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.

1. Racism

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.

3.  Hubris

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)






Tags: , , ,

23 responses to “Trouble in Paradise – Starr King School for the Ministry”

  1. Scott Wells says :

    What comment or comments did you find offensive?

    • revtheresanovak says :

      Offensive isn’t the description I used and it also wasn’t what I meant. Your line that gave me the most pause was: “My basic opinion about the school hasn’t changed, and (plainly) I have a hard time caring if it prospers or dies”

      • Joel Miller says :

        I often appreciate Scott’s iconoclasm. But, Scott, you just blew past gadfly into sounding bitter and resentful. The “hard time caring” comment really stung, coming from someone whose comments I often admire. Is it too much to ask that you practice some loyal opposition when your dissenting?

    • johnarkansawyer says :

      Scott, I read you with great attention on some things. I’d love to have you planning Unitarian Universalist church planting (assuming UUism cared about church planting). I also find you consistently “less than generous in tone” about UUism generally. You offer a useful perspective and I keep that in mind.

      • boyinthebands says :

        This is for Joel; I’m only reading his comment now.

        He says that I sound bitter or resentful? I don’t see that. About what? That I wasn’t named president? I didn’t apply…

        I really don’t care about SKSM’s particular fate; that should be read literally. I’m not an alumnus, I have no control over its problematic finances, and it wasn’t that long ago it faced a sincere (if suggested) existential threat in the form of merger with M/L. The number of recent (say, to 2000) SKSM working in UU congregations should cause some soul searching. (SKSM graduates are the ones, particularly following the recent crisis, who have a right to be bitter, resentful or both.)

        Because I don’t care about SKSM’s fate, I’m also not a partisan “for the administration” or “for the ungraduated students” though there are serious due-process concerns and unequal power stuctures — if we’re talking about hubris — and so I’ll pay attention more carefully to those at greater risk of harm, namely students. Let’s not get lost in side issues.

        Lastly, I’m neither an iconoclast, gadfly nor a part of some loyal opposition. Iconoclasts destroy; I do my level best to keep institutions I care about from falling down. (I’m also about as square a soul you’ll ever meet.) Gadfly is a term you use when you want to minimize another person, and it’s plain to me that I have something to say that others might say if they felt free to do so. And I’m a Unitarian Universalist and a minister in fellowship; that’s no opposition. I’m middle-aged, middle-class and establishment. And I happen to disagree with any number of people because I think they are wrong or mislead or misleading, and that an echo chamber makes no-one wiser.

        But if tone is the worst thing others see in my writing, perhaps my readers find me generous in other ways.

  2. Rev. Suzanne Marsh says :

    Thanks Theresa, your “3 points” are, in my opinion, spot on. Number 3 was the main reason I sometimes did not feel welcome at SKSM while I was a UU student across the street.

  3. Amy Zucker Morgenstern says :

    It sounds as if from your perspective, the hullaballoo is basically about students being displeased with the choice of the Search Committee. Could you supply some specifics to support this? The criticisms I’ve heard of the process had nothing whatsoever to do with whether the chosen candidate was the one the student body preferred (I don’t even know which one they preferred–do you?).

    “it triggered a lot of frankly racist nonsense about her being somehow less qualified than the other two candidates”

    Again, not something I’ve heard. Can you cite some examples? I didn’t know the issue was anyone’s complaints about any candidate’s qualifications.

  4. Andrew Young says :

    Thanks for your thoughtful post. I think they are all great points. The one thing I would like to hold up is that we don’t know for sure if it was a student who leaked the confidential data. It may have been, but it also may have been a faculty member, a staff member, a board member, or even a past student or someone not related to the school at all. Since that person or persons has or have not come forward there’s no way for us to know for sure.

    I’m not saying that students weren’t involved, but many have made the assumption that it must be a student who did this and that is a dangerous assumption for us to be making.

  5. Leslie Jarzabski says :

    I am a member of the class that just graduated from Starr King.

    While I absolutely DO NOT condone the events that have lead to this whole controversy (an anonymous student or students deciding to leak the raw results of a community-wide survey intended to gather people’s feelings about each of the three candidates) and am in very deep grief about all the damage that this person or persons’ actions have caused, I want to be clear about something: Nowhere in the original leak, or in the umpteen email discussions that resulted from it on which the entire student body, faculty, and staff were CC’d, did I ever read a single sentence that questioned Rosemary’s qualifications for the job. What some students were upset about was their belief that since the raw survey data seemed to indicate that the SKSM community favored a different candidate, that this other candidate should have been chosen for the job. This conclusion honestly baffles me, because it was always clear that the new president was the decision of the search committee, not a vote by the SKSM student body or wider community. (This is where I think your third point about hubris and/or a misunderstanding of what it means to be an empowered student might find traction.)

    Does that mean there were not racist motives behind any of this? I have no idea. I can tell you that I have not heard a single person describe Rosemary as anything other than an amazing minister that SKSM will be very lucky to have as our president. The same has been said about the other two candidates.

    But does it look terribly suspicious that the first black president of SKSM is elected, and then all hell breaks loose? Yes. And my heart is breaking. I cannot read the mind of the person that leaked the survey data. They have chosen to remain anonymous, and so I can’t ask them what their motives were. Unfortunately, what I can do is sit here and read blog posts from people who were not directly involved in the controversy speculating about whether or not my beloved seminary has gone nuts, or whether it should even exist.

    That’s the worst part about all this. We are trying, as a community, to do the soul work of healing and forgiving, and moving into a place where we can celebrate (and we will celebrate) this blessing of Rosemary as our new president, and the people who need to come to the table are refusing to show up. It’s like we’re stuck talking to an empty chair.

    Thank you for reading this, and for the concern you clearly have for SKSM.

    • revtheresanovak says :

      Thanks, Leslie. Hopefully the healing will come sooner rather than later.

      • Leslie Jarzabski says :

        Thank you for being a part of that healing!!

      • Leslie Jarzabski says :

        Now, to correct myself. A colleague just reminded me of a line in the original email that began this controversy that did in fact allege that Rev. McNatt was somehow less qualified than the other candidate. This is extremely insulting and dismissive of all that Rosemary McNatt brings to us, and is suggestive of a deeper bias.

        I guess all I am trying to get across is that whoever sent that email did not speak for the SKSM community as a whole. And that commentators in various other areas of the blogosphere who are using this controversy as an opportunity to make generalized statements about “the kind of people” at SKSM, or regarding SKSM’s intrinsic value (or lack thereof) are just pouring salt onto a wound whose sting they don’t have to feel.

  6. josjourney21 says :

    Also one of the points that was brought up sometime ago, by whom I don’t remember, was that the animosity was directed more at President Parker than at the new entering President. Someone clearly had a bone to pick with her and after reading some of what I saw, I also believe that this person has some kind of vendetta against Dr. Parker. I don’t think it was racism as much, not saying it isn’t there, but as much as vindictiveness towards Dr. Parker. That was just my impression. Thank you all for all your posts. The healing has only just begun, but I hope we are headed in the right direction.

  7. Chris Long says :

    Dearest Colleague, I can not thank you enough for the COURAGE and wisdom you share in posting this thorough, thought-filled, much needed, SACRED document. The many issues you cover leave me in deep reflection on how these issues run deep through systems, yes and especially religious communities, that seek more JUSTICE (in all of its many forms) in pursuit of their mission and vision in the world. May we all be courageous enough to explore where these issues show up in our own lives. I deeply believe with the latest postings from the Starr King board president and submissions such as yours, we ARE on the sacred, religious (UU) path to more JUSTICE in living out our Principles and Sources in the world. A never ending Theological quest for more of what we are to become. May it be so! Thanks and I MISS YOU! Love, Rev Chris Long (June 7, 2009 – First Unitarian Church of Oakland)

  8. Nastasha Ostrom says :

    I have some concerns about the manner in which we have been discussing the content of the anonymous email. This is criticism of myself as well. (I’m another member of the class that just graduated.)

    Many people in this conversation, myself included, have not received copies of the anonymous email in question. To discuss the content of the email, and make judgements about it, we are relying entirely upon rumors and the claims of people—possibly people who saw the letter firsthand, possibly only people who have heard things (possibly true, possibly false, possibly half-true) about the letter.

    While I know we all want to analyze the situation to the best of our abilities and come to a better personal understanding of the events that occurred, we have to remember that there are people who are more directly impacted by these events and the investigation than we are. These people–including the search committee, people whose private communications were leaked, the people under investigation despite there being no evidence they did anything, and our incoming President—are all under a cloud of suspicion right now because of the anonymous email and the investigation.

    I do not think, in a context of suspicion and confusion that continues to harm those most affected, that speculation about and discussion of the content of an anonymous email we cannot all see and judge for ourselves is helpful or wise. We are merely contributing to the rumors that have already been so harmful to so many people under this cloud of suspicion. I hope that as we continue in a process of discernment and truth-seeking about this issue, we will strive to share our own experiences, our personal knowledge and our own thoughts, and not continue to engage in hearsay.

  9. Tegan Jones says :

    I must agree with Natasha. I feel that if you don’t have any actual information about an issue of this type, it might be best to withhold comment in the future. This isn’t some high-profile issue that’s playing itself out on a national media stage—this is a very small-scale, sensitive issue and two young women’s futures hang in the balance. Two young women, mind you, who say they were not responsible for the leak in question. So while speculation and analysis is helpful for our faith, it seems it would be respectful to hold your comments until people have been found culpable for the leak in question and a final decision has been made.

    In addition, I have to say that I’m disturbed by your position that we, as members of a small faith, are compelled to agree with the decisions made by our leaders. Regardless of the size of the institutions we belong to, our faith teaches that each individual has a responsibility to stand up to injustice when we see it rear its head. I am not making a statement as to whether that was or was not being done in this particular instance. I’m just saying that it seems dangerous and inaccurate to imply that obedience is necessary—or healthy—for our seminaries or our congregations.

    • revtheresanovak says :

      Hi Tegan, Thanks for your comment. I actually agree with you that it is time for those not directly involved to step aside. My original post was almost a month ago, and my focus was not on the leaked information and certainly wasn’t about the students whose degrees were withheld. My concern was primarily about the original reaction to the selection of the new president. I still believe that if Rev. Rosemary were a white male, none of this would have happened. I also do not think her selection was an injustice to anyone and once that decision was made, I do think everyone should have been at least publically supportive of it – even if they liked one of the other candidates better. Attacking the process just because you are unhappy with the result is not OK in my opinion, in any context. It is something that happens too many times in too many places. No one else had pointed out the underlying racism of that reaction, which is one of the reasons why I decided to write something. I am assuming, however, that you are not referring to the selection of the president when you mention injustice.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: