This past week my facebook feed went berserk with statuses and links regarding a public battle between a majority of General Theological Seminary’s faculty and their Dean and President (one person) and Board of Trustees. A short summary of the situation, from my perspective is this: The new Dean and President has a heavy-handed communication style and shared a student’s academic record to the whole of the Seminary email list – a clear violation of the Federal Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Most shockingly, he has made inappropriate comments about race, gender, and sexuality and has refused to apologize for them, and has created a culture of fear among faculty, staff, and students. For months, faculty tried to open the lines of communication. Finally, when their toiling wasn’t producing any forward movement, they took the next step and communicated with the Board of Trustees, the body with ultimate responsibility for the well being of the Seminary.
In letters to the board, eight faculty members (of 11) were clear: the work environment at General Theological Seminary had become untenable – and in essence, until the board would meet with them to hear their concerns, they were collectively calling a strike. The Chairperson of the Board, certainly in consultation with the Dean and President, preemptively “resigned” those eight faculty members (AKA “fired”) without due process.
Collective bargaining among faculty at institutions of higher learning is not new. Academic collective bargaining includes the unionization of all sectors of the higher-education workforce—tenure-line faculty, academic professionals, and support staff. Such unionization includes protecting academic freedom and shared administrative and governance responsibility. Institutions of higher education have a variety of stakeholders: funders, alumni, business sector, local community leaders, higher learning commissions, and in some cases, state and federal government.
At institutions of graduate theological education, schools with missions to form, train, and send-forth theological leaders – both lay and clergy – it is ever important for there to be a strong, open, transparency between faculty, staff, and administration. While still firmly in the realm of higher education, graduate schools of theological education (commonly called divinity schools, theological schools, or seminaries) have other stakeholders: the Association of Theological Schools and their sponsoring denomination(s), the latter in both formal and informal ways.
Seminaries are places for nurture, growth, and vitality. As one who is “Seminary-trained, but not ordained,” I can affirm the value of community, challenging academic work, and vocational training received in such an educational environment. My thoughts and prayers are especially with the current students of General Theological Seminary; this is a scary, frustrating experience. But I hope they will also learn greatly from this time. I hope they will learn skills for organizing when the systems, institutions, and communities in which they find themselves are unjust. I hope they will learn to see broadly how sometimes the institutions we love the most can do great harm. I hope they will learn that God’s hope for justice is grounded in transparency, collaboration, and care for the soul of individuals, not in snide remarks, triangulation, or assumptions that straight, white, and male are norms for theological education and ministry. If the latter were the case, our seminaries and churches would have closed their doors long ago.
Let us not be fooled. Silencing and belittling of women, people of color, and LGBTQ persons is not something that only happens at General Theological Seminary. I’m sure graduates of United Methodist seminaries and United Methodist-related colleges and universities can talk for days about the ways in which administrators, powerful alumni, and boards of trustees squelch anything which might be seen as too “political” or “distracting.” It is in the hands of some of those same people in which we find aversion to transparency at General Conference.
Last week Jeremy Smith of Hacking Christianity made a clear challenge to those straight, white, married, males in The United Methodist Church who are seeking to do church business behind closed doors. It’s not much of a jump to make the connection between the events at General Theological Seminary and the conversations leading us into General Conference. Even those who claim they have the best interests of the Church at heart make mistakes. Sometimes those are prayerful, easy-to-forgive mistakes. But sometimes they are so grievous, so manipulative, so disempowering that even the stones cry out.
The United Methodist Church has the opportunity to turn the ship from fear and despair, much like the ship moored in Chelsea, and turn it toward transparency, collaboration, and hope. If closing the plenary sessions of General Conference is meant, whether implicitly or explicitly, to keep LGBTQ advocates from participating in General Conference, it may come as a surprise to discover progressive delegates including LGBTQ persons have already been elected to General Conference. Even if the doors are closed, the stones will cry out.
For my friends whose lives were formed and transformed at Chelsea Square, you are in my thoughts and prayers. May God’s grace see you though, even when vision is difficult. For all of us struggling to make the institutions we love better conduits of justice, may we find community as God’s foolish ones. And for a society where backroom decisions, top-down leadership, and looking out for number one are rules of the day, may we join with our siblings and be the stones who cry out.
(Photo from archives.episcopalchurch.org)
Chett Pritchett is Executive Director of the Methodist Federation for Social Action. He is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College and Wesley Theological Seminary, and is a member at Dumbarton UMC in Washington, DC.