On 3 Oct 2014 Dean Kurt Dunkle of the General Theological Seminary wrote to the school’s students responding to criticisms of his administration and character.
To the beloveds of God’s church in the world
Some of you may be following the unfolding of various controversies surrounding The General Seminary of The Episcopal Church here in New York City and around me, it’s Dean and President. Until today, there were three main issues: (1) allegations against me personally, (2) faculty employment issues, and (3) overarching and intensely serious issues regarding the future of Christian theological education in America, in The Episcopal Church, and at General Seminary. While dutifully silent until now, I have felt for a while that I need to touch on all three.
But, this morning something much more serious emerged. It is about my support for our LGBT community and those loved by God around the world. My hubris in addressing this letter to all of God’s beloveds worldwide is because statements which may hurt one of us actually hurts all of us, wherever you live. I think that’s what Christian community is about.
Let me start as I will end this section: I support our LGBT community without condition. Period.
Of all the allegations made – and to be made, I’m sure – when fabricated things start to circulate, I know we have a collective problem. The issue about my embrace of our LGBT community is one of those. Now we have a worldwide community problem.
I can say I support all of God’s children until I’m blue in the face, but that doesn’t seem to mean much when faced with a determination to obfuscate the truth. In fact, what is most disturbing is a portion of a letter I just read about one of our beloved partners in ministry, St. Luke’s in the Fields Episcopal Church down the street in Greenwich Village. It seems to say that as the Dean, I discourage worship there and steer seminarians away. Let me give some facts:
– I have personally worshiped at St. Luke’s (and given money) several times since coming to New York. Most recently was late this summer in August. Taking communion from the common cup in line with everyone else is part of what we do to signal oneness. That morning at 8am, it was my delight to join that assembled community just like I always do at the Lord’s table. Communion with all of God’s people makes us one. All = one. I look forward to returning.
– We have had, do have, and will have seminarians at St. Luke’s. I hope that continues forever. In fact, late this summer when one of our seniors decided to enter a Wisdom Year Residency pilot, I personally contacted St. Luke’s rector to make sure she did not feel General was leaving them in the lurch. She assured me they did not feel that way whatsoever. I then asked our Field Education coordinator to see if we had a seminarian who needed a last-minute placement at St. Luke’s. I support the ministry of St. Luke’s in worship, on the street, and in the world.
– I suspect St. Luke’s also feels my support. When their long-time associate rector recently announced a new calling thereby leaving St. Luke’s, the rector contacted me (and others, I suspect) for assistance in identifying new candidates. I look forward to helping them find the right candidate for their rich ministry.
– I have never discouraged anyone from worshiping anywhere. One of the joys of this metropolitan area of 8 million people is that there are over 400 Episcopal churches in commuting distance. All are open to our seminarians. If you are reading this letter and interested in trying a LGBT welcoming church, please try one of ours, including St. Luke’s. We welcome all of God’s people… and so do I.
Here at General, we have LGBT students. Some were just recently ordained. Joy for them and the flocks they will serve. But, it doesn’t just stop with enrolling, graduating, and ordaining LGBT seminarians. General is community for all of us.
For example, over the past six months or so, I personally approved a blessing of an upcoming same gender union in the seminary’s Chapel of the Good Shepherd. Even though my own bishop (as some do) prohibits his clergy from participating in same gender blessings and I cannot officiate, I told the couple I will attend and sit in the Dean’s Stall as a powerful symbol of my approval of this for General Seminary. By this action, I am following my own beliefs, what the Episcopal Church and General Seminary embrace as the current openness of our denomination, and my ordination vows of obedience to my bishop, even when I disagree with him. I take all three very seriously.
While the allegation of “gay seminary” bleeds into the next section about some of the allegations against me, it has immediate importance here. Let me address it head-on.
Since I have arrived at General I have been very clear in frequent public and private gatherings that my number one goal is to make sure meaning attaches to the word “general” in our title. We are the General Theological Seminary; not the specific seminary. I have said it to our Board, Executive Committee, Alumni Council, students, potential donors, and anyone who will listen. But it always always always always comes with the following: “that said, this is not ‘code word’ for anything; General (or sometimes “normal”) means young/old… rich/poor… gay/straight… white/black… male/female… General means general.” I almost say it that way verbatim each time because I know how that could be misconstrued. I know some of you have heard this statement because this is precisely what is now being complained about.
When people allege that I said I don’t want General to be the “gay seminary,” I have said that. But it is only said in the context of just the gay seminary. That “just” connotation is an essential part of the entire message. In fact, I also combine it with “high church” or “Anglo Catholic” or “male” or “female” or even “evangelical” seminary, just for good measure. General needs to be general, not specific. All of God’s children, whether you are LGBT or not, are part of general. Have I said that enough now?
We are all one and need to be treated as one. One means one. One.
I support our LGBT community without condition. Period.
Allegations against me
Some of you have read that eight faculty members have made general and specific allegations against words I have used and an atmosphere which has emerged at General. I welcome the on-going investigation and to comment specifically here (other than the very important correction about LGBT issues, above), would be contrary to the Board’s request of my silence pending conclusion of their investigation. However, I can say that there are three categories of things the eight faculty allege: (1) things that I said and I stand behind them; (2) things which are so contorted, misquoted, or detatched from context that they are repeated in a “false light;” and (3) things which are just not true.
That said, I’m also sure something or somethings will emerge which I would like to put differently next time. Why? Because I’m human. But none of those wanted do-overs involve the egregious allegations.
I welcome the unfolding of the inquiry.
I know there is a firestorm around the issues regarding faculty employment. I did not participate in any of the meetings, was not present for the discussion or votes, and discovered the Board’s various actions after the faculty (and perhaps some of you) learned of them. I can’t comment further on anything relating to faculty employment because I have not been involved in that aspect.
Massive Changes in Theological Education and at General Seminary
Let me close with a few comments about the massive changes underway in theological education and how they are being unfolded at General.
When I arrived, the seminary had not had a Dean and President for over three years since my predecessor retired, was emerging from a $42 million un-funded debt crisis of enormous proportion, had an annual cash deficit of $3 million a year with only three years of operating reserves in the bank, and an unsustainably small number of students (great students, by the way) in the entering class. Despite a rapidly changing church which was yearning for leadership and vision, our response was to continue doing what we had always done, just do it better. Virtually everyone – especially the Board – recognized that would not work.
While those facts apply to General, we are not alone. Nationwide, seminaries are facing enormous pressure, not just financial but missional. We need to reclaim our relevance to the world. The world is counting on us to teach about life in Christ in a language which can be understood. Counting on us. Counting on us.
Last year we cut the defecit in half, extended the effectiveness of the operating reserves from two to four more years, with the Board’s help crafted a vision of maximizing our unique place in the New York metropolitan area with The Wisdom Year, and empowered the faculty to expand on that into the classroom by integrating learning with the Way of Wisdom. For the first time in years, the Church responded with audible applause: we had 34 new students this year! The uncharacteristicly early interest in admissions (until this week) for next year is additional proof of the pudding: the eating is good.
All of this was possible because of the clarity of the mission which the Board recognized in order for General to move forward. I don’t mean just the necessary financial directions (like the fast-paced deficit-eliminating directions to me), but the clear mandate to make any and all changes necessary to reform General into usefulness for the future of our church, a future not even known to our own church leaders. The decisions and leadership I have been able to exercise were because the Board gave me the tools necessary: a clear governance structure, a mandate to create order, health and vision, and the affirmation needed to make swift, clear, and difficult decisions.
All of this was in increasing opposition to many entrenched interests eager (and vocal) to return to the “way it used to be at General.” Have you ever heard that at your own church/business/community? My own leadership style of consultation rather than collaboration created conflict, yet again and again allows us to move forward by having the ability to make decisions. The myriad external pressures (shrinking denomination; expense of operation; purposefully low tuition; limited housing; etc.) also increase tension, but we have to face them head-on or they will swallow us up.
Finally, the recognition that despite anyone’s best efforts of polishing our current mission, it is absolutely financially unsustainable into even the near future without continued major shifts and changes. Again: continued major shifts and changes. Without those which are ongoing and yet to be started, the required significant outside fundraising simply has no reasonable chance of success. Professionals tell me that “no one wants to get an institution out of a hole; they all want to build on a mountain.” I look forward to helping all our stakeholders build that mountain, but not until we deal with our structural problems.
So, just “coming back to work” means entering an environment which will continue to shift and change in massive ways. Why? Because we must embrace those uncertain changes or we will go out of business. “Coming back to work” better mean coming back with eyes open that the pressures will only increase for all of us, some felt more personally than others. But also come back with a hopefulness given by Jesus himself that the Church is not finished with General.
Telling and hearing deep truths is difficult. Acting upon those deep truths is even more difficult. Another one of those important truths is that we have many more choices to make to bring General forward to have a sustainable future and be useful and attractive to the church and the world, not to mention financially viable beyond the horizon of our available cash. Each new decision will require speed and clarity. Whomever is the Dean and President needs to continue to have those tools available.
I feel very supported by the Board and many of you in this unprecedented undertaking. I know they and you feel my support as well. Support, not ambush, will move the Body of Christ forward.
Thank you for reading this. I know some (the part about General and theological education) is “inside baseball” and of little interest to the worldwide church. But, it all gives context to our particular storms. Yet, the important message I really want to make sure you hear today – because to remain silent compounds the hurt already being inflicted – is that all, all, all, all of God’s children are welcome in our Episcopal Church, General Seminary, and in my life. All means all, LGBT community included.
I hope this brings some peace, particularly to those who may be wounded by what is swirling around.
The Very Rev. Kurt H. Dunkle
Dean and President | The General Theological Seminary of The Episcopal Church