Ordinarily, Politywonk would be early off the mark about something as scintillating as the current tempest-in-a-teapot out at Starr King School for the Ministry, Unitarian Universalism’s Pacific Coast seminary. What little we know — and will ever know — has all the elements that flick my switches: secret leadership decisions, people being punished for sharing information liberated from private councils, a debate which damages reputations of esteemed denominational scholars and ministers (some of whom are personally known to me).
These factors mean this situation hits too close to home. Nothing glib comes to mind. Despite my opinionated description of confidential information being “liberated,” I believe in, engage in, and advocate, the protection of many confidentialities.
And it is closer to home than you think, for I was a student rep on a similar search committee, now long ago, at Harvard. We were trying to find the first “Emerson Professor of UU Studies”, formally known as the Professor of Modern American Religious History. A successor to C. Conrad Wright. Not a bridge between past and future (Conrad served HDS from the 1950s to the late 1980s), but a bright stone, to be slingshot over decades of radical change into some radically new stable,visible, history-based Unitarian Universalism.
There are many ways to think of our selection, D. David Hall. He quickly displayed an utter lack of interest in Unitarian Universalism, coupled by an absolutely brilliant comprehension and description of the roots of what it would be in the new millennium. Far from seeing individualism and spirituality as the enemies of American religious culture, he saw them as longstanding players that any viable religious institution would have to deal with; he read literature I thought I knew with a lens opposite to my own: not how do we maintain our core, but how do we deal with the natural, sacred impulse toward personal spiritual power? I still recommend both of the books that persuaded me he should have the job, even though I am very grateful that, with the passage of time, we now spend our Emerson dollars on Dan McKanan, who takes a more pastoral approach to seminary teaching and Unitarian Universalist Studies.
But that is not what I sat down to say.
What I wish to communicate is the incredible weight attached to a decision structured like the Emerson Chair or the Presidency of Starr King. These positions, unlike parish ministry, are neither collegial nor rotational. There might be guest speakers but, especially with a professor, there will be no policy governance. And when it comes to finding and communicating direction for a seminary, there will ultimately, in the particular selection, be one direction chosen and others left behind.
In other words, the structure means the search committee is going to have to fail, and fail big. Even if your candidate fulfills all your aspirations for her or him, achieves more than you imagined, she will only be one. All the paths other spirits wanted to follow will disappear into weeds. It’s the road not taken, and you may be sure, it really does make all the difference.
At first I declined to share this story because for such a long time it was so painful, and I love not thinking about it any more. I can understand why people in such a pressure cooker would panic, utterly despair, about the direction a decision was going. Indeed, only recently have I stopped second-guessing my decision those twenty-some years ago. Should there be students on the search committees? I would say yes, and not fewer of them, but more. At the time I felt, and still feel, that if more people had been able to talk openly with me during the process, I might have taken a different path, and a generation of seminarians might have had a more institutional-minded professor for their denominational studies. Nevertheless, as I say clearly, I treasure David Hall’s historiography, and his courage in prioritizing the facts of spiritual journeys over the hopes of denominational commitment by funders. Indeed, the questions he posed and researched bedevil us still.
Or maybe my decision would not have mattered. In the end, what cheated the Harvard UU community, and our Association, was not the choice we made, but the fact that we had to choose. We had a radical individualist versus a stellar institutionalist. I felt then, and feel now, that Conrad Wright had so thoroughly conquered the scholarship on the institutional impulse, and had many decades to preach and document his anti-individual vision — that the individualists — of which I am not one — deserved equal time, weight, and dignity. Judging from our ability to serve them, their time is not yet done.
But that tension within academia is not the biggest issue in 2014. Today the tension between individualism and institutionalism is slicing through our very understanding, not only of ministerial education, but of ministry itself. More and more, the ministerial asset of “continuing education” has devolved onto congregational members. More and more, the parish minister will send people off to learn skills for which, at one time, a colleague would have been hired. At the same time, our seminaries are expanding their definitions of ministerial tracks for which their graduates might delude themselves that they will be paid, and paid well. But most of these careers are not going to pay anything like the sums these students will hand over, and then pay back for decades. Nor will all these students find jobs in these careers at all. Indeed, like me, they might find themselves treasured by the congregation to which they belong, paid occasionally for a finite, focused offering, and bound by collegial ethics to refrain from speaking in public on matters about which we once cared enough to disrupt our families and fortunes.
My time in seminary was precious, and I would not have omitted it for anything. I loved parish ministry, but was not constructed for it. Did my education pay for itself? No.* And that, in the end, is the paramount fact underlying the scandal at Starr King. I hope it will be seriously examined at GA. Yes, I have colleagues whose careers follow the ideal path, or who hack new roads by which liberal religion shines its light into the wilderness of an unstructured public square. But are they the majority of people who struggle to pay back seminary loans? Whose children seethe at the hours spent in Clinical Pastoral Counseling instead of watching the softball games or waiting at home to talk about how the date went? Whose spouses give up — or already gave up — because this religion has asked the aspiring minister to discern an irrefutable life commitment? The Department of Ministry should be forced to reveal the numbers of applicants, much less candidates, compared to the number of jobs available. Perhaps the money spent on that school should devolve to massively enhanced support to lay leaders, using enhanced district staff and e-education.
In the decades since 1990, I have spent hundreds of hours providing free, non-copyrighted e-education to colleagues in UU religious education and ministry. Anyone may read this blog, and it is not protected in any way. All I ask is that you credit me for anything I have done well, as so many others have blamed me for what I did less well. If this where most of us are winding up, the question is not “Who shall be the president of Starr King?” but “Should Unitarian Universalism maintain such institutions, at such cost to its most passionate adherents?”
*My family of origin was able to write a single check for my student debt about 18 months after I graduated; that particular long-term penury is not the burr under my saddle.