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A GTS Trustee reflects on the crisis at the Seminary

A GTS Trustee reflects on the crisis at the Seminary

The Rev. Ellen Tillotson, a priest in the Diocese of Connecticut and a member of the General Seminary Board of Trustees reflects on the conflict between the faculty and the Dean at the Seminary.

This is taken from her Facebook page, and as such is her personal reflection and does not attempt to articulate the official position of the Seminary, administration or Trustees. It is reprinted with permission.

This is my own reflection, my own experience, my own broken heart and faulty but best wisdom speaking. Nothing official. Personal.

Like many of you, I am heartsick.

Like many Trustees of GTS, I have been heartsick and felt profoundly betrayed for a week now as I have wrestled with, read in shock, re-read in disbelief, the communication that the Trustees received from people I believe to be my friends and colleagues in the great enterprise of the Realm of God. I am going to hold fast to that friendship and collegiality, though they have been tested. I know that is true for those I hold dear on the Faculty as well, directed toward me. I am committing myself, here, to stay open to relationship.

On September 17, eight members of the GTS faculty prepared a letter and sent it out to the Trustees. In it, they said, twice, that they were unable and unwilling to work with Dean and President Kurt Dunkle and that unless certain changes were made, they would be “no longer able to serve in our positions at General” They made several allegations about comments alleged to have been made by the Dean which currently are being investigated at the request of the Executive Committee.

In addition to the implied demand that President Dunkle be fired, they put the following conditions on their continuing to work: 1)the appointment–by them, not by the Board–of a committee of Board members to meet with them to discuss their “conditions necessary for moving forward as an institution”; 2)that the faculty be immediately empowered to set the curriculum, the academic schedule, the worship and overall program” of the seminary (vitiating several stated and traditional lines of governance stated in by-laws adopted unanimously by the board); 3) the identification of an outside person, external to the institution, to provide pastoral support to students, staff and faculty; 4) placing the authority for the implementation of the program of the seminary in the office of the Academic Dean; and, 5) the hiring of a fundraiser. (Though God knows why anyone would take THAT job with such chaos going on–my editorial comment…..) Numbers three and five aren’t bad ideas at that. The others are simply impossible. Impossible.

They stated again, at the end of the letter, that “If Dean Dunkle continues in his present position, we will be unable to continue in ours.”

When the Board, through its Executive Committee, moved on the most urgent matter–that of investigating the accusations against the Dean–that action was dismissed as “irrelevant” in a second letter and the investigators–a highly respected law firm doing the work pro-bono– dismissively referred to as a kind of corporate reputation white-washer (my phrase but reflective–I can give you the exact language if you want it.) The investigation continues, by the way, and we take it with utmost gravity.

In this second letter, the eight members also stated that “the damage has been done,” “no working relationship is possible,” “we can no longer work with President Dunkle.” They also reiterated the five demands placing conditions on their willingness to talk, informed us that they were organizing as a union and that ALL “further negotiations of these matters will be through our Union and in consultation with our Attorney.” They said that they were stopping work, all teaching and administrative work, commencing Friday, Sept. 26. They also stopped attending worship.

They then wrote to and met with students, presenting themselves as “only desiring a conversation” with the Trustees, a conversation they had so delimited as to make it impossible for us to hold. Which were we to believe? The spoken and unofficial communiques with the students or their strict and repeated statements to us that the conversation could only happen according to their stated limits? On which were we to act? When offered such an ultimatum, what were we to do? No, they never used the word “resign”. But over and over they said they were unable to continue to do their jobs unless we met unmeetable conditions.

What has become clear to us is that the timing of this letter and action–the day after Matriculation–was in the works for some time. The eight had been preparing this letter, it seems, since the summer. They timed their ‘walkout’ to cause as much distress to the most vulnerable members of the GTS community, the current students, as they possibly could. It didn’t happen during the summer, when we might have addressed their concerns with a meeting. It didn’t happen at the start of the school year so that we could have made some other preparations. When the seminary’s treasurer, a trustee, met with the entire faculty a few days before the 17th, not a word was said. They believe, I think, that they have tried and tried to communicate their difficulties. Yet they didn’t go through any of the channels provided in the faculty handbook nor speak to anyone on the Executive Committee of their “collective decision”. A couple faculty members–one of the eight and one who continues to teach–spoke to the Chair of the Board who encouraged them to work with the Dean. Nothing was said about the impossibility of such work–they merely stopped and began to plan. What kind of example is that? What kind of ‘formation’ of future leaders of the church who will, again and again, be asked to rise to servant leadership, sacrificial love?

The letter written to each of the eight ends with a commitment to reconsider the resignations after the allegations of the Dean have been investigated and acted-upon by the Board, as appropriate, if the faculty members desire such a reconsideration. The letter also states our profound desire for a meeting–as soon as we can manage it. We’ve always been willing to meet and to talk. We just couldn’t do it under the very strict limitations and requirements twice stated in writing by the eight faculty members.

At first, I wanted us as Trustees to hold out before acting on the resignations until we had had a meeting with the faculty. But the discovery that this had been in the works for some time, that the dates and actions were carefully chosen made me rethink my openness to a longer process up front. My trust in their good faith has been broken. Yet I believe that we can still be whole–though deeply bruised–as a seminary community as the days unfold. I also believe that all of this is a sign of the profound and chaotic change happening in the world around us and in the church generally. It’s merely General’s iteration of it and so, like most things about GTS, is particularly intense and deeply painful. I hope, deeply, that we can find Rumi’s field, out beyond all ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing and meet there.

I strongly believe that nothing “must” happen for God to work redemption and renewal out of any hurt, chaos or betrayal. And I know from human sinfulness–most especially my own–that human beings will mess it up royally on a regular basis. Me, I’m rooting for God’s power working in us, accomplishing infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. It’s the only hope we have.


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Clay Williams

When almost 80% of an organization’s employees lose confidence in the organization’s leadership, I would think that the governing board would want to understand what is really going on, not play power politics. When the students who pay the institution’s bills are also distraught, careful and immediate action are a no-brainer.

And part of the required action is for the board to behave like a board. As an alumnus of GTS, I am appalled at the absolute irresponsibility of a trustee of the organization posting anything on social media about ongoing and unfolding legal matters.

I’ve served as senior management in a Fortune 100 company and am now CEO of my own firm. In the corporate world, a board that performed as poorly as the GTS board has thus far would be relieved of their duties.

This may be a final blow to GTS. True leadership from the board is essential to prevent the demise of a wonderful institution. All the board members should ask themselves whether they can step up to this challenge, and if not, they should step down.

John Price

The only horse I have in this fight is that of an Episcopal priest, embarrassed by the unprofessional way all parties of our oldest seminary – except the students – seem to have conducted the affair. They complained last academic year but say they weren’t afforded the courtesy of a reply. The Dean/President has apparently retreated into an imperious position, the Board should have engaged a mediator immediately, who would establish guidelines for everyone to follow. FB and Twitter are no place to air personal opinions or versions of the “facts.”

I feel sorry for the students, who gave their money and time in good faith. The other parties are victimizing them: D/P, faculty, and Board, by taking such high-handed positions. Bishop, impose a neutral mediator on the mess. Not you.

Look, I have tried my best to figure out exactly what is happening at GTS, and quite frankly, I am sure that in this situation, as most, both parties are to blame on some level.

But here is my problem with this and everything else that is happening in the Church and the world for that matter, why is it that ‘official statements’ are now being placed on Facebook and Twitter, etc.? Really folks?

Our culture is sliding downhill fast!

Dana Fenton

I do not know where to start my comments. I am a full time member of a CUNY college Sociology Department, a graduate of Union who has taken classes at General, ordained and a former sole pastor of small churches, and a mediator in training.

1. The escalation of a job action by what seems to be 80% of the full time faculty of an institution in crisis into a statement after a week that the faculty in question have resigned is not a road to conflict resolution. It is clear to me that this situation cries for high level professional mediation immediately over a considerable period of time starting immediately. Unless the real agenda of the Trustees is to close and restart the seminary with a totally new faculty and staff, it is likely that all three parties involved, President, Trustees and Faculty have the common interest of improving the preparation GTS provides for future priests. If the Trustees really want to completely restart the seminary, it is unlikely that any academics would accept positions at GTS under these circumstances.

2. I am under the impression that there was an Interim President, yet I have not heard about any self studies, former student and graduate experience surveys, or study groups on the current literature on clergy education, or the commissioning of a report on clergy preparation at the graduate level in the US if the literature is lacking. We all know that the three year residential model for seminary education does not fit when dioceses require work experience before becoming Candidates for ordination, discouraging young people from going directly to seminary from college, and most candidates for ordination are established adults. But have the parties involved looked at any data that would help guide the restructuring of the GTS experience? There are many professionals who ought to have been assembling appropriate data during the interim period.

3. Introductory Sociology textbooks all have a chapter on group dynamics. They all describe, although with different terms two kinds of leaders: task (instrumental) leaders who lay out what is to be done and how and affective(socioemotional) leaders who encourage the troops and keep morale up. Organizations that are effective have worked out ways of having both kinds of leadership within each unit. Parish clergy need to balance this on a daily basis for congregations to function and bloom. At the moment there seems to be no balance.

Although I could be wrong about my point 2, I see an organization in crisis, that needs outside professionals to work with all parties before any bishops who had been sending students to GTS decide that other seminaries would be more suitable.


PS One more thought.

If the >process

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