Re The Events at Starr King

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.

15 thoughts on “Re The Events at Starr King

  1. Cathleen Cox

    Ken, you have raised many thoughtful questions about the nature of theological education, which I appreciate. I also wholeheartedly agree with your assertion that if any person feels morally called to act as a whistleblower, that person is under an equal moral obligation to do so openly, taking full responsibility. However, your post seems to proceed from an assumption that the students whose degrees were withheld ARE the “whistleblowers” and that the primary question at issue here is whether, as such, they deserve to have their degrees withheld. Please hit the pause button here! My clear understanding, as the Good Officer of the UU Society for Community Ministries, who has had in-depth conversation with both these students who are members of UUSCM, is that both vigorously deny that they they EITHER WERE OR KNOW WHO WAS the person or persons who, for whatever reasons, acted in the role of you identify as “whistleblower.” Conversations with other graduates from last year’s class suggests to me that the experience of these two students who deny their involvement in the leak and have had their degrees withheld was (and is) substantially different from that of other students who also denied their involvement in the leak and whose word was, apparently, sufficient. So when you say that “neither side is innocent of mistakes,” and you associate these students with the mistakes of the whistleblower, you are making an entirely unwarranted assumption.

    1. uurevken Post author

      Cathleen, you are correct that I was making that assumption, and I am very glad to be corrected. I suspect that most people make that same assumption. It needs to be corrected every time it is made, and I am glad you are doing exactly that. It does raise the question of why these two students are being treated differently from the others, but I have no information or ideas about that. I am too far from the situation. All of this serves to illustrate the complexity of these issues.

      However, that said, my major point remains. Whoever it was who leaked the memo and remains hidden from responsibility has failed to understand the integrity of acts of civil disobedience.

      It is apparently also true that, for whatever reason, the Board also thought that they had good reason to believe those students were the source of the leaks, and it acted on that belief. So the question I raise about whether the withholding the degrees was an appropriate consequence is still to the point.

      To reiterate, though, thank you for correcting me. All of us need to be open to having our errors pointed out from time to time.

  2. Cathleen Cox

    Ken, I thank you and so much appreciate your ready willingness to acknowledge the assumption. I am (sadly) in agreement with you that in suspecting that many others have made it as well. Even your reply contains what I believe to be an error: to the best of my knowledge, the SKSM Board has never suggested it believes that the two students were, themselves, the source of the leaked documents. If this raises in your mind more questions than it answers, you are not alone.

  3. Judy Welles

    There are many conversations going on right now about these issues, and that has to be good. I am following some, and trying to comment only where I believe I have something to add.

    So I won’t say a lot here, but I do definitely take issue with your statement that “it is equally true that the presidency of a seminary is a ministry.” Ken, as you rightly pointed out, there is confusion about the differing yet overlapping roles of seminary and MFC. Please don’t make it even more confusing by conflating the roles of seminary president and minister.

    A seminary is an academic institution. The search process undertaken by SKSM for its new President was held the way an academic institution does such a search. Final candidates are identified and come to the school to experience the school and for “the school” to experience them (students, faculty, staff, Board of Trustees, etc.) Then the search committee makes its decision. The school community does not get to vote on who the President will be in the same way that members of a congregation get to vote (admittedly only yes or no) on the one candidate selected by a church’s search committee.

    Clearly the number of people talking about this and related issues is a good indication that the system could use some improvement. What has that ever NOT been true? But let’s try to differentiate between what is broken and what isn’t, to keep the confusion to a minimum.

  4. uurevken Post author

    But do we not recognize the Presidencies of our two seminaries as community ministries? And when as one of our seminaries had a President who was not a minister? I think one of the problems is exactly that the roles of president and minister are already conflated and no one asks whether or not that is a good idea.

    1. Judy Welles

      And you are further conflating the roles by stating them as essentially the same in this blog, when they are not the same. Just because a person is a minister doesn’t make every position they fill a ministry. Plenty of ordained clergy serve as Executive Directors of nonprofit organizations, for example. But she or he aren’t referred to as “the Minister of the Badass DoGood Foundation.” She or he is the Executive Director, just as Lee Barker and Rosemary Bray McNatt are the Presidents of our two UU identified seminaries, and incidentally, they happen to be ministers.

      1. uurevken Post author

        As I understand things, the presidencies are recognized by there MFC as community ministries. I could be wrong about that, though.

  5. nightprayers

    It is clear that there were missteps in this distressing situation, but as for the legitimacy of withholding/suspending degrees, that is, I would certainly hope, something that is covered in policies overseen in the accrediting process. What are the parameters of the program, and its documentation, that was accredited to grant degrees? I do not find a general catalog at the SKSM website (which I find very problematic but not unusual as MLTS similarly did not provide a general catalog in my three years a student there), but the policies concerning granting and withholding degrees would surely have been part of the evaluation by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) Commission on Accreditation that resulted in renewed accreditation valid through Fall 2019. If ATS accredited a program whose policies outlined/prescribed the withholding of otherwise earned degrees for the reason of problems regarding ministerial formation – as opposed to successful completion of the academic program – then SKSM’s decision to withhold/suspend degrees would, however painful, be legitimate so long as the policies were followed. In my mind that is the issue here. Was the accredited program’s duly established policy followed?

    SKSM has clearly presented its moral and professional justification for taking such a stance. Some disagree with it, but it is clear. What I have missed seeing is their academic justification in relation to established policies. This is an accredited academic degree program we’re talking about.

      1. nightprayers

        Sorry about that; wordpress autofills the name from a blog I very rarely use as soon as the email is entered and doesn’t let me change it. I am Paul Oakley, M.Div., newly fellowshipped by the MFC, to be ordained in May 2015.

    1. Judy Welles

      In response to Paul’s query, the school’s justification for its action appears in several places on its web site. One of the most recent statements published there, in dispute of some of the facts appearing in both the New York Times and the UU World articles, quotes Fred Garcia’s June 2 letter to the SKSM community (also published on the web site) thus: “Trustees have a fiduciary obligation – and a legal obligation – to attend to the needs of the School. One of the functions of a school is to certify, through both objective and subjective criteria, that a student has fulfilled requirements for graduation. The Degree Requirements section of Starr King’s website ( clearly state: ‘Requirements for graduation include not only “completion of explicit requirements but of your personal readiness—intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, professionally, and practically—for the form of ministry, chaplaincy, or religious leadership for which you are preparing.’ Religious leadership includes a duty to respect privileged confidential information.”

      I suppose one could still take issue with whether this justification is warranted, but there it is. Just wanted to set the record straight.

  6. uurevken Post author

    Ain’t technology grand, Paul? (But only when it works the way we want it to.) Thank you for taking the time and trouble to reply to my post. And congratulations on your impending ordination!

  7. Kate

    Ken, I have been having some issues with how the MFC is doing its job: specifically that it does not routinely remove ministers who have sexually abused those in its care. One of the justifications I have heard for that is that their responsibility is limited. So I would agree that it is unclear as to who is responsible for discerning who has the good character necessary to be a minister. Personally, I would like to see the schools think about this so I am glad it is a part of SKSM’s concern here. Whether it is a justified concern in this particular instance I am not qualified to say, but I am reluctant to second guess those charged with making that decision having no first hand knowledge of the people involved. And, indeed, the seminaries, having a longer time with the student should have better opportunity for discernment. I do think this should be number one on the MFC’s list as well — far behind things like “showing her vulnerability”, ministerial presence, etc. Oddly, I can’t think of a case I know of personally in which character counted against a candidate, even when the members of the committee believed it to be a concern.

    1. uurevken Post author

      This is one reason why I raise this issue. Who is responsible for making these judgements? I have been told by people at a seminary that it is not the seminaries’ job, that they are primarily academic institutions. Now you are saying that the MFC is also saying that their role is limited. So who is responsible? I think that it is time the whole question be re-examined and a clear statement that everyone accepts, respects, and acts on is necessary.

      There is a statement in Starr King’s website (see Judy Welles’ comments), but that seems not to be generally understood or even known. And even given that statement, where is the MFC’s responsibility? Are there two gatekeepers prior to graduation? Apparently. What is the relationship between them? Do they use the same criteria? Should they? What is M/L’s stance on this?

      Furthermore,there is nothing a seminary can do once a student has graduated. At that point it seems to me that it is the MFC’s responsibility. The gate needs to be kept throughout a minister’s career.

      Lots of questions I don’t have an answer to?

  8. Pingback: Speaking anonymously for public engagement | Boy in the Bands

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