eucharist anchors the common life of the seminary, even if only a minority of the community was present at any given time (because mandatory Chapel went away decades ago), has been eliminated. The idea at the heart of Hoffman's grand design of the Close was to combine academics with Chapel life in a way to intensely form priests. There is a reason that the buildings include living spaces and classrooms that center on the Chapel.

Now, this is not to say that worship is at the heart of the tensions with the faculty. The pinch comes when decisions about worship that have a significant impact on the fabric of the community are made by mere fiat. That's a recipe for turmoil.

There appears to be a profound lack of theological reflection in the process of change that the Dean has undertaken, which along with an impatience with relationship-building, that is strangely at odds with the mission of a seminary to form and prepare priests for mission in parish communities.

After a decade or more of financial instability that required the relief of accumulated debt--through the sale of significant chunks of property-- and after many false starts at realigning the mission of the seminary, I believe that the Trustees wanted a strong leader, a man of action, who willing to think outside of the proverbial box. It is entirely possible that the Board is completely sold on and committed to the direction and changes that the Dean has in mind.

I believe that the faculty were as anxious as the Trustees were to have in their Dean someone who was willing to take big risks and make bold moves. What no one expected is that this particular leader would not be at home with collaboration but is instead impatient to get going and get the job done.

The Trustees may have been told that they should expect resistance from the faculty and that this might be seen as a sign of success. They may not want to have any dialogue with the faculty because they feel that they must support the Dean and President no matter what. And they may believe that to mediate conflict or to develop processes to bring in key stake holders in the decision-cycle will de-rail the hard choices to come.

The Trustees, I think, must choose what they understand their primary function to be: let the vision and direction flow from the Dean and President or, alternatively, to be the ones who themselves take responsibility for developing a vision and direction for the seminary. Being an elected and appointed body that represents the wider church, alumni, faculty and students, this will by definition call for collaboration.

In my view, it is not the Dean and President who is in charge of developing the mission and direction of the Seminary, but the Board of Trustees and by extension the General Convention who, after all, "owns" the Seminary in a way that is unique to the seminaries of the Episcopal Church.

There is an interesting parallel process to the recent turmoil uptown at the Metropolitan Opera, who barely avoided a devastating lock-out and salvaged their season when the unions representing the choristers, stagehands, and orchestra wrung out of the Board and Peter Gelb, the artistic director, significant input into the artistic choices of the company, the use of resources to put on productions, and financial accountability.

In that instance, the take-it-or-leave-it style of leadership generated a crisis, perhaps in the hope that the management and board could win concessions and cost savings from the workers and artists who put on the productions. Instead, it alienated the people who made the Opera possible and, worst of all, drove away patrons and donors.

What is happening in Chelsea Square is similar in that the leadership is so intent on their goal and so committed to a single over-riding vision, that they appear to have forgotten who it is they serve, who it is that makes the mission happen and who must live with the decisions in the long run.

It is true that the tone of an organization--parish, seminary, opera company, manufacturer--emanates from the leaders. But it is easy to forget that an organization is organic. The effective leader listens to resistance--from within himself, from within the organization and from outside--because of it is usually sending a message. The leader must choose what stance he or she is going to take towards the people being led. This means choosing his or her approach to the necessary and predictable responses to even ordinary change. If one assumes that the people who are not buying into your vision are incompetent or fearful or wrong, or if people who have a different approach are either saboteurs or terrorists, then all the organization will experience is conflict. The measure of success will be "winning" rather than accomplishing the goal.

It is true that if a leader takes the approach of going along to get along and always accommodates unhappy people, then the organization falls into kind of chaos.

But what is strange here is that fight is among people who essentially agree-- but who bring to the table concerns or perspectives that seem distracting or irrelevant to the leader.

This is the second time in a year when a seminary of the Episcopal Church has been wracked by internal strife between administration and faculty. Tom Ehrich wrote about his seminary that he hoped that students would learn that this is not the way to handle conflict. In a similar vein, I hope that the current class of students of my alma mater will learn that visionary, risk-taking leadership is required for the church's future, but that perhaps this is not the way to go about it.

One may disagree with the approach the faculty has taken...to stay away from classes, meetings and chapel until they have a open and honest conversation with the Board...but after two attempts at mediation have failed--combined with the fact that it has only taken twelve months for this level of crisis to unfold--indicates that leadership has failed to build on the opportunities that their new found financial stability has brought them.

Instead of developing a shared vision, building relationships with all the stakeholders, a solution is imposed as a cure all with the promise that it will change the church. Perhaps that's the problem. We don't change the Church. The gathering of God's people, wherein the Holy Spirit dwells and which demonstrates the face of Christ, changes us.

The Rev. Canon Andrew Gerns is the Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, Pennsylvania in the Diocese of Bethlehem. He keeps the blog “Fun’n’Games in the Kingdom of God.”

Way of Wisdom: General Theological Seminary new direction

by Deirdre Good

In January of 2014, the faculty of General Theological Seminary returned from a retreat in Florida with new ideas about theological education. We had engaged with each other for the inside of a week. We heard Tom Brackett of the Episcopal Church Center, who works in Church Planting and Ministry Redevelopment, via a Skype presentation. The outcome of all this good work and serious deliberation was a statement called Way of Wisdom. We also identified broader issues – e.g. implications for our own residential and commuter community--on which to continue working in committees and in Faculty Colloquia lunches. WoW itself first saw the public light of day in various faculty and decanal sermons, homilies and talks on Feb 2nd, 2014, Theological Education Sunday. We talked about it at our Board of Trustees meeting later that week and gave it a formal airing in the seminary at a community discussion on April 1st. Since then it has been reported in Episcopal Cafe, in seminary publications, and other places.

Here is a summary:

The Gospel amplifies the prophet’s call to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God.” This summons is addressed to the whole church, all its members. It is of the essence of the Way of Wisdom. It is a ministry for those who are in need, those who suffer, those who seek the wellbeing of their neighbor. It is not a way to serve ourselves or preserve any institution. The Way of Wisdom is the way of those who love justice and kindness, the Way of those who walk with God together with their fellow Christians.

• We call on all Christians to renew their commitment to the Way of Wisdom and their appreciation of the depths of Christian tradition, especially learning from those who are least among them.

• We call on seminaries and the wider Church to commit to supporting sustainable levels of high-quality theological education for all levels of the church (laity, priests, deacons, and bishops) and for all levels of study, from Catechesis through doctoral study.

• We call for greater cooperation between the seminaries in realizing this goal of theological education for the whole Church.

• We invite the bishops of the church to re-commit themselves to their teaching role as listening theologians to work to revive and reform the catechumenate for our time, and for church-wide support of the formation of catechists and other church teachers.

• We call on all members of the Episcopal Church to more deeply appropriate the vision of the Church as a community of all the baptized, as found in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.

• We call on all clergy to more deeply appreciate the Wisdom found in the people in their congregations.

• We call on theologians and theological educators to make Wisdom their paramount priority and to seek to integrate all aspects of theological inquiry as a coherent whole.

• We as the faculty of the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church pledge to follow the Way of Wisdom more deeply in our own lives and to change our courses and our curricula to better enable our students to encourage and help others on the Way of Wisdom.

In all my years working at GTS, I find WoW to be the most promising development of our seminary life. It’s about something we’re all doing, whether in seminaries or parishes or offices or soup kitchens--the re-ordering of our intellectual and spiritual selves toward God. It values the contributions of all. What’s distinctive about our input is that it comes out of our common deliberations on the integration of shared disciplines as they can be brought to bear on lived religious experiences in churches and other places of mission around us and so to deepen our life in Christ. It reorients us to older materials in Christian tradition: the Didache, for example, is not simply “Teaching” but a manual entitled “Training” of the Apostles and early followers of Jesus. I’ve longed for this since I came to GTS.

An example indicates earlier attitudes. Shortly after I arrived 27 years ago, Dean James Fenhagen, R.I.P, sought language to affirm my presence amongst the faculty. He said to me, “The Church needs the laity.”

GTS has since then undergone seismic changes that not only bring us to this point but also help us understand whence we come. Where formerly the lived experience of Christians in parishes and other places of ministry was discounted and objectified as mere practice, now these are celebrated as central places where our theological disciplines engage the faith of the baptized in Christ already living and working in the world. Where once ministry was something done in parishes and places of ministry to people perceived to be in need of the church's wares, now we seek to recognize and build on what Bishop Charleston identifies as the sharing and receiving of community. Where once the clergyperson was the epicenter for all parish activity, now we are working with others across the Church to empower clergy and lay leadership collaboration, which many already know to be the heart of congregational ministry and vitality.

We’ve begun to build an integrated curriculum across disciplines for every week of every semester for every year in every degree program. Then we will create a sequence in which each year will build on the next by emphasizing and cultivating a developing sequence of Stages of Wisdom that Professor Davis identified with us in a recent Faculty Colloquy. Such an approach develops earlier Christian instruction: the Epistle to Diognetus 11, for example summarizes materials for use in catechesis or liturgy:
Then respect for the law is sung,
And the grace of the prophets is recognized,
And the faith of the gospels is launched,
And the tradition of the apostles is maintained,
And the joy of the Church abounds.

Each step requires careful synthesis across disciplines. Each stage builds on the others. Here is an overview of what we are considering as the first and the final stages.

The first stage is attention to and awareness of God’s work and presence in our lives and in the world around us (e.g. Job 28:28). Here we might identify, amongst other things, a pattern of lived religion in our common life. This one includes the discipline of listening and observing. Professor Lamborn already teaches a class for incoming students encouraging reflection on what living in community means. They ask what the meaning and challenges are of integrating learning into Christian community. What are spiritual practices that will help achieve balance? How can we increase abilities to reflect theologically in many contexts, as well as allow new ideas, questions and experiences to emerge and inform faith and action? Attending to these questions is in part preparation for CPE and after CPE, Field Education placements that are part of a cohesive second year curriculum in which stages of Wisdom include Faith, Knowledge, and Courage.


In the final year we are planning an integrative seminar as the end of a cumulative process (Wisdom 6:17-20). In this seminar students will reflect on so as to live out fully every facet of parish life and other places of mission from liturgical training, planned meetings and classes, visits, to individual encounters. Stages of Wisdom in this year include Counsel, wherein judgments are based in reality, Understanding, wherein we work towards perceiving how life holds together in the truth, and Wisdom in which every aspect of our lives is ordered toward God. Participants besides the students (themselves peer learners) will include parish lay and clergy mentors plus seminary faculty and other practitioners offering particular skills essential to parish life. We could consider topics e.g. Scripture study and effective pedagogies; theories of leadership with an eye to the formation of effective clergy and lay leadership teams; particular theological questions, projects, or ways to foster and develop particular skills. Such an integrative seminar is a place of continuing focused reflection on e.g. teaching and leadership, liturgy, pastoral care, and the integration of these skills with public practice. It is a place for shared growth and development of new skills. It would include work with mentors themselves trained in particular mentoring skills and accountable to appropriate bodies. It could be a model for ongoing work in future ministries.

What we are trying to do is just beginning. It is both exhilarating and unnerving. Here’s why.
"Luther’s example and experience suggest that human institutions cannot truly be reformed, because we will always stand in the way of change. Some destruction is inevitable. The detractors of contemporary efforts at church reformation are only partly correct when they claim that our reforms are killing this institution. But the proponents of change are also only partly correct when they claim that their efforts bring new life. In truth, the institutional church (and a good many other human institutions) is dead. Such life as we see may not be evidence of reformation but of resurrection, for which only God may be thanked. If we are to survive these times, we must let go both of our fear of failure and of our zeal for success."
[Sam Portaro, Brightest & Best, p.48 (posted on Facebook 4/10/14 by Tom Brackett)]

Deirdre Good is Academic Dean and Professor of New Testament at The General Theological Seminary, specializing in the Synoptic Gospels, Christian Origins, Noncanonical writings and biblical languages. Her blog is called On Not Being a Sausage.

A word on our seminaries: Consolidate!

By George Clifford

Fiscal constraints have prompted announcement of major program or organizational alliance changes at the Episcopal Divinity School, Seabury Western, General Theological Seminary, and Bexley Hall. Concurrently, the cost of seminary education continues to escalate, leaving many graduates with significant debt and discouraging some potential students from attending. Meanwhile, enrollment at the eleven seminaries affiliated with the Episcopal Church (TEC) has declined by 35% over the past five years.

The seminaries’ tactical moves and sad fiscal realities of theological education should encourage any Church, especially one like TEC that is in overall numerical decline, to reexamine its strategy for developing ordained leaders. The present strategy, with eleven affiliated seminaries that in a sadly misguided policy receive no direct TEC funding, has considerable underutilized capacity, unnecessary multiple geographical locations, and institutional identities determined more by nineteenth century rather than twenty-first century factors.

Because effective ministry and mission arguably depend more upon effective leadership than upon any other organizational factor, educating and forming the next generation of ordained leaders should be a top organizational priority for TEC. Although the legal and fiduciary relationships between TEC and its affiliated theological schools varies widely between schools, the primary mission of TEC affiliated seminaries from TEC’s perspective is to educate persons for ordained ministry in TEC; other missions, such as lay education, are important, but secondary. Theologically (though not necessarily legally), these affiliated schools are assets – as institutions, as holders of real property and endowments, as recipients of contributions from individuals, parishes, and dioceses –for supporting that visible branch of Christ's church known as TEC in ministry and mission.

One critical strategic issue for TEC is to how best utilize those assets in forming and educating new leaders. At least three divergent options are readily apparent.

First, attempt to maintain the status quo. The recent tactical moves by several seminaries – tactical from the strategic perspective of TEC and not the individual school – represent possible actions consistent with this option. This option values each school as an independent entity and is consistent with TEC’s drift toward a congregational and less connectional polity.

This option appears an almost certain dead end. The eleven schools may survive. But focusing on seminary survival represents an instrumental goal (establishing seminaries to educate clergy) becoming an end in itself (i.e., seminary self-preservation by adopting new missions or alliances). In the meantime, seminarians will continue to graduate with burdensome debt loads and need to serve in well-paid positions to be able to repay that debt (i.e., not serve small, poorly funded congregations). This bodes ill for TEC with its growing number of small congregations. Fifty years into TEC decline, this approach is not working; no reason exists to think that the future will be any different.

Second, TEC could close nine if not ten or even all eleven of its affiliated theological schools (given the various relationships with TEC, closure in some cases may simply connote ending TEC’s affiliation):

• To the maximum feasible extent, TEC would begin by fully (legally and financially) incorporating all eleven seminaries into the national church’s corporate structure, disaffiliating any seminary that refuses to agree and strongly encouraging bishops not to ordain subsequent M.Div. graduates from noncompliant schools. Retaking control of theological education expresses a revitalized sense of organizational health by focusing on an essential resource for mission success (leadership) and our connectional polity. This emulates both the positive elements of the control that the Roman Catholic Church exercises over its seminaries and the control many professions (medicine, law, dentistry, etc.) exercise over their professional schools through the accreditation process.

• Meanwhile, TEC should determine whether to have one or two theological schools and the location of the school(s). This move will substantially cut costs by eliminating most redundant overhead (administrators, e.g.), eliminating duplicative resources (basic libraries, e.g.), and improving resource utilization (physical fitness facilities and class size, e.g.). TEC might seize the opportunity to form an entirely new seminary using the assets of all eleven existing seminaries. One (or two) school will have a larger faculty, more varied course offerings, and build more connections between members of the next generation of leaders. A single seminary need not presume uniformity of theology or liturgical style. Controversies that once shaped seminary efforts to fill particular niches in the theological education market are now largely irrelevant.

• TEC could then liquidate all marketable assets of the schools identified for closing and use those assets to fund the remaining school(s).

• TEC should fully fund tuition at its seminary for all TEC ordination track students. Funding theological education is less expensive than subsidizing clergy stipends in small churches enabling debt burdened new clergy to repay their education loans. By making seminary more financially accessible, TEC may also expand the number and quality of potential ordinands. Contributions from diocese, parishes, and individuals on a single school (or even two of them) will provide greater results for every dollar donated because of the efficiencies already noted. Funds realized from liquidating the marketable assets of the surplus schools will provide a substantial endowment for the remaining seminary (or two seminaries). This will help to shift the focus from institutional survival to preparing the next generation of TEC leaders.

• Non-ordination track TEC students and non-TEC students should pay tuition, generating a revenue stream for the seminary analogous to that out of state students produce for state universities. Similar to TEC funding seminary education for ordinands, parishes or dioceses will beneficially subsidize the cost of lay education programs sponsored by the theological school(s), investing in their volunteers and members. Individuals who want to pay tuition can do so indirectly through increased contributions to their sponsoring organization. Unlike tuition payments, such contributions may be tax deductible, emphasize good stewardship, highlight the value the Church places on its lay volunteers, emphasize the importance of theological education, and underscore TEC’s connectional nature.

Consolidating formal theological education in a single seminary (or even two seminaries) shifts the institutional paradigm from weakness to strength and from survival to mission. Mainline denominations that do not make this shift fight a losing rearguard action, trying to sustain a nineteenth century model in a twenty-first century world. Consolidation will produce unanticipated consequences, freeing the new TEC seminary from the fetters that bind its predecessors.

These broad proposals leave many important details unaddressed. For example, how will so many seminarians in a single area have meaningful opportunities for field education? Yet, by creating this institutional and pedagogical conflict and ferment, TEC will beneficially unleash great creativity focused on mission to aid in revitalizing and reinvigorating the Church. For example, developing a new school, or consolidating existing schools, will force careful consideration of questions such as: What are the critical curriculum and experiential elements in forming and educating ordained leaders? How can the school best incorporate those elements into its degree programs?

Third, TEC could close all eleven of its seminaries, modify the funding proposals outlined as part of the second option, and pay for its seminarians to attend theological schools that are independent or affiliated with another denomination. This option shifts the burden of operating theological schools to other organizations, but at what I deem an unacceptable cost, that is, losing control over the content and formative processes associated with developing ordained leaders in seminary.

I, for one, refuse to accept pessimists’ claim that TEC is in irreversible decline. And I am tired of tactical moves that only prolong but do not reverse decline. The fiscal plight of TEC seminaries provides a strategic opportunity for radical change. I find option two the most attractive, but perhaps a fourth, even better, option exists. Obviously, many deeply entrenched constituencies will oppose any radical restructuring. However, continuing business as usual bodes ill for the Church’s institutional future. If not these changes, what is the right strategic move? TEC can no longer afford to act as if theological education is the responsibility of seminaries and seminarians.

Time for conversation is short and the need for bold action is pressing. No plan is perfect. However, embarking on a new course while remaining open to the continuing movement of the Spirit seems preferable to staying on a course that seems certain to lead to failure.

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years and now blogs at Ethical Musings.

In defense of seminaries

By Lauren R. Stanley

Tis the season for graduations, including those at seminaries across the United States. Within a matter of a few short weeks, Christian churches will be flooded with hundreds of new graduates, most newly ordained, to serve as ministers.

It should be a time of great celebration … unless, of course, you read Jerry Bowyer on Forbes.com. According to Mr. Bowyer, all these graduations, all these newly ordained clergy, are not a matter of rejoicing but of sorrow.

Mr. Bowyer claims, in columns published on April 20 and May 11, that seminary is, basically, a waste of time. Clergy are not trained properly in seminary, he says. Among the claims he makes (some of which I and many others found astounding) is that learning about such topics as Church History and Theology does nothing to prepare a person for leading a congregation.

Really?

Why, just the other day, I had to call upon Church History, Litugrics and Theology to talk with a congregation about why they might want to consider moving their altar away from the wall, and having the priest actually face the congregation. We talked about why the altar was up against the wall in the first place, about the importance of including the people in the celebration, the fact that Jesus never celebrated a “Eucharist” as we know it, and that at the Last Supper, he sat (actually, he most likely reclined) around a table, passing the bread and cup around. What does that mean to you theologically? I asked the people.

That same day, I drew upon my theological training to talk about why a congregation might want to consider changing its building plans, making handicapped access the priority, and leaving a new office to a latter date. How hospitable is it, I wondered, to make handicapped people wait years more to get into this church, just so a new office could be added? If you were in a wheelchair, would you like to be told you have to go to the back door to get in? What message are you trying to send?

I use my education in pastoral and systematic theology nearly every day of my life, when I am working, when I am with family and friends, and even when I am alone. I use my studies of Scriptures for my preaching, my teaching, my pastoral care and my personal spiritual time. My education in Christian Ethics informs almost every decision I make. Christian Education classes taught me about working with children and youth, and helped me learn how to preach and teach at all levels.

In other words, I use my seminary education every day of my life. Yet Mr. Bowyer claims that I could have learned all of it on-line, and that that would have been sufficient.

Mr. Bowyer laments the fact that seminary is a three-year graduate program, and focuses on how much it costs. (He also writes as though all married seminarians are male, “with a wife and children in tether,” which makes me wonder which seminaries he has visited, where he attended and where he has been teaching. In his second column, he harshly castigated those who called him out on this, but that’s not my point here …)

Yes, seminary does take three years. Yes, it is a graduate-level institution in many churches (but not all). Yes, there is a lot to learn. You see, most of us who go to seminary do not have the prerequisites all taken care of. Some graduate programs require prerequisites; most seminaries do not.

And there is another reason for three years of schooling: formation. Asking a person to go from being who they have been to being an ordained person, living a life under vows, is not something that should be taken lightly. And many of us needed that time to leave behind those portions of our old lives so that we could be the person God is calling us to be now.

Mr. Bowyer also tells one tale – one tale! – of a man who somehow made it through both Bible College and seminary without, apparently, ever having preached in public … anywhere. After ordination, this person found he could not preach. He simply could … not … preach. His life went to hell in a hand basket, Mr. Bowyer says.

Um? Really?

This man went through an accredited seminary and somehow, he never once was asked, or even forced, to preach? And because of this one man’s experience, Mr. Bowyer believes that seminaries as a whole don’t do their jobs?

Really?

I took a fully year of homiletics in seminary. I preached at my field education parishes throughout the year, and at my summer internship. I preached in classes. I even was blessed to preach, one time, as a senior, in my seminary’s chapel. Was I nervous? Good Lord, yes! Sixteen years later, with literally hundreds of sermons under my belt, I still get nervous. I get so nervous I get dry-mouthed, and have to tuck an Altoid in my mouth before I can preach. Nerves are part of the job: After all, we preachers are attempting to say something intelligent about the Word of God! If that doesn’t make you nervous, I’m not certain what will. (Actually, if it doesn’t make you nervous, there might be an ego issue running here.) I didn’t have to wait until graduation and ordination to find out whether I was suited to the pulpit or not.

Mr. Bowyer also claims that many mainline denominations, including The Episcopal Church, over the years have followed “leftie fads” and are guilty of “indulging in ideological tourism.” Apparently, going to seminary means you become some kind of radical leftie, according to his columns. I don’t know what I’m supposed to think about this, but his comments rather remind me of those made by others who like to throw stones at churches that engage in social justice issues.

The only point on which Mr. Bowyer and I agree is the cost of the seminary education. It’s high – too high, in many cases. And far too many students leave seminary with huge amounts of debt, then are hired for jobs that pay well below any national average for holders of graduate degrees. Me? I never incurred debt in seminary. Of course, I received dozens of scholarships and grants, because I worked very hard to get even the smallest gifts (you want to give me a $50 scholarship in exchange for me filling out some forms and writing an essay, I’m on it!). I also worked up to three jobs at a time – because I didn’t want any debt. I cobbled together the money any way I could, and still managed to graduate in three years. So it’s not as though graduating from seminary without debt is impossible. It’s simply very, very hard.

Mr. Bowyer claims that technology is the solution, that we can find almost all of the courses on-line, and that what can’t be taught on-line can be taught through apprenticeships to experienced ministers. I can point out many problems, including the potential for abuse, with that system, too.

Do our seminaries need to change, to adapt to new realities? Absolutely. Many seminaries over the years indeed have changed, and they continue to adapt. More part-timers are attending seminary now. Courses have been added, and others dropped, to reflect the new realities of our world. Any seminary that won’t change and adapt needs to re-examine its mission statement, and look again at the church for which it is preparing its graduates.

And do we need to do something about the cost of seminaries? Without a doubt. Ministers in general do not get paid a whole lot of money. Having enormous debt coming out of seminary limits their choices.

But trashing the whole system and claiming that what is taught in seminaries in not necessary, not good for the greater Church?

Absolutely not.

Mr. Bowyer might want to think again before he applies such sweeping generalities, because in this case, he’s missed the mark.

The Rev. Lauren R. Stanley is a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, and a proud graduate of Virginia Theological Seminary, Class of 1997.

An immodest proposal

By Torey Lightcap

Those who normally attend to this space are doubtlessly, increasingly aware of what would appear to be a disconcerting trend. I refer to the apparent financial state of seminaries in schools and programs affiliated with The Episcopal Church.

This is not to say that the education itself suffers. Indeed, in their own way the minds and hearts of students and teachers have never been more active and attuned to how God is speaking in the here-and-now. As an alumnus of one such institution who has remained somewhat connected to his alma mater, I am heartened and excited by what I see and hear, and of the lessons emerging of what people have been able to do with what they have been given.

The problem, inasmuch as I am able to scrutinize and diagnose, is that the investment corpuses of these institutions have hit on very hard times, and that the upticks seen in cloudy economic forecasts have yet to be realized on the daily profit-and-loss sheets watched over by deans and other administrators. Hard times dictate big decisions; support staff are lost; everything is trimmed, yet every effort is made to still maintain programmatic intensity and integrity.

How long can that trend possibly continue? Until things break open and the long-dormant economy rebounds from recession, or until things are simply broken?

I wish that a billion dollars would fall out of the sky so that I could write a gigantic check to all Episcopal seminaries and end the fuss. But as my salty grandmother was fond of saying, if you wish in one hand and spit in the other, see which one fills up first.

Such times call for moments of unrestrained creativity and off-the-map thinking, after which the practicalities follow on. In that spirit, here is an idea that both fails to recognize the problem and starts new ones, but that seizes on the already uncertain moment.

What if all education in Episcopal seminaries was offered for free for one academic year? Just what if?

As the rector of a medium sized parish in the Midwest, I know. I get it. I watch the bottom line, too; I’m a practical person, and I get concerned when our income is outweighed by our expenditures. But occasionally you have to set aside implicature and ruminate about the question itself. What harm can it do, after all, just to entertain one little question?

So how about it? Laughable, right? Totally naïve. A little hand-grenade of a thing. But…

Can you imagine what it would be like to throw open the doors of our hallowed halls and invite in everyone predisposed to learn more about where their faith came from? Can you imagine the excitement and goodwill generated by a gesture so large and so caring?

Holy Scripture could be understood and read in a more generous and intellectually rigorous way. The past would dance off the page for students of history. The insights of individual and parish spirituality would be given to as many as were desirous to learn. Chapels would brim with students seeking regular doses of healthy Anglican worship. Students without a professional ministerial interest could challenge and affirm the clergy to be, and vice-versa. Participating institutions would advance considerably in name recognition as “those crazy seminaries” for good or ill. In short, it would be an absolutely brilliant mess.

I can think of a hundred reasons why something like this wouldn’t possibly work, and they all have to do with completely practical things: money and space and coffee supplies and goodwill worn thin. All good points, all very well taken. But what an amazing gesture of charity and hope for the future of the church.

It’s just a thought.

The pews in the north transept: a remembrance

By Adam Thomas

There were a couple of pews in the north transept of the chapel. They were set perpendicular to the main body of pews and a bit apart from the others. Only one corner of these pews had a view of the altar, while the whitewashed wall that marked the beginning of the chancel blocked those sitting in the rest from witnessing the consecration of Holy Communion. A set of upperclassmen always sat in those sideways pews. If we had been in high school rather than seminary, they would have been the aloof, cool kids who wore t-shirts adorned with the names of bands you had never heard of and who only participated in school-spirit building events ironically.

It wasn’t until the second semester of my first year that I decided to try to sit in one of those pews, too. Some vestige of high school social dynamics must have awakened in me to prompt me to sit there: I would be cool and aloof by association if I planted myself in one of those sideways pews. I finally stocked up enough courage to try, and, much to my surprise, the upperclassmen had no problem with me sitting in close proximity to them. Apparently, they were cool and aloof enough to allow my greenness and exuberance for chapel services to invade their territory. At least, that’s what I thought at first. It turns out that those upperclassmen were just nice, welcoming Episcopalians with perhaps more than their share of the liturgical equivalent of gallows humor.

They ushered me, a lowly first year seminarian, into their pews. Pretty soon, I was the upperclassman sharing the pew with new folks starting their turn in the never-ending three-year cycle of Episcopal seminary. From that pew in the corner, I participated in several hundred worship services, mostly Morning Prayer and Eucharist, with an ordination thrown in here and there.

I remember one Tuesday morning during Lent when we hunkered down in those pews for another epic recitation of the Great Litany. Much to the joy of our attention spans, however, the student who was leading the Litany didn’t realize that only a small portion of it appears in the Hymnal 1982. Needless to say, we got out of chapel much earlier than we expected that morning.

I remember a sermon delivered by a beloved Old Testament professor, who had recently become the proud father of a beautiful little girl adopted from China. He preached about how his daughter toddled along next to him as he mowed the lawn, all the while pushing a plastic lawnmower of her own. We are like my little girl, he said. God allows us to push the lawnmower, but really God does the work.

I remember my only sermon in the chapel’s pulpit – five minutes on Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. I had seen the pulpit shake and sway when particularly rotund and fiery preachers tested its structural integrity. I had no such worry, being neither very heavy nor very fiery.

I remember the first time I stood up behind the chapel’s altar, the table that I could barely see from my chosen pew. I stood there in that place of mystery, while my liturgics practicum professor led us through how to celebrate the Eucharist. Never do something with only one hand, he said. Pray with the authentic voice that God gave you. If you have glasses, make sure the book is at the right height. His practical advice took away none of the mystery; rather, it gave me the ability to share the mystery with others. Still, on the day of my first Eucharist, I was so flustered that I couldn’t tell which cruet held the wine and which held the water.

I remember being proud of my own austerity when I eschewed the kneeler cushions, thus proving I had no idea what the concept of kneeling was all about. I remember putting on my crisp new cassock and surplice for my first Sunday in the choir. I remember playing the guitar at Evening Prayer. I remember practicing baptism on a cabbage patch kid.

Mostly, though, I remember the air in the chapel. It was heavy air, full of stained glass light and the comforting residue of the prayers of thousands of students who came before. That air hit me the first time I entered the chapel as a prospective student on a chilly January morning in 2005. I breathed in the substance of the holy, communal life that the seminary desired for each student – the life made up of words and bread and wine and water and song and, yes, mistakes. For three years, I added the breath of my prayers to that airy substance. And from that pew in the corner, I sat and knelt and stood, while God continually breathed life into me, making me the person God yearned for me to become.

A month ago, the chapel burned down. A friend called me about forty-five minutes after the blaze began to tell me the sad, shocking news. I’ve seen pictures of the charred, unstable structure that still remains. I’ve seen the news stories online. I’ve read the Facebook comments of dozens of seminary friends, who each changed their profile pictures to an image of the east wall of the chapel – the wall that famously read: “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel.” All of these things tell me that the chapel is gone. But I don’t think that reality will truly hit me until I visit the holy hill of the Virginia Theological Seminary and see for myself the place where the conflagration released the residue of all those prayers into the sky.

The Rev. Adam Thomas, one of the first Millennials to be ordained priest, is the assistant to the rector at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church in Cohasset, Mass. He blogs at wherethewind.com.

A sacred space lost at VTS

By Kathleen Staudt

On October 22, a fire destroyed most of the chapel at Virginia Theological Seminary, where I teach. Built in 1881, the chapel has been a sacred space to many generations of seminarians and clergy in the Episcopal Church. Despite heroic efforts by the firefighters who were on the scene immediately, the chapel burned in about 40 minutes, as the community watched in awed disbelief. No one was hurt; no other buildings were burned. But it was a deeply traumatic loss. And in the week since then we have been very aware of what sacred space has come to mean in our lives.

Exactly a week before the chapel fire, I was traveling in Wales and reflecting deeply on this theme of place and sacred space. I spent that Friday at a beautiful, remote place called Capel y ffin (the chapel at the end of the road – aptly named) which was once home to a community of Catholic artists and craftsmen, led by the English sculptor Eric Gill. Capel y ffin was a formative place for the artist and poet David Jones, whose work has been important to me for many years. Jones wrote of the “strong hill-rhythms” of the countryside here, which was formative for his artistic and poetic vision. His paintings capture well the rounded hills and pastures (the “landscape plotted and pieced, fold, fallow and plow” – as the Welsh poet Hopkins wrote) and the curious “aliveness” of the landscape that one experiences in this place.

In this region of Wales – near the black hills – I was also impressed by the ancient stone churches – some of them a millennium old – at sites with strange place names like “Partrishow” and “Clydwch”. The sites would include, typically, a tiny grey-stone church, with old wood interior, silent yet filled with echoes of centuries of prayer. Beside the church, there is typically an ancient (and sometimes still active) cemetery, together with a stream and a holy well, whose sacredness dates back to pre-Christian times and is often incorporated somehow into the story of the saint of the place – for each one of these places has a story attached to it. There is a sense that these churches and tombstones and celtic crosses mark a holiness beyond what can be contained. Inevitably, here, I thought of lines from one of Jones' poems where he celebrates:

     The adaptations, the fusions,
     the transmogrifications
                                        but always
      the inward continuities
                                         of the site
                                        of place
(The Anathemata, p. 90)

Having been so recently immersed in this awareness of sacred place, I was available to the depth of grieving the VTS community was experiencing at the loss of the of course much newer “historic” chapel. In particular, I have been watching and listening during this past week as students and alumni (a few of them in purple shirts) visited the campus and simply stood, gazing, in sad homage, at the charred beams where the chapel ceiling once was, open to the sky below the cross that still stands on the front of the chapel. Soon, the conversations around the seminary will turn to what was not destroyed and what can be restored and carried forward. We know that “the Church is not a building. . . .the church is a people” – but this grieving-time has invited more reflection, for me, on what places mean to us, in a sacramental tradition.

We remember sacred places, often, because of what happened here. Every one of the Welsh churches I saw was sacred to a saint who had a story. And as I have spoken with grieving members of the community, I have heard stories. People the events that happened in the chapel: a classmate buried, an ordination, a profoundly memorable liturgy or sermon, the daily round of prayer that is part of community life and forms us.

Liturgy itself is an important part of what sanctifies places for us. At my own church on the Sunday after the fire, I found myself experiencing those “flashbacks” that we get when we are grieving, where one thing recalls another. We sang the hymn “Great is thy Faithfulness” on Sunday, and I recalled, with quick tears, that that was the last hymn that I sang in the seminary chapel, at Morning Prayer the day before the fire. Receiving the chalice from our seminarian, who is a VTS student, I recalled receiving the chalice from his hand a few weeks before, at a noon Eucharist in the chapel, with its scent of old wood, faint mustiness and beeswax, and midday light filtered through the “great commission” stained glass window, now gone. Receiving the presence of Christ in one place, I was remembering another place where I have met Christ, and been shaped and formed by that experience. It reminded me of the paradox that the presence of Christ is not confined to any particular place, and yet meets us where we are, in the world: and that involves place.

The first community Eucharist, the Monday after the fire, was held in the light-filled Georgian sanctuary at Immanuel Church on the Hill, across Seminary Road. The space recalled for me the New England Presbyterian church where I grew up. It could not have been more different from the Victorian feel of the old chapel. What was most consoling in that service, for many, was what we did together there. Dean Ian Markham named in his sermon what I was feeling from the opening sentences. The words of the Eucharistic liturgy, the familiar faces of the community, the celebration – our actions together – actions and prayers we had offered in other places – were what sanctified this gathering place for us, despite undeniable loss. This is true for any space where we gather in for worship – especially for Eucharist. And yet we are people of flesh and blood, and our lives are shaped by what we can sense, touch, feel, smell, and by our receptiveness to beauty. The places that shape us are not themselves sacred, and yet, they form us, open us, make us ready and able to receive the gift of God – body and blood, as people of flesh and blood, standing where we are.

And this took me back to David Jones, whose long poem The Anathemata revolves around the celebration of a mass in a London chapel, during the blitz. The celebration is the pivotal point of a long meditation on what holds us together, as Christians, when much that is recognizable in the surrounding civilization is crumbling away. Jones’ poem connects this particular Eucharistic celebration to the place and the time of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, which happened at a particular time and place, and to gatherings of Christians at the altar down through history. In the poet’s vision, the priest at the altar, blends into Christ presiding over the Last Supper and fulfilling the story in the mystery of the Cross.

Contemplating the priest at mass, “Here in this place//At a time’s turn,” the poet concludes:

     He does what is done in many places
     what he does other,
                                        he does after the mode
     of what has always been done.
     What did he do other,
                                        recumbent at the garnished supper
     What did he do yet other
                                        riding the Axile Tree?
(The Anathemata, p. 242)

Episcopal seminaries grapple with new realities -- II

This is the second of a two-part article. It originally appeared in In Trust magazine, Summer 2008.

By William R. MacKaye

"We believe that the church does not need Seabury in its present form," said the Very Rev. Gary R. Hall, Seabury-Western's dean and president, in February as he announced his board of trustees' decision to close down the school's residential M.Div. program and suspend for 18 months the admission of new students to any of its programs. "There are a number of other schools who do what we have traditionally done as well as we do."

In a subsequent interview, Hall explained that money concerns forced the decision to launch a radical restructuring at this time. By moving now to balance the budget by terminating the residential M.Div. program after current students graduate, laying off administrative staff, and starting the process to end tenure and dismiss some or all permanent faculty, Seabury would have sufficient resources to offer appropriate severance packages and pay for rethinking the school's structure while still retaining some endowment for future operations. The school was contemplating an expected $500,000 deficit in the last fiscal year, which ended June 30, 2008, and a debt of $2.9 million accumulated since the board voted four years ago to reduce the annual draw on the endowment to 5 percent and open a line of credit to cover operating deficits.

"We were making it clear to ourselves that we were unable to balance the budget," said the Rev. Elizabeth Butler, vice president of advancement and administration, explaining the line of credit. Although the accepted wisdom is that prudent endowed institutions should withdraw no more than 5 percent of principal annually, many fiscally troubled organizations do draw down more. Some label the proceeds as "income from investments," a label that accounting principles permit, even though "withdrawal to cover the deficit" would be more revealing.

Seabury's financial options are more limited than EDS's. (see Part one.) Its endowment is significantly smaller ($12 million in 2007), and half its campus just north of Chicago is built on land it leases for $1 a year from Northwestern University. The lease agreement limits Seabury's use of the land solely to the operation of an Episcopal theological school.

After his acknowledgment that some other existing Episcopal residential M.Div. programs are as good as Seabury's, Hall went on to say in the original announcement: "But we also believe that the church very much needs a seminary animated by and organized around a new vision of theological education—one that is centered in a vision of baptism and its implications for the whole church, one which is flexible and adaptive and collaborative in nature."

In the phrase "centered in a vision of baptism," the dean was pointing to a principle enunciated in the Episcopal Church's 1979 Book of Common Prayer. The church's fundamental rite of ordination is baptism, says the Prayer Book. Ministers of the church include all baptized people, not just its deacons, priests, and bishops. For both theological and practical reasons, the Episcopal Church is moving toward a "nonprofessional" ministry of part-time or unpaid clergy. And an increasing amount of pastoral, spiritual, and educational work is being carried out by lay volunteers. By some estimates, between 60,000 and 100,000 lay people have been trained in Bible, church history and theology in an intensive four-year program called Education for Ministry that was devised at the University of the South School of Theology. That school (usually called simply Sewanee, for the Tennessee town where it's based) is another of the 11 Episcopal seminaries.

Hall estimated that 40 or more of the 100 U.S. dioceses of the Episcopal Church are now ordaining priests who are locally trained and have little or no seminary experience. Such clergy were once restricted to serve in the congregations in which they were ordained, but recent changes in church law now permit them to serve wherever they are called, if the local bishop approves. Noting that a "two-tier clergy would not be healthy" for the church, with some priests theologically educated and some not, he suggested one scenario for Seabury's future might be providing online and extension education for such men and women.

Uncertain future

The Seabury board's charge to the dean is twofold: bring expenses into line with revenue and develop a detailed plan for the future operation of the seminary. He is to be assisted in these tasks by a committee of six officers or trustees of the school and two faculty members.

The goal of the planners, Hall said, is to remake Seabury into an organization with a Chicago presence that will serve unserved parts of the church, working through a series of collaborative relationships. It may remain in Evanston in association with its present neighbor, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Or it may relocate, perhaps to Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, where six other seminaries cluster around the University of Chicago, or to downtown, where the offices of the Episcopal Diocese of Chicago are located.

The dean said he expects the planning group to have the broad outlines of the prospective restructured school ready to unveil to the board at its meeting this autumn. The first challenge is to establish the value of the present campus and to negotiate with Northwestern on the purchase of at least the buildings that stand on Northwestern land. Only then will the planners have a clear picture of the school's total financial resources and hence the size of the faculty it can employ. A second challenge is to determine the future of the united library, owned jointly with Garrett-Evangelical, which Hall said is one of the 10 largest theological libraries in the United States.

Through a temporary collaborative agreement with Garrett, all current Seabury M.Div. students will be able to complete their course work and receive Seabury degrees. What degrees the future Seabury might offer is still up in the air, although the planners are eager to retain ATS accreditation. Hall predicted the doctor of ministry program to be a probable survivor; an M.Div. degree through distance education is also a possibility. But any degree programs will be collaborative with other institutions. "The days of the stand-alone institution are over," he said firmly.

Bishop Charleston, the outgoing president and dean of Episcopal Divinity School, elaborated on this point and cheered Seabury-Western's boldness in an essay published recently on Episcopal Café. He wrote:

The deeper question is not what happened at Seabury, but what is happening in the Episcopal Church? Where are we in regard to our commitment to academic excellence and spiritual formation? Right now, the answer is chaotic. We are grappling to find new models, new methods, and new mandates. Our seminaries and the national church are working together in fresh ways that promise new hopes. There is lots of action, but the climb will be uphill. Not only will our seminaries need to find new ways of working together, the whole church is going to have to find a way of actually supporting the development of its leadership rather than outsourcing its education to other, less expensive alternatives. Seabury is not the canary in the mine. Seabury is the light at the end of the tunnel.

We now have an opportunity to reclaim our role as a Christian community in the forefront of education. We have let that priority slip over the last 30 years. We have a training system marred by ideology, stuck in a cafeteria design for education, limited in technology, and financially strapped. But we have outstanding people in place and creativity in abundance if we choose to use it. The common sense and courage of Seabury is a call to us to join them in waking up to reality. If we want the Episcopal Church to remain one of the best educated faith communities in the world, we need to invest in the kinds of change that will make that possible.

The end of stand-alone, go-it-alone Episcopal seminaries is very much the hope of Donn F. Morgan, president and dean of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific (CDSP) and former head of the Episcopal Council of Deans. "If we don't serve the Episcopal Church, there's no need for us," he said of the 11 schools.

In an article published in the Spring 2008 issue of the Anglican Theological Review, Morgan wrote: "Institutions in financial crisis are often guilty of a 'silo' mentality, too preoccupied with their own problems to have much inclination or ability to dream bigger dreams, dreams which might offer new and better ways of doing education."

Under his leadership, the council—formerly a once-a-year affair—met several times in 2007 in an effort to quell the silo tendency. These conferences culminated with a four-day meeting in January in Charleston, South Carolina, where the deans were joined by trustees—in most cases board chairs of the schools—and several diocesan bishops who are board members.

"Our thesis was simple," Morgan said. "We (seminary heads) can't effect change without the help of the church and the boards."

Out of the meeting emerged a commitment for schools to work collaboratively in four areas:

• Episcopal Divinity School and Seabury-Western are to team with the Church Divinity School of the Pacific and Bexley Hall on programs of education for "total ministry"—that is, group ministry that includes both clergy and trained laity.
• EDS, CDSP and Bexley are to work with the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest (ETSS) in Austin, Texas, on theological education via distance learning.
• Seabury, CDSP and ETSS are to collaborate with The General Theological Seminary in New York on education for Hispanic ministry.
• General, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale, Nashotah House in Wisconsin, Sewanee, and Virginia Theological Seminary are to develop an education program for underdeveloped areas of the Anglican world, especially in Africa.

The seminary board chairs also agreed to meet at least annually, possibly without the deans.

It's Morgan's hope that the joint projects mean that the days of Lone Rangers are over. "The Episcopal seminaries, in doing theological education in a new way, must no longer work separately and secretly," he said, "but transparently and in accord with agreed-upon common goals."

The noncrisis at Bexley

How did Bexley Hall become part of the news stories earlier this year that arose from the financial crises at Episcopal Divinity School and Seabury- Western? The Very Rev. John R. Kevern, Bexley's dean and president, noted that the closure of the school's Rochester program was the end of a gradual process that began with Bexley's establishing an alliance with Trinity Lutheran Seminary in 1998. The Rochester closing was actually announced in May 2007. In his view, the story was revived this year by critics eager to suggest that Episcopal seminaries are failing enterprises.

"Actually, our enrollment is growing," Bexley's dean said.

A major factor involved in the closing of the Rochester program, he said, was a state ruling that with the termination of the school's cooperative venture with Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, Bexley was no longer entitled to award degrees in New York. It was also doubtful that the Rochester campus could qualify for reaccreditation. Bexley has found its collaboration with Trinity Lutheran more comfortable than the arrangement with Colgate Rochester Crozer, which it ended several years ago. The Episcopal Church and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, Trinity's sponsoring denomination, have a concordat of full intercommunion and mutual recognition of ministries.

In Columbus, Bexley rents a building on the Trinity campus as its headquarters and enrolls its own student body, the dean explained. It passes on to Trinity three-quarters of the tuition it receives, and Trinity in return offers most of the courses that Bexley students take. Bexley's three full-time and one half-time faculty members offer courses in Anglican studies (which attract some Trinity seminarians) and preside over Bexley's spiritual formation program.

One of Bexley's points of pride is this emphasis on formation. Students and faculty participate in an annual extended retreat, much of it in silence. Faculty members commit themselves to a rule of life. And students are asked to draw up and pursue a similar rule for themselves in consultation with a spiritual director.

With only about 25 full-time-equivalent students currently, Bexley is the smallest accredited Episcopal seminary. But that doesn't mean it's a failing institution. It has agreed to participate in two of the Episcopal multiseminary collaborations now in creation.

"Closing Rochester freed up money for Columbus," said the Rev. Carlson Gerdau, Bexley's board chair. "We've got $9 million in the bank and no buildings to worry about. We're in good shape."


William R. MacKaye is editor emeritus of In Trust magazine and a parishioner at St. Stephen and the Incarnation, Washington, D. C.

Episcopal seminaries grapple with new realities -- I

This is the first of a two-part article. It originally appeared in In Trust magazine, Summer 2008.

By William R. MacKaye

Several years ago, the senior administrators and the trustees of Episcopal Divinity School (EDS) and Seabury-Western Theological Seminary grew alarmed about the rate at which they were drawing down their endowments in order to balance their operating budgets. Both attempted cost-cutting efforts, but the results were insufficient to stanch the financial drain. Then, earlier this year, the schools, which are two of the 11 accredited theological schools of the Episcopal Church, concluded that they were summoned to make major changes in their lives.

EDS announced the sale of about a third of its Cambridge, Massachusetts, campus to nearby Lesley University for $33.5 million.

Seabury, based in Evanston, Illinois, announced it would terminate its residential master of divinity program and would withdraw into 18 months of "discernment" about its future. In April, Seabury went on to lay off nine members of its administrative support staff (effective at the end of the 2007–08 academic year), leaving only four to assist its three senior administrators. It simultaneously notified the school's eight faculty members that none could be assured jobs beyond June 30, 2009.

There is as well a larger picture. Dramatic change in the Episcopal Church's approach to ministry training lies behind the two announcements, which are sweeping in themselves. This evolving approach to training is also behind the news that a third, smaller Episcopal school, Bexley Hall, is shuttering its one-time main base in Rochester, New York. Bexley will continue as a property-less partner of Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio.

The high cost of residential theological education conducted in accordance with the traditional academic model—$50,000 a year per student at Seabury, for example, with only $13,000 covered by tuition—turns out to be only one element in the growing pressure in the Episcopal Church to develop a new system of training for ministry. Equally important are a number of other factors:

The number of candidates for M.Div. degrees enrolled in Episcopal seminaries is no longer bountiful. It’s been hovering between 600 and 750 for 20 years which is not enough to sustain 11 schools, all with the principal mission of educating Episcopal candidates for full-time professional ministry.

A growing number of Episcopal congregations, especially in rural areas, can no longer support a full-time priest, and many congregations throughout the church are finding their old patterns of life increasingly difficult to pay for. Moreover, many are not currently persuaded that spending on education, especially for new clergy, should be a priority.

Only about half of new Episcopal clergy learn their theology in Episcopal seminaries. Many choose other routes to ordination because of cost and because they cannot conveniently transplant themselves to where the seminaries are. One alternate pattern is two years in an interdenominational seminary or seminary of another denomination near the candidate's home, followed by one year of "Anglican studies" in an Episcopal seminary.

Another alternative is study under the guidance of one or several clergy, enriched perhaps by online courses offered by an accredited theological school.

To some extent, the seminaries have not provided the training that bishops want their new clergy to have. Since 1970, the Episcopal Church has required candidates for ordination to take the difficult General Ordination Examination and demonstrate "proficiency" in seven areas ranging from Bible to liturgics to contemporary social issues. But under church law, each candidate's bishop, assisted perhaps by the diocesan Commission on Ministry, decides whether the candidate is proficient and is qualified for ordination. Standards and expectations vary from diocese to diocese, and the bishop has the last word.

Buildings become cash

When Boston architect Brett Donham, chair of the Episcopal Divinity School board of trustees, joined the board five years ago, the administration and the trustees had just admitted to themselves that the school was drawing down its endowment too rapidly, Donham said in an interview. "And the endowment was not being very well managed," he added.

Donham credited the wake-up call to findings and recommendations of the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education, which EDS had hired as consultant. (Auburn has also worked with Seabury-Western on its restructuring.) In response, the EDS board retrieved the endowment from its solo manager and retained an adviser who spread the fund among three management firms for greater diversification.

Then the board directed Bishop Steven Charleston, EDS's then-president and dean, to make significant cuts in the school's operating budget. And architect Donham called for an appraisal of the school's eight-acre campus, which lies just a few blocks from Cambridge's Harvard Square.

"We were astounded at its value," Donham recalled. Among other discoveries: Some faculty members were living in seminary-provided houses that were worth $3.5 million each.

Meanwhile, the board and the administration found that endowment performance couldn't be improved enough, and costs couldn't be cut enough, to balance the budget. Furthermore, Weston Jesuit School of Theology, which rented some of EDS's buildings and collaborated with EDS on library services, gave notice it was moving to Boston to join forces with Jesuit-sponsored Boston College. The next step for the Episcopal school, painful as it might be, was clear. It was going to have to part with some or all of its property if it was to return to health.

Donham likened the board's reaction to the stages of grief outlined in Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's classic formula: first denial, then anger, then bargaining and depression, and finally acceptance. In EDS's case, this acceptance was even filled with hope. Abandoning the piecemeal solutions to problems it had previously pursued, the school and the board launched a comprehensive self-study of seminary operations.

"We found we were deluding ourselves about the efficiency of the use of our space," Donham said. In fact, 40 percent was unused—a partial sale might hamper expansion at some future date, but if well crafted, it wouldn't interfere with present operations at all.

Alternatives explored

Planners investigated moving EDS to the campus of Andover-Newton Theological School in suburban Newton Centre. Not enough space. How about creating a campus in downtown Boston? Too expensive. Buying a defunct Roman Catholic high school in another Boston suburb? Nixed by the "ick" quality of an ugly building. And then Bishop Charleston had lunch with Joseph B. Moore, the new president of neighboring Lesley University, a rapidly expanding school that was already leasing one of the EDS dormitories. Neighborly conversation quickly became serious negotiations, and a deal was struck. For $33.5 million, Lesley would acquire seven EDS buildings and assume shared ownership of Sherrill Hall, EDS's library, which was about to become half empty with the withdrawal of Weston Jesuit's collection. EDS would retain 13 other buildings.

When final, the sale will increase EDS's endowment to around $71.5 million. Moreover, "Lesley is picking up $1 million in annual operating expenses," Mr. Donham added. "That's the equivalent of another $20 million in endowment." (In other words, $1 million is 5 percent—the normal annual rate of endowment draw—of $20 million.)

In its newfound prosperity among Episcopal schools, EDS will be exceeded in endowment only by Virginia Theological Seminary, which reported reserves of $154 million in 2007. But money is far from the full story. Donham and the board are confronted with immediate challenges and opportunities just ahead. As the agreement with Lesley was consummated, Bishop Charleston, 59, announced he would step down as president and dean June 30. The board must launch the search for both an interim and a permanent chief executive as it and other senior administrators concurrently pursue the details of the covenant that will govern the school's collaboration with Lesley. Lesley is strong in distance education, which EDS is committed to improve in. Lesley offers a graduate degree in social work, a possible congruent profession for priests in a church that wants more bivocational clergy. In addition, EDS is committed to pursue and deepen its collaboration with other Episcopal theological schools.

"We will not be the same institutions in five years," Donham said. Surveying the coming months for EDS, he added, "People feel we're on the road to success and they want to be part of it."

Indeed, as a token of that confidence in the future, EDS announced recently it had created and filled two new faculty positions.

William R. MacKaye is editor emeritus of In Trust magazine and a parishioner at St. Stephen and the Incarnation, Washington, D. C.

A disciple-making church?

By Kathleen Henderson Staudt

Over the altar at Virginia Seminary, where I teach, are the words from Mark 16:15. “Go into all the world and preach the gospel.” (“proclaim the good news to the whole creation” is how the New Revised Standard Version has it.) These words have inspired generations of people called to the ordained ministry of word and sacrament. But as one of the people called to the ministry of teaching in and beyond the church, I find myself drawn, this ascensiontide, to Matthew’s version of the Great Commission, and I wonder what the church would look like if we spent more time reflecting on what Jesus might have meant here. In Matthew 28: 19-20, he says “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

A lot of the literature I’ve seen on stewardship and congregational development seems to focus on attracting more members to our congregations, through programs that meet perceived needs: it’s about “marketing” the church. Young adult ministries, I’ve noticed, focus some energy on encouraging vocations, but often that means raising up young people to be the next generation of ordained ministers in the church. But I have been wondering what we would look like as a church, as congregations and schools and communities, if we focused more energy, not so much on selling the church or attracting new members, but on “making disciples” of the people who come in our doors, and the seekers who inquire about us. What might this call to “make disciples of all nations” mean in our time and culture and in the current theological climate?

The term “discipleship” is probably associated, for some of us, with more evangelical and fundamentalist traditions and “making disciples” primarily with overseas mission, often associated with cultural conservatism. But I believe it’s a term that we in the Episcopal/Anglican tradition should be reclaiming, reframing, and considering in light of our tradition and the culture surrounding us. Brian McLaren, in A Generous Orthodoxy, moves in this direction as he seeks a very Anglican-sounding “generous third way” between Evangelicals’ preoccupation with a personal savior and liberals’ with modern culture. He writes of how he muddled for some time over how to describe the mission of the Church, moving from the familiar language of Evangelicals in his description of the church. He tells how he started with formulaic language: the church’s mission is to make “more Christians and better Christians.” But on reflection he tweaked it further, moving to “To be and to make disciples of Jesus Christ” and then “To be and to make disciples of Jesus Christ, in authentic community, for the sake of the world.” I like his movement away from labels to the affirmation of discipleship as part of our communal identity and our work in the world. And I like the language of discipleship better than language about “the ministry of the laity” (much as I revere the work of Verna Dozier and others of her generation) because it gets us out of ecclesiastical categories back into Biblical language that describes the shared mission of everyone in the Church. How do we understand discipleship in our time? That’s the question we should be asking together, regardless of office or vocation within the structure of the Church.

The idea of discipleship also gets us back to the concept of our faith as something we practice – the great insight of Diana Butler Bass’s influential work. Jesus tells his followers to make disciples of all nations – i.e. not only the Jewish community that they know but ALSO all nations: this is for everyone. And it’s about observing what he commanded. Love your neighbor as yourself; pray; teach, heal, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, seek forgiveness and reconciliation; look at the world through the lens of one who can say “blessed are the poor/ blessed are the meek.” This is not about convincing people to be like-minded or to join-up, nor is it a self-help project, about “becoming a better person.” Rather, the idea of discipleship gets to the heart of who Jesus is or wants to be for us. It moves us beyond worrying about the shape of institutions and back to a focus on the mission that Jesus has promised to support, if we try to follow him: “I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

What would the Church look like if we thought of “disciple-making” as our core purpose, in adult formation programs, in seminary education, in worship? The language of the baptismal covenant and baptism service in the prayer book provides some good language for this, in our tradition – though somehow or other the “ministry of the baptized” has been relegated to a category that goes with “not called to ordained ministry,” in many discussions in seminaries and vocation/formation programs. (Sometimes implying a contrast between the ministry of the ordained and the ministry of the baptized, as if the ordained were not baptized!) But discipleship: that’s something we all share, whatever office we’re called to in the church – it’s something we can reflect on within our tradition and also across denominations. How might the vision of a “disciple-making church” transform and refocus our work, worship and teaching? A question to reflect on as we approach the Feast of Pentecost.

Dr. Kathleen Henderson Staudt keeps the blog poetproph, works as a teacher, poet, spiritual director and retreat leader in the Washington DC area, and teaches courses in literature, theology and writing at Virginia Theological Seminary and the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of two books: At the Turn of a Civilisation: David Jones and Modern Poetics and Annunciations: Poems out of Scripture.

What happened at Seabury

By Steven Charleston

Have you heard what happened at Seabury? That’s a question some of us have been asked a lot, especially if we are connected to theological education in the church.

But if you are one of the folks who may have missed the story, the question about “Seabury” refers to Seabury-Western Theological Seminary, one of the historic Episcopal seminaries, located in Evanston, Illinois. After years of training priests and lay leaders for the church, Seabury has announced drastic changes for the future. Faculty are being let go and programs shut down. In many ways, they are closing up shop under great financial pressure in the hopes of being able to reopen after extensive remodeling.

So what happened at Seabury? That’s the question. Why did this have to happen and is it an omen of dire things to come in the Episcopal Church?

Here is my short answer:

What happened at Seabury was an honest effort to deal with a reality that affects 95% of the seminaries in the United States. If it is a sign of things to come, it is a good omen of long overdue attention to the critical issue of leadership development in our church.

The men and women of the Seabury Board, faculty and staff are facing the harsh truths of trying to sustain our seminaries as “mini-colleges” in an era when the rules of the theological training game have completely changed. This is not a “failure” on their part, but recognition of the future. The truth is, we are in an adapt-or-die evolutionary moment for theological education. It is not necessary for us to wonder what went “wrong” with the past: it simply is the past.

Theological training today can not be sustained by the old models of education. And I am not just talking about the need to adapt to technology. Eventually, in spite of the efforts to pretend that our kind of learning is so special we can not rely on technology, history will force us to keep pace with other educational institutions. The truly more difficult issues will be in our ability to redefine formation itself, and along with it, the meaning of ordination and community. Next to those issues, technology will be a piece of cake. Change is the underground current that has carried Seabury to the place where it finds itself. We are all on that river together.

The deeper question is not what happen at Seabury, but, what is happening in the Episcopal Church? Where are we in regard to our commitment to academic excellence and spiritual formation? Right now, the answer is chaotic. We are grappling to find new models, new methods, and new mandates. Our seminaries and the national church are working together in fresh ways that promise new hopes. There is lots of action, but the climb will be uphill. Not only will our seminaries need to find new ways of working together, the whole church is going to have to find a way of actually supporting the development of its leadership rather than outsourcing its education to other, less expensive alternatives.

Seabury is not the canary in the mine. Seabury is the light at the end of the tunnel.

We now have an opportunity to reclaim our role as a Christian community in the forefront of education. We have let that priority slip over the last 30 years. We have a training system marred by ideology, stuck in a cafeteria design for education, limited in technology and financially strapped. But we have outstanding people in place and creativity in abundance if we choose to use it. The common sense and courage of Seabury is a call to us to join them in waking up to reality. If we want the Episcopal Church to remain one of the best educated faith communities in the world, we need to invest in the kinds of change that will make that possible.

What happened at Seabury? Something sad, yes, but also something good. Something to be proud of. Something hopeful.

Should we mourn the passing of the old Seabury? Yes, of course, but we should also celebrate the doors Seabury has just opened to the future. We may not like what that future requires of us, but change is never the first path we choose to follow. Seabury offers us a reminder that our leadership, identity and vision are not accidents, but the results of what we choose to invest in. For generations, we have invested in education that is the best we can create. It is time to do it again.

The Rt. Rev. Steven Charleston, former Bishop of Alaska, is president and dean of Episcopal Divinity School, and keeper of the podcasting blog EDS's Stepping Stones. A citizen of the Choctaw Nation, Bishop Charleston is widely recognized as a leading proponent for justice issues and for spiritual renewal in the church.

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