Trouble in Paradise – Starr King School for the Ministry
I have hesitated on whether or not to write this post. Starr King School for the Ministry (SKSM) is important to me. It is the seminary where I studied for the ministry, and there is so much pain there right now. I don’t want to add to that pain. But it seems to me in all the discussion about the disclosure of confidential information and the board’s response to that disclosure, several important points have been lost. Three of them are, in my opinion:
1. The underlying racism of the reaction to the selection of the Reverend Rosemary Bray McNatt as SKSM’s next president
2. Ignorance of the power dynamics of institutions, including those of small religiously liberal seminaries
3. Hubris and confusion about what the “empowerment ” of students actually means.
You can read the public documents from the school here.
Facebook has been totally popping, but I only know of one UU blogger who has commented so far. Scott Well’s comments are here. I found some of Scott’s comments less than generous in tone and that is partly why I have decided to add my own voice.
Disclaimer first: I have no inside information, just what I have gleaned online. Most of the discussion seems to be about an anonymous email that contained confidential information and the students whose degrees have not been granted while the school investigates to see if they were involved. Publicly disclosing confidential information is a serious ethical breech, not something that a minister should ever intentionally do, except in cases where there are legal reporting requirements. This wasn’t that kind of case, however. It was instead because a student or students (or others) were upset with the selection of the next president of the seminary and believed the selection process was flawed.
There were 3 finalists for the position, all well respected and highly qualified individuals. When the African American woman was selected as the new president it triggered a lot of frankly racist nonsense about her being somehow less qualified than the other two candidates. This is a major problem for a school that has as an emphasis on social justice work and educating to counter oppressions. It is also something that always happens when a person of color rises to a position of power and authority, so I guess no one should have been surprised. Think of those that still question where President Obama was born. It happens to women too, and there was a very similar reaction when the now outgoing president, Rebecca Parker was first selected. Everyone can have a favorite candidate and is certainly entitled to be disappointed if someone else is chosen, but would the reaction have been the same if the white male had been selected instead? Would his qualifications and credentials be disparaged? Would the selection process have been declared corrupt by anyone?
2. Ignorance of power dynamics
If you chose to attend a small school or if you chose to work for that school, there is an expectation that you will generally support the institution, and also the board and administration. Don’t bite the hand that you want to feed you. Understand where the power lies and approach it with respect. Constructive criticism is one thing, advice offered in love is a gift that, in my experience, is usually reasonably well received, even if it is not followed. A milder version of this incident occurred while I was a student there. One student took it upon herself to state publically that academic standards were being ignored by the school’s administration in certain selections. She at least signed her name, but the personal advice I gave her was that if she really felt that way, it was probably time for her to look at transferring to a different school. Similarly, faculty at a small school need to support school policies and the decisions of the board and administration, at least in all public discussion. If you can’t do that, you don’t belong there. You might even be fired. By the way, this is also true for the staff who work for our local congregations. An office administrator should not be trash talking about the minister – or visa versa for that matter. The whole really is greater than the parts.
Whoever said that the students at the school should get to pick the faculty and the new president? Being able to give some input into such decisions is a gift, so to be outraged when another decision is made is just hubris in my opinion. This may be one of the systemic issues going on. Students are encouraged to speak truth to power and to be vocal on all sorts of social justice issues, but not enough attention appears to be given to the need for humility. The school is about so much more than the current student body and their opinions or even their careers. The outraged students don’t seem to understand that. If they hope to be effective ministers someday then they need to understand that the good of the congregation as a whole always trumps whatever personal issues the minister might have. Always. It can be a very difficult discernment process, but it is one that needs to be done. It should never just be about you; it has to be what is good for the whole, not what individuals think they want necessarily, but what will help them grow in their faith and also make a positive difference in their own lives and in the wider world.
I hope all involved can spend some reflection time on the following question:
What is the best thing I can do for the future of the school, for Unitarian Universalism, and ultimately for our world?
I happen to believe that both Unitarian Universalism and the world need the Starr King School for the Ministry. It is a very special place. It isn’t perfect, nothing is. If we want to be faithful and effective religious leaders then our mission must be to build things up and to make things better. Let’s all try and pray about it. That could help.
Tom Shade has some important things to say about power and authority (here)