November 4, 2014

Board Stiff

In spite of a few hopeful signs at the end of October, the effort to resolve the ongoing tensions at the General Theological Seminary have reached another detente. One can hope for movement, and hope has the power to grease gears, but what is needed above all is the greater virtue of charity: an ability to give, even when one believes one is in the right. And my concern is that I and others lack the third virtue of faith that the Board of Trustees is prepared to adopt that posture.

The Board of Trustees' positive move of offering to engage an outside specialist in reconciliation (the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center) was offset by the apparent refusal to provide a mechanism for a permanent neutral ombuds officer to field complaints (presumably from any side), as proposed by the eight faculty who are engaged in a work action — and now without salary. The Board instead proposed that a committee chaired by one of its own members serve in that capacity. This in itself appears to be a rejection of the notion of neutrality — for how can a member of the Board (even of Trustees) be trusted to maintain a neutral pose (that is more than a pose) in fielding complaints against actions of that Board? Given the fact that a subcommittee of the Board dismissed earlier complaints — an action that contributed to the current conflict — a truly outside auditor is needed. There is an old Latin saying, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? — Who will watch the watchers? The saying is apposite to the present situation.

At the same time, the question is fairly raised: What can an ombuds officer do? If the Board is able to ignore the complaints brought to it by faculty and students, what is there to teethe an ombuds office to hold others to action? This is an endemic problem in institutions that essentially operate on a notion of "good faith" and principles of obedience; and if "the fish stinks from the head" and there is no mechanism for replacement of that head, yet another impasse is surely at hand.

It seems, in the long run, as I've noted elsewhere, that a different approach to the governance of the seminary is needed. The original model, in which the Trustees were distant and largely hands-off, confining themselves to assuring the reputation and financial stability of the seminary, and the main day-to-day work both of administration and education were the focus of the faculty (one of whose members annually served as dean in rotation) makes a good deal of sense. Given the abject failure of the current (and preceding generation) of Boards of Trustees in holding up the financial end of things, apart from overseeing the slow parceling off of much of the patrimonial property, it would appear that outside professional help is likely in order in any case.

Finally, I want to add a word rejecting the notion that the day of the residential seminary is over, and that the formation of clergy can be left to distance learning or other models. First, the notion is patently false at the outset: there are perfectly stable (financially and otherwise) seminaries even among the small number of Episcopalian institutions, that continue to maintain an essentially residential model (I think of VTS and Sewanee — the latter of which could hardly be more residential if it tried!); to say nothing of the many secular colleges and universities that do quite well with a residential model.

Second, there is more to the training of clergy than education. The more important part of the training lies in formation: and one formed for service in the community that is the church must have some experience — even if it is only for three years — of the ancient rhythms of that church's life, nourished with daily worship. One of the more shocking revisions of the current administration at GTS was the paring back of the daily round of worship. It is of course completely true that the seminary is not out to create Benedictine monks and nuns — yet the wisdom of the Rule of Benedict, the balance of prayer, study, and work as tools for spiritual and personal formation and education, has stood the test of time in a way any seminary would be happy to match.

In short, there is no simple solution to the problems at General Seminary. But grace and flexibility are essential for any short- or long-term solution, one hopes geared to a future more productive than the recent past.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Rev Dr Mom said...

Thanks for this excellent summary and critique of the heartbreaking situation at GTS. While I have great faith in the ability of the experts from the Lombard Center to facilitate a process of reconciliation, I, too, lack confidence in the Board of Trustees' willingness or ability to come to the table truly ready to enter into the process. Meanwhile, there still is no "safe space" for students or faculty.

And I could not agree more about the continued need for residential seminaries. As you rightly point out, formation is more than classroom work - it is a transformation of one's life and the role of living in a community of faith cannot be underestimated. In my experience, having my family included in that community was essential as well. Yes, it disrupted my life, but transformation does that. And yes it was expensive, but if cost is the overriding argument against the existence of such places, then let's find ways to help pay for it. It matters.

Ann said...

I don't hear that the day of the residential seminary is over -- just that there will be many more models of education and formation in the future. And current seminaries are participating in those models -- distance learning combined with residency, going into a larger consortium or university (like Yale), etc. We no longer live in the world that the seminaries were designed to provide clergy for -- but that does not mean they are dead.

Tobias Haller said...

Thanks Rev Dr M!

Ann, I've heard some make the claim that the day of the residential seminary is over. Certainly I have nothing against the addition of distance learning and other tech to the seminary curriculum. But I don't agree that the church is really all that different (in terms of the ministries clergy are called to exercise) from the church of 100 years ago. Pastoral ministry may have new tools, but the ministry itself is more or less the same. There are new challenges, but I don't think the answers to those challenges are all that different from the answers to the old challenges. What is really different is the end of the Christendom model (except in much of the South!) -- but that is not so much new as a return to the pre-Constantinian era, with iPads!

plsdeacon said...

What I have failed to see is anything that deals with the root cause of the GTS issue. The presenting issue is the faculty no liking the direction of the dean and the BoT - thus the ultimatum that was accepted. However, the real issue is the surrender of TEC to a worldly view where disputes are solved, not in Christian reconciliation or prayerful discernment, but using the tools of political activism. These tools demand that we see our opponents, not as brothers and sisters who are loved by God with who we disagree, but as enemies who must be destroyed and removed. Scorched Earth is the rule of the day and, so long as we "win" we don't care what happens. This attitude is the same with the faculty and the BoT and with the PB and with a large portion of the HoB.

When this attitude infects a church, there are not winners and everyone loses.

Christina Wible said...

Being a GTS graduate (and someone who had also attended a drive-by seminary) I was particularly aware of the special formation provided by the seminary in and of the city. There were so many opportunities to practice ministry and, at the same time, the opportunity to live in community. There was a book about the seminary a short while back called "Through the Gates Into the City." Every time I heard the metallic squeak of the chapel gate that lead out onto 19th Avenue I felt that someone might be taking the spirituality that they absorbed within the seminary and spreading it in the city. Thank you for this post.

Tobias Haller said...

Deacon Phil, your assessment doesn't ring true for me. I don't share your world-view of the church at present, though I understand whence you come. As far as the seminary goes, I don't see this as a matter of worldliness vs. ... what... "otherworldliness?" My sense is that the faculty had legitimate complaints -- including the unilateral change to the worship that is entirely within the walls of the church -- and the choice to stop cooperating seems to me to be full appropriate. The Board, on the other hand, seems to me to have taken a less than forthright approach, including casting the protest as "resignation" -- which it clearly wasn't. Exactly what do you propose the faculty ought to have done?

I will say I think it was unwise of the faculty to withdraw from chapel worship -- though the change in what was officially offered was part of the problem. But I'm not sure that is a particularly worldly response, even if not ideal.

Tobias Haller said...

Thanks, Christina. Though I did not live on the close, the chapel worship I was able to attend was all the more important to me...

John B. Chilton said...

Labels. The board is stiff. The faculty is stiff too. Otherwise there would be a settlement. In the mean time the current students are the ones who remain in limbo.

The faculty's issue is they can't get along with this dean. The board's issue is we brought this dean in to make fundamental changes.

If the financial condition of GTS is due to long-term mismanagement doesn't that mean good management would mean corrective action that would change the status quo? It's conceivable that resistance to change in some parts of the status quo is at the heart of the heartburn.

Tobias Haller said...

John, I do not see how any of the changes proposed by the Dean -- some of which, including the Way of Wisdom, have been accepted and implemented by the faculty -- have anything to do with the financial state of things, or how in any way the actions of the Board at present, with a Dean who appears to many outside the immediate circle to be less than apt to the task, is solving the deep problems of the seminary. I think the Board can write off any growth in alumni donations, for one thing!

In what conceivable way does the paring back of the worship schedule, to take one of the concrete objections, further the aims of the seminary or deal with the fiscal problems? How do the allegedly racist and homophobic comments of the Dean advance the cause of the seminary?

No, the Board has vainly been attempting to cast the faculty as "opposed to change" but that is as obviously spin as the Board's effort to cast the faculty protest as "resignation" from their positions.

A collective blindness appears to have beset otherwise thoughtful and perceptive people. I know a number of Board members, and I hoped for better. Even at this stage I hope the Board will wake up to the reality of how their actions are harming the seminary with changes no one wants.

Whit Johnstone said...

It seems to me that with the notable exception of VTS, Trinity, and Nashotah House the thriving Episcopal residential seminaries are either part of an undergraduate university or have a close relationship with one. Swanee is of course part of the University of the South. Bexley-Seabury's Bexley Hall component is part of Trinity Lutheran Seminary, which is in a close academic and geographical relationship with Capitol University. The Seabury component is no longer residential. Berkley Divinity School is part of Yale.

G said...

VTS is part of a consortium which includes the CUA, Howard U, and LTS Gettysburg. GTS students can cross-register at Fordham, Drew, Union, and JTS, among others.

Such partnerships certainly seem to be the way forward. Even Mirfield, the last survivor of the CofE's small monastic seminaries, now offers degrees through the University of Leeds.

Tobias Haller said...

Thanks, Whit, and G. Such collaborative efforts seem to me to be much more profitable than not, as they increase the contextualization of the seminary within a wider educational and formational matrix. I'm still not convinced that a stand-alone (but cooperative) model doesn't work, though I acknowledge that VTS has distinct advantages based on its sound management of endowment, and context in the largely (even still) Christendom culture of the region. Other dynamics are at work at Trinity and Nashotah, including zeal, but that is a key factor in the decline (I think) of some of the others: a loss of focus on the unique mission of the particular incarnation. For instance, the changes to the chapel schedule made by the Dean at GTS seem to be the opposite of what Diana Butler Bass calls "Deep Traditioning" -- cutting at an aspect of what made (until recently) GTS "particular" in its approach.

I would also add, G, that the cross-registration is not a new phenomenon, and it is one of the virtues of the location of GTS. In my day (class of 1997) seminarians from GTS took courses and used the Library at Union, and in my Hebrew class with Prof Corney at GTS there were two rabbinical students cross-registered from JTS.

All of this seems to be creative response to realities, and it builds on the presence of the actual, rather than the virtual, experience. Distance learning may be fine for many things, but nothing can substitute for being gathered around the table with the wise teacher -- not just in the classroom, but in the refectory!

Ann said...

My experience with mentoring 2 online groups for Education for Ministry has taught me that the virtual experience is as good (though different) than gathering around the table in "real" -- the depth of discussion, the closeness that develops, is as good and sometimes more open than what you describe. And it is available to many more people that going to one place. Our group has had members from all over the world - bringing us out of our insular lives to a greater awareness of others and other culture.

Tobias Haller said...

Ann, I think you misunderstand me. I am not saying one is "better" than the other, but that they are different.

No one needs to preach to me about the concept of diffusion -- don't forget that this is an important part of what the Brotherhood of Saint Gregory is all about, and has been for 45 years -- a "community" that doesn't occupy the same physical space; a religious community without a "monastery." But I am among the first to acknowledge that we Gregorians are not, because of this very fact, Benedictine. The ethos is very different.

I think distance learning is fine for many types of educational experience, and for community building. But there are some things that require a physical presence. I don't think one can do CPE via the internet, for example; though by its very nature it is not undertaken in the classroom either.

I am very far from being a believer in one size fits all. As it now stands, I think distance learning can cover much of what can be taught in seminary; but there are some aspects of the seminary experience (such as chapel life) that have to be local and on the ground in order to reap the benefit.

Ann said...

yes- Tobias -- I don't think we disagree. Different just is -- not better or worse. And some things lend themselves to one way over another.

Tobias Haller said...

Amen... and it is also good to recall that there are good and bad brick and mortar schools as well as good and bad virtual experiences. Quality control is important whatever the mechanism.

George Packard said...

When you pose an alternate model--then we get down to it.

If the faculty rotates occupying the position of Dean the layer of distracting administration is removed...but then the BOT loses its capacity for over-watch. (It's always been about the power position of controlling the assets and a separate authority knowing better.)

The model you cited calls out what preferences a nervous hierarchy prizes most here: quick fiscal and property disposition. I agree, these good and true BOT people are not a collection of nasties but their behavior is as much a lesson as anything else in this situation.

Even good people can read messy community as chaos ginning up a remedy of rules and prerogative. The woeful part is the delight some Darkness is getting at this aberration of the Church.

Marshall Scott said...

Tobias, in fact some things in CPE are being done using videoconferencing tools, as Ann described for EFM. I would note, though, as one who uses them with some frequency that specifically videoconferencing is necessary. The difference becomes the greater awareness and sense of presence of the other, that is much superior than the earlier shared curriculum. There have been a couple of studies suggesting that for some videoconferenced counseling feels safer than being in the same room.

But, as you and Ann both acknowledge, those tools have their limitations, and especially for formation in community. They are better tools than before - better than shared bulletin boards or online chat or even conference calling - but they are not adequate to the sense of shared experience that forms one in community.

And there is something important to be said about forming a community of clergy. Even as one who wants to see vocation as gift- and function-related (as best possible to avoid the sense of hierarchy of the ordained in clericalism), the life of the cleric is different from the life of the lay Episcopalian. For good communication and good mutual support, there is value in formation that specifically recognizes that. At Episcopal Café mention was made of Bishop Kemper School for Ministry (BKSM), a joint effort of four dioceses. There is some sense of regular formation in that they pray and worship together regularly, if not daily; and represent the different cultures of their four dioceses. When more of our folks were being formed at a Methodist seminary, I worried more about that regular sharing. At the same time, I wouldn't compare what is possible at BKSM or with videoconferencing to what I gained at Sewanee.

Ann, I agree (and noted at the Café) that the paths for educating Episcopal clergy are varied, and what they offer the needs of the Church are just as varied. I agree with both of you that maintaining as a significant model (if no longer the only form) of the residential Episcopal seminary community is very important.

Part of my reflection on the needs of our people (clergy and lay) remains with the fact that they're people. What it means to be human hasn't changed that much in the last hundred years - or for some things in the last thousand.

Tobias Haller said...

Thank you, Bishop Packard. A review of Walter Wink's work on the Powers is likely due for anyone elected to a governing board.

One of the aspects of my Rule of Life in the Brotherhood that is most precious to me is the definition of the Vow of Chastity: to be free to love "without the desire to possess or control." The whole concept of governance because precarious in a society such as the church, that is supposed to be based on mutual submission; the Powers lurk in that need to "fix" others prior to a stern self-examination and a good hard look at practicalities. Easy solutions, like selling off property, are short term solutions to long term problems...

Tobias Haller said...

Good points, Marshall. Thanks!