I have been thinking about the controversy at SKSM since the the news broke and reading people’s Facebook posts and other commentary. What I am seeing is a lot of oversimplification going on and a missed opportunity to think more deeply and carefully about problems these events should be revealing to us.
On the one hand. I assume the students who leaked to confidential memo thought of themselves as whistle-blowers and that this was an act of civil disobedience justified by the importance of the memo’s message itself. I will not argue whether or not they were correct in their thinking since I have not read the memo nor do I plan to read it. But. An act of civil disobedience, properly done, requires that one accept the consequences of the act itself. Thus Gandhi and Thoreau were quite willing to go to jail. Martin Luther King, Jr. was even prepared to die if necessary. And this willingness to accept the consequences requires that the act no be done anonymously. One cannot simultaneously engage in civil disobedience and avoid the consequences by hiding behind anonymity. The latter destroys the credibility of the former.
On the other hand. The withholding of degrees to two students raises a serious issue about the appropriate role of the seminary…or any other seminary for that matter…in ministerial gatekeeping . Is the seminary an academic institution providing a graduate level religious education without which no one is prepared for ministry? Or is it the primary source of ministerial formation?
It is this question that I think is the deeper issue, and I think that it has not been addressed. In Unitarian Universalism, we have long separated the granting of the degree of Master of Divinity from the granting of ministerial fellowship. The former does not imply the latter. The degree is granted by the seminary; ministerial fellowship is granted by the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (the MFC), a committee of the UUA. But I have long noticed that these two roles are not clearly delineated with the result that there is often confusion about which body has what level of responsibility for gatekeeping.
I think that this controversy reveals the sad result of the confusion. Is the withholding of the degree a legitimate consequence for leaking the memo? The SKSM Board has said that it is because the school’s purpose is the training of ministers and the leaking revealed a serious disrespect for the confidentiality necessary for the profession. The response is that these students had met every stated requirement for the degree and therefore they had earned it and should be granted it. Who is right?
At best it is not obvious because it is not obvious what the seminary’s proper gatekeeping role actually is. What would have happened if, rather than withholding the degrees, had granted them and informed the MFC of the circumstances and expressed reservations about the student’s ministerial formation? We will never know, of course, but that would have been a step toward the clarification of responsibility.
Other issues that I see. While it is true that there are important differences between calling a minister and hiring a seminary president, it is equally true that the presidency of a seminary is a ministry. And since it is a ministry, it seems to me important that many of the same procedures and practices used in calling a minister be adapted and employed when here is a vacancy in the presidency. One of these is that, especially in the circumstances of a long-term and deeply loved president, an interim period be respected. Without an interim, the likelihood of dissatisfaction is much higher.
Another of these is that it is a mistake to bring several candidates to the school and ask for people to voice their opinions. When that happens it is inevitable that there will be misunderstanding and hurt feelings. People will choose up sides and the loosing side (or sides) will be unhappy with the result. And this is what happened at SKSM.
Three candidates brought to the school and then a poll was taken of the students and staff. I do not know what cover letter accompanied the poll, but based on subsequent events, it seems clear that the Board assumed that this poll was no more than a straw vote that would not be binding on the its ultimate decision. Yet, it seems equally clear that at least some of the respondents thought that they were voting for the next President and that the results of the vote would be binding. This seems to me that it is almost inevitable that some would make this assumption, no matter how clear the cover letter was to the contrary. The result is what actually happened.
Well, investigations continue. Feelings continue to be hurt. Money continues to be spent on things other than ministerial education. I think the time has come for us to put aside the pointing of fingers of blame and begin addressing the deeper issues. Neither side is innocent of mistakes, but all of us have important lessons to be learned.