Notes on General Theological Seminary

Over the last several weeks, the General Theological Seminary, where I attended for a year after The Divinity School, has been embroiled in intense conflict between the faculty and the Dean, with the trustees firing (or, “accepting the resignation”) of the faculty.

Several friends, who have little to do with the church, have asked me, “what’s happening at your seminary?” Congregants send me articles from CNN and the NYTimes, confused whether this is important to us as a small church. I know many of the people involved: I respect the chair of the Board of Trustees, Bishop Mark Sisk; several trustees and the faculty involved are people I consider honorable and just.

I won’t be able to address the steps and missteps made: I don’t know what the entire story is. Some of the issues, I suspect, are so foundational and potentially ground-shaking that it’s hard to examine them clearly. They include: what should priests learn in our current cultural context? At one time (at least Episcopal) priests were expected to be the most widely read people in the room; now they are asked to be fundraisers, psychotherapists and CEOs. Is there something peculiar about theological education that’s different than other professionals? Should priests expect a middle class wage? What makes a competent priest? Holiness? What’s holiness? Effective repeating of the mass? Good management technique? Being entertaining at a cocktail parties?

Over the last few weeks social media has been the primary way information has been transmitted: I suggest that it has been a fairly crucial part of the debate. While helpful, I suggest it exacerbates passions and hardens sides; conflicting parties may find it harder to discern grace, as the internet compresses time and space. Common prayer is, in part, our antidote to the panopticon of the electronic medium, which renders many of us powerless to confront our own biases or inclinations. Admittedly, I’m not the sort who likes to refrain from social media, but the medium has made the message. So out of public ultimatums and public responses, the revealed dynamic lacks the easy grace that comes outside the internet, that happens in our incarnate world.

I’m also unclear about process. Do we have mechanisms to ensure the integrity of the different roles? I would think there was a different way to hold the dean and faculty accountable for each other. Perhaps these processes we have in place were either ineffective, or not given enough time to be used. It may be that the trustees were slow and unresponsive; and again perhaps the medium or social media has prevented alternative scenarios. If the dean had been fired on the spot, would the resulting litigation and expense been detrimental to the seminary? How would the ultimatums have worked in the time frame demanded? I don’t know the answer.

Furthermore, because General is a tight-knit place, I find that it’s hard to identify who should be responsible for what. Even effective democratic and cooperative institutions divide roles for their long term health, because we all cannot all be masters of everything. From my vantage point I can’t tell who’s truly responsible for the chapel; who is accountable for what and to who? For the financial oversight of the entire seminary; who’s responsible for the curriculum; and for the spiritual health of the students. I can’t parse who’s the judge, who’s the jury and who should be the executioner. And so there is a lot of confusion in the system. Or at least, I’m confused.

On a wider church level, however, I’m unsure if the church needs a General Seminary anymore. It breaks my heart to say it, but why not simply keeping the chapel as part of our national institution, then funding a few faculty at Union Seminary that do work specifically on issues of concern to Anglicans, forming a new institution that looked like a combination of Berkeley at Yale, Brent House at Chicago, and Bexley in Columbus.

As someone with an interest in the economics of firms (including the church), I’m always perplexed with why the church organizes as it does. I admit, I’ve always thought General had an important history and role – I learned more about prayer and music than I did anywhere else – but it seems that our wider church is not as committed as the passions indicate. We don’t fund GTS particularly well; our overall ability to collaborate with each other has had a very poor track record, and our loyalties seem to be getting in the way of good economic sense: or in theological speak, of stewarding our limited resources.

It seems to me simply this: there are too many seminaries, fewer full time positions, no sinecures, and lots of clergy in debt. It seems that our loyalty to our specific, free-standing institutions, our insistence that each seminary has a character outside of geography, gets in the way of our church as a body making reasonable decisions about the allocation of those resources. There may be a need for separate campuses in some sense, but we should examine how we can identify redundancy and spend more wisely. Fortunately, some – like Seabury / Bexley – are leading the way. I don’t think the way forward is particularly clear: the many seminaries, dioceses and General Convention itself seem to have competing ideas about our institutional needs.

I wonder if we’re training people to become priests for jobs that don’t exist. The positions open will not have the same kind of salaries, and the job descriptions most of us inherent will be different. Bishops are worried that priests won’t have the skills to create livable wages for themselves. No priest can expect on the generosity of a diocese to have a full time work; they have to be able to convince people that what they do is worth supporting. And this is a skill that few of us have instinctively – we’ve fallen into work where we simply expect people to know that what we do is worth it. Of course, there is the secret whisper that congregations imply: you got into this work knowing it wouldn’t pay, so why should we? In some sense, that reflects, also, the church’s poor history around labor. We support the labor movement, just not in our churches. Why? Not just because it’s expensive, but because we’re a lot less generous than we think we are. Granted, perhaps the church is saying something about what it truly thinks about the people who work for it.

I don’t think the issue is that we’ve become too corporate. Churches are, in some sense, the original corporation.  Just because we need to be more responsible about our resources does not mean we have succumbed to a “neo-liberal” model where clergy and faculty are contracted piecemeal for work. If anything, we’re paying the consequences of misunderstanding the needs of the world and have done a poor job of identifying what gifts we need to develop in the church, while simultaneously squandering our inheritance. There are good reasons to restructure. I am not suggesting the faculty at GTS misunderstands the challenges the church faces; and it does seem that the President forgot the another half of effective leadership. But the problem is much deeper, and certainly should not be solved solely at the faculty’s expense.

Long term solutions? I don’t know. Lots of the work we need to do isn’t merely financial, but would involved the merging different systems and cultures. What is the need for residential seminaries for a church that’s calling second career vocations with families? Is it possible to create formation in local churches, through an apprenticeship model? Perhaps we should build an apartment coop in NY for students, curates and clergy in poor congregations – building on the land of a church that isn’t able to survive: because the rent is too damned high. Or is there some overlap in work within our institutions that inhibits the wise investment in the people who will be the backbone of whatever comes? Pay fewer people more justly. Create an endowment so that the last two years of seminary be free for all who are accepted into the ordination process. And ensure that those who do make it through are guaranteed some benefit. Other possibilities? Maybe create, even, satellites in each province or diocese where ordinands can collaborate. I don’t see why reorganization would require us to pay faculty poorly and eliminate tenure. I believe we have the inheritance; I am unsure if we know where to place it.

I don’t see many of these ideas happening. I wonder if General Convention, and that’s all of us as Episcopalians, somewhere abdicated our collective responsibility in forming the clergy. If we were truly interested in developing leaders, we’d look at the entire structure of incentives that currently drives many reasonable, and potentially effective, people away from being priests. To enter into debt for a vocation to the priesthood does not indicate holiness or piety; if anything it shows more an inability to steward one’s own resources, a misunderstanding of the potential of lay power, and the limits of the formal authority of the clergy to herald the Kingdom.  What’s happening at General is data that entering the priesthood is a losing option for individuals.

On the other hand, maybe that’s a good thing, and evidence that, ironically, the spirit is working in the church. The conflict at General makes me wonder, Why Priests?