About the Starr King School for Ministry Scandal

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.


5 thoughts on “About the Starr King School for Ministry Scandal

  1. This is the most interesting post on this issue so far. I would say that it’s not a tempest in a teapot to the two students who aren’t getting their degrees.

    And I’m really curious what books you’d recommend by D. David Hall.

    • The Faithful Shepherd, charting the evolution of the congregational ministerial career path in New England. Ought to be mandatory for UU candidates. Worlds of Wonder, Days of Awe, about personal spirituality, magic, and animism among Puritans. Also radically inclusive of women as spiritual leaders.

  2. “Have the search committee process a largely private and secretive one” doesn’t sound like a good idea to me either. Until I start thinking through the implications of an entire institution knowing which few people are up for the job and taking sides*, and everyone knowing “Jane didn’t get the job, and this why” and that impact on the next position Jane applies for to say nothing of her reputation, even if the “why” is fairly benign.

    Pretty much nobody in the real world openly discusses their hiring and firing decisions and that, in a nutshell, is why, and the reasons are humane as well as legal. Also, I’d say “making a bad hiring/firing decision of an individual” is almost never as big a problem as “dividing the whole community over the decision itself,” which, obviously has happened here, even though I don’t think the decision was a bad one at all given the nature of the job and the qualifications of the two parties who were up for it that are public knowledge.


    *A situation that will only get worse in cases like this one where one candidate is someone students and faculty know very well and the other candidates are not. It’s human nature that this would become a referendum on the person they know. That’s not healthy for the process.

    • You are right about the need for a certain amount of confidentiality and the damage to institutional morale, and ministerial careers, we experienced under the old radically public system.

  3. Having been a student on the selection committee for a college president (in ancient history: the 1970s), I can relate to the appalling aftermath of the process. Ours was not a secretive process. The entire student body was openly invited to informal ‘meet and greets’ with all of the candidates. The committee made a selection and we went on our merry way, not. After the selection was made, I, as a student leader was invited to a meeting with the new president who said he wanted to have an open door policy. He wanted to know if there were any issues that came up in search or other pressing issues. I asked about a statement another candidate made about our regional campus of a large university system (the candidate said degrees from our campus were seen as devalued when we were being considered for graduate programs, which implied we had inferior faculty and inadequate education.) The new president said he would get back to us on the topic. He then called the student leaders to a meeting (thankfully our faculty advisor came too) at which he accused me of being a liar. All of the other students protested, supporting me, as they had heard the same thing from the other candidate. The advisor assured the president that I could be believed. By then I had three years of exemplary accomplishments and leadership on that campus and the new president had about two weeks. He lost face, he lost student support and he lost faculty support in an instant. It took a year of sucking up to the student leadership and faculty before anyone took him seriously as a leader.

    How does this relate to the SKSM debacle? Student leaders are not mere tokens to be toyed with in the search process. I have no idea who did what or even what the material “strapped student” chose to reveal. It almost doesn’t matter. What matters is that students learn a tremendous amount of institutional material in the process of being students, material that should inform the current leadership of a school and the incoming when there is a change. To demonize those students when they reveal it or become frustrated with a process they felt was unfair helps no one- not the student and not the institution. In the ‘real world’ the most you could say is perhaps the students need a refresher ethics course or coaching in being better politicians (not from me, I am terrible at it, or so I have been told). Instead the choice is made to derail careers that seemed to hold great promise.

    Confidentiality, designed to protect the innocent loser of a competition, also is used to hide nefarious behavior, unfair process, outright lies and political vendettas. Good luck with creating responsible, healthy community on that basis.

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