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Letter to Bishops urges review of decisions and leadership at General Seminary

Letter to Bishops urges review of decisions and leadership at General Seminary

Two former doctoral candidates at the General Theological Seminary have written to the members of the House of Bishops in response to a recent letter by the eight bishops who sit on General’s Board of Trustees.

J. David Belcher and and Shane R. Brinegar both began their studies in the Th.D. program of the school in the Fall of 2014. Their letter is also a response to the “Why I Stand with General” campaign that has been sent to clergy, laity, and alumni in the run-up to General Convention.

Dear Bishops of The Episcopal Church,

We write to you as former doctoral students at General Theological Seminary (GTS) who were forced to withdraw from our programs last fall because of the administration’s mishandled response to the recent crisis at the seminary. We are concerned about the disastrous toll this crisis has taken not only on particular persons’ livelihoods and vocations at GTS but also about the future of theological education and ultimately the future of the church. Our purpose, therefore, is to offer an honest theological and ethical perspective on theological education as it is rooted in the ministry of all the baptized and to call upon you to help lead the whole church into a much needed conversation about theological education’s important place in the mission and ministry of the whole body of Christ.

You recently received a communication from eight of the bishops who sit on the Board of Trustees of GTS. That letter expressed great anxiety that the church’s ministry, across all mainline denominations, is facing a rapidly changing world to which it must readily adapt. As the bishops put it, “The Episcopal Church is not the same church it was 100, 50 or even 10 years ago. Life has changed; our context for mission and ministry have changed [sic]. Systems must be more agile, adaptive and lean.” These bishops now call upon you to join them in solidarity by justifying their actions during this crisis on the basis of a decisive need for change.

And indeed the administration of GTS has made widespread changes to the basic structures of GTS: a full tenured Faculty has been reduced almost completely to replaceable adjunct labor; an institution formerly premised on the basic baptismal notion of the collaboration of all members of the community has been transformed into an insulated hierarchy in which collaborative community has no place; the seminary now exempts itself from requirements for safe space, failing to provide basic structures of accountability for accusations of discrimination and harassment; students are now understood to be consumers, bishops and dioceses customers. Worse still, these bishops have failed to tell you the disastrous effect these changes have had on the basic building blocks of every institution: its people.

In their letter to you, the eight bishops made no mention of the great exodus of students these last few months; nothing of the fact that seven of the eight protesting Faculty are gone; nothing of the decimation of the only ThD program in an Episcopal seminary to which we are witnesses; nothing of the staggering loss of staff; nothing of the considerable financial and psychological cost their intransigence has exacted not only on students but also on their families and loved ones; nothing of the few, dejected, and considerably ill-formed MDiv, MA, and other students that remain. They know that the seminary’s substantial endowment has been egregiously mismanaged and that the incoming class of Fall 2014 was reduced by 30% by mid-semester.

Scholars, postulants for priesthood, deacons, lay theologians, spiritual directors, faculty members, and others—we all came to GTS because we discerned that this was a place committed to nurturing the flourishing of our baptismal vocations and our spiritual gifts. We believed our vocations for theological education belonged to the church and its ministry, not academia, and that GTS was the place to nourish those gifts. But the Dean and Board treated our vocations as commodities to be bought and sold. The seminary’s response to its crisis was dehumanizing to us, and it has maligned the baptismal dignity of persons involved: faculty members and students like us, as well as our spouses, partners, and children, our homes and our jobs.

Even now the seminary sends fundraising letters from current students who used to be our colleagues and other invested parties of faculty and alumni. Such responses are shortsighted, as are the “remaining faculty” whose silence allowed injustice to thrive, and the “replacement faculty” who have sought personal advancement at others’ expense. They are shortsighted and callous because they ignore the ways we, along with the Faculty, have become the collateral damage of “change,” treated as less than human, and how our families’ lives have been turned upside down. These appeals give no account of the children of faculty members and students who have been removed from their homes and their schools; how spouses and partners have lost friends, employment, and church homes; how basic spiritual discernment and even faith have been disrupted. They do not mention that some have been pushed out of the church, for good. As bishops of the church called to care for all members of Christ’s body, this should concern you greatly.

Thus, in the light of what change has meant for the real lives of people caught in the middle of this conflict, the attempt of these eight bishops to associate the crisis at GTS with an undeniable need for change, which all mainline churches are facing, is shameful in its cynicism and deceit. In no way have the actions of the Dean and Board of Trustees of GTS during this long crisis been truly concerned with the future of the church in the new mission field to which all baptized Christians are called. Rather, their actions represent the intransigence of obsolete structures operating at their very worst to bend the gospel of Jesus Christ to their own interests.

Indeed, while Dean Dunkle himself called for this same sort of change in his peculiar widelycirculated letter to “the beloveds of God’s church in the world” (October 3, 2014) he also obliquely suggested that the Faculty represented “entrenched interests eager (and vocal) to return to the ‘way it used to be at General.’” By framing their letter in terms of the demand for change amidst a changing world, these eight bishops likewise intentionally cast the conflict at GTS as one between the visionary leadership of a forward-looking Dean and a recalcitrant, privileged Faculty. We can tell you, however, that this is an intentional and scandalous misrepresentation.

The vision the Faculty set forth in their Way of Wisdom declaration proposed widespread and comprehensive changes to the entire curriculum and mode of life at the seminary. Clearly the Faculty are not resistant to change; they were concerned, however, with the kind of change necessary to theological education and its place at GTS and in the wider church. Their bold and visionary declaration respected theological education as a basic gift that belongs to the ministry of all the baptized. In it, these Faculty also gave our own gifts a place, truly carving out a space for our voices and our particular ministries within the church. It is an expansive and inclusive vision. Contrast this with the administration’s diminutive vision of change—an insulated world for which GTS’s “Close,” with its wrought-iron gates, is a perfect metaphor—which is fixated on a leadership of exception and domination and workers as cheap, replaceable labor.

Misrepresenting the truth of the situation at GTS, as these eight bishops and other recent communications from the seminary have done, helps no one. It further empowers a floundering and aimless Dean and Board of Trustees, while specifically inhibiting the kind of true healing that is necessary at GTS. Perhaps most importantly, it prevents us from having the more pressing conversation about the real integrity of theological education within the mission of the church and its importance to our future. This is a conversation we as lay theologians are eager to engage in, and one to which the Faculty at GTS offered a comprehensive vision in their Way of Wisdom declaration. Unfortunately, that vision was largely silenced by the leadership of the seminary.

Read the rest here.

Posted by Andrew Gerns


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Joel MacCollam GTS'72

Back in my days at GTS, the only stirring events were Dean Wylie’s insistence on pumpkin orange as our liturgical colors for Trinity season, women sitting in front of the rood screen during services, and the arrival of Peggie Muncie and a few other discreet women seeking ordination. One evening Sub-dean Powell Mills Dawley called me in for milk and cookies one evening, branding each of us as church dinosaurs from another era.
I was — and still am — proud to be considered part of his Jurassic group which included Robert Dentan, Boone Porter, Pierson Parker, Dr. Barr, Dr. Bingham, Dr. James Carpenter and a few others for whom GTS was far more than an academic appointment. Life as a dinosaur was certainly more orthodox back then.

Anthony Christiansen

Thank you for your integrity, courage and witness, David and Shane. You inspire me.

June Butler

Excellent letter by two of a number of students whose lives were adversely effected by the turmoil loosed on the seminary by Kurt Dunkle and a Board of Trustees who failed to uphold their responsibility to exercise oversight. David Belcher and Shane Brinegar are to be commended for telling the full story. I hope their letter will be read by all the deputies and bishops at General Convention.

Ellen Campbell

This is a deep, well put together reflection by two doctoral students that enrolled in the ThD program last fall at GTS and subsequently were forced to leave because of the crisis that erupted. I was also at GTS last fall. This crisis was caused by an abusive Dean that created a hostile working environment and was hugely, hugely mishandled by the Board. The gross mishandling by the Board lead to further abuse of the faculty, abuse of the students, the severe disruption of the academic program for an entire year, many students left at the end of the fall term, and the resignation, at the end of the academic year of 7 of the 8 faculty members that made the initial complaint, including the esteemed musician Dr David Hurd who was at GTS for 39 years. The relationship between the seminary and it’s alums is fractured. Hundreds of alums have been wounded by the actions of this Board. Donations have decreased sharply and the incoming student body is predicted to be very extremely small.
There is real depth of theological thought here and it is my belief this letter should be read more than once.
Like the authors I have been particularly disturbed by the letter that was issued in May by the 8 bishops on the Board. I am disappointed that the 8 bishops chose to sign a letter that contained a completely false narrative of the crisis. This has been an attempt by these bishops, the Dean and the balance of the Board to completely reframe the crisis from the abusive behavior of the Dean to the faculty were not willing to participate in a significant change in the theological education program. Not only is this false, but ironically it was the faculty that wrote and developed the Wisdom Year, which constituted the change in theological education.
It is my hope that the bishops currently at General Convention have the ears to listen and find the courage to address this injustice that hurt many people of our Church.

Gary Paul Gilbert

Excellent letter! It seems as if there is nothing left at General to save. Fortunately, Union Theological is only five miles to the north and it has an excellent faculty and view of theological education, which is where faith and scholarship meet to reimagine the work of justice.

The Episcopal Church has rarely been on the frontlines of justice work anyway.

Gary Paul Gilbert

JC Fisher

GPG, I’m a proud Union alum (MA ’92, EdD ’04), and I would never be so blase’ re losing GTS. It is the *official* seminary authorized by General Convention, and its loss to TEC would be catastrophic. We must not surrender to those who would destroy GTS from (ostensibly) within. Episcopalians must fight to save it!

Jon White

JC, it’s loss would perhaps be tragic, but hardly catastrophic. It isn’t the official TEC seminary, it is merely the only one chartered by the General Convention. There are many other fine seminaries that are considered equally Episcopalian. The church would undoubtedly lose something, just as it lost something when Western Seminary, Philadephia Divinity School and Seabury-Western ceased to exist as independent seminaries, but the mission of the church wasn’t harmed. Just as a closure of a parish is sad and not a desired result, sometimes it is necessary and a prerequisite for new life. Just as most of the places to which St Paul wrote his letters no longer exist, but something of their legacy lives on, so too with seminaries and other human creations.

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