Students and faculty gather for 2013 commencement exercises at the Episcopal Church's General Theological Seminary in New York. (Photo credit: General Theological Seminary / YouTube)

September 30, 2014

Another Episcopal Seminary Meltdown?

Months of internal divisions around the future direction of the Episcopal Church’s oldest seminary have erupted into public view, with all but two fulltime faculty members at the General Theological Seminary (GTS) in New York no longer employed after a dustup with the seminary dean and board of trustees.

The professors assert in a letter to the GTS board that Dean Kurt Dunkle’s leadership has been characterized by a “failure to collaborate” and “resulted in a climate that many of us find to be fraught with conflict, fear, and anxiety.”

Conversely, trustees blamed “some faculty member’s demands for action not possible under the governing structure of the Seminary” in a September 30 statement. Board members also stated they were conducting an internal investigation into charges made against Dunkle, apparently centered on statements he allegedly made.

“Further comment on the investigation, pending its outcome, would not help that process,” the trustee letter stated. “We encourage everyone to withhold any further judgment or comment.”

Dunkle, a former attorney and parish priest, was installed as the seminary’s Dean and President in October of 2013.

Both faculty and trustees have resorted to social media to share their side of the story, with GTS itself not issuing an official statement until early this afternoon.

The faculty dismissals have been alternately described as a strike or firings, and are being styled as resignations by GTS trustees. Both sides agree that none of the eight faculty members offered to formally resign. Instead, professors stated that they would not hold classes, attend chapel or otherwise participate in administrative tasks at the seminary until they were able to meet with the Board of Trustees. An executive committee of trustees determined that the work stoppage constituted a breach of contract, and dismissed the faculty.

Professors having “resigned” are Joshua Davis, Mitties DeChamplain, Deirdre Good, David Hurd, Andrew Irving, Andrew Kadel, Amy Lamborn and Patrick Malloy.

While theological disputes or pressing financial concerns are not alleged to be at the heart of the dispute, GTS, along with about half of the nine other schools that prepare seminarians for ministry in the Episcopal Church, has experienced significant financial pressures over the past decade. Seabury-Western in Evanston, Illinois sold its buildings to Northwestern University and ultimately merged with tiny Bexley Hall in Gambier, Ohio. Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts sold property worth over $30 million to neighboring Leslie University and more recently has had an ongoing dispute between faculty and Dean Katharine Ragsdale.

General Theological Seminary has sold or redeveloped property in order to pay down $40 million in debt. In 2007, the school on Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood redeveloped three buildings into the Desmond Tutu Center, a hotel and conference center that seminary officials hoped would sustain itself with new revenue. In 2012, the center was sold to a property developer.

The seminary reports $27 million in investments and $10.6 million in expenditures at the end of last school year, partly from the demolition of the former Sherrill Hall and its redevelopment into upscale condominiums. The Association of Theological Schools, which accredits GTS, listed 61 enrolled seminarians at the end of the 2013-2014 school year.

Of the schools that educate Episcopal seminarians, GTS is the only one chartered by the church’s General Convention, and among the oldest. Board Chair and Retired Bishop of New York Mark Sisk is reportedly planning to meet Wednesday, October 1 with students at the seminary. While seminaries affiliated with the Episcopal Church are effectively governed independently of the church, the denomination’s General Convention appoints six of 37 trustees to the board.

UPDATE: The New York Times, Huffington Post, RNS and Associated Press have all covered the story. The AP report of the October 1 chapel service includes this account: “Standing apart, Dunkle instructed an Associated Press reporter seeking comment to turn to his spokesman, who escorted the reporter to the iron-barred exit gate, saying this was private property.”

UPDATE #2: RNS is reporting that seven of the eight fired faculty will return to GTS on a “provisional” basis until the end of the current academic year. One trustee has resigned from the seminary board, saying faculty deserved full reinstatement.

27 Responses to Another Episcopal Seminary Meltdown?

  1. Realitycbd says:

    Interesting, and good to stay apprised of such events.

    And yet… the real Christian events take place under the radar. Lots of people practiced (as the bumper sticker says) random acts of kindness, said no to themselves, resisted temptation. Things that go unnoticed on the world stage loom large in the eyes of the Lord.

  2. yolo says:

    Have you heard about this one: That’s some “Christian”ity.

  3. Jennifer Prestash says:

    Episcopalians are no longer focused on Jesus Christ and the Lord and center of the life of their church. That is why scandals like this happen. And that is why people are fleeing the Episcopal Church. If Episcopals want to grow again they only need to worship Christ, and re-embrace the Law (the moral code, which the Savior said would not pass away until He comes again in glory). That means no acceptance of abortion, of homosexuality, of all the sins that the modern world worships.

    • rrickarr says:

      You have said it in a nutshell.

    • JesusSavesatTarget says:

      “That means no acceptance of abortion, of homosexuality, of all the sins that the modern world worships.” Spoken like a member Westboro Baptist Church. Using your religion as a weapon against others, your spiteful, bigoted brand of Christianity is the very reason people are leaving the Church in record numbers . And every denomination has people “fleeing”, you obviously are have no clue about modern demographics and documented sociological realities.

      • Jennifer Prestash says:

        Episcopalians have rejected the Bible. That’s clear to anyone who opens one.

        Fact: Among Protestant denominations, those which hold Biblical teachings are either stable or growing. Those which rejected Biblical teachings regarding sex are shrinking.

        • Xerxesfire says:

          Jennifer – Very true! There have been a number of Biblically conservative Presbyterian and Episcopal churches that have left their denomination to join a more conservative one. The Episcopal national church headquarters has been very vindictive to these churches, often making them vacate their buildings and assets. How Christian is that!? Biblically-based churches are growing, especially the Assemblies of God churches. As for many mainline churches…all one has to do on any given Sunday morning is count the number of gray heads in attendance. Not hard to see they are dying a slow death. Sad to say that apostacy is killing off many churches, reducing them to mere country clubs that help the poor.

      • Edward says:

        What!!! Is that punitive? Must wrongs never be mentioned for fear of being categorized as sounding like the Westboro Baptist Church! When I read Jennifer’s comment above, I don’t see any punitive nuance of any kind. I only see a person stating the truth of the gospel. Our fellow human beings who say have same sex attractions are loved by the loving God that our precious savior Jesus Christ came to tell us about. He also loves alcoholics, murderers, rapers, the complacent, the haters, the gossips–all sinners who we all are. BUT that does not mean He condones sinful behavior, more so the audacity to poke Him in the eye and declare our sinful behavior right.

  4. ve6 says:

    The Episcopalians should fold their tent and merge with the Presbyterians or the Shriners.

  5. John Petty says:

    I find the breathless and excited chronicling of the difficulties of mainline protestants to be humorous and fun. Keep up the amusing work.

  6. rrickarr says:

    If the allegations against the Dean are indeed true, then the ENTIRE STUDENT BODY should refuse to attend class…and effectively shut the seminary down. it is disgraceful that Bishop Sisk is the Chair of the Board and has done nothing, and it is disgraceful that the national leadership has not stepped in. Shame on all of these administrators are supposed to be Christ-like.

  7. Mike Ward says:

    Of the three linked articles I read (I didn’t bother with the Huffington Post article), the NYTimes was most interesting. It portrays the Dean as controlling and difficult to deal with, but as it goes on the eight faculty members come acorss as demanding and manipulative: wanting to only meet with certain board members, demanding immidate action, being dismissive of the boards investiagtion into the Dean. I don’t know which side is in the right, but it might not be either of them. I feel for the board.

    • skydove says:

      Agreed that the NYT article was better than the one in WaPo; that the Times has at least temporarily replaced Laurie Goodman on the TEC beat is a good thing. The shorter WaPo piece didn’t mention the negative reaction of several students to the dean’s changes — in effect, a failure to tell the whole story. & neither piece explained why the board at General considers the faculty members’ “demands” to be “unmeetable.”

  8. CB3fish says:

    If one is a genuine follower of Jesus Christ Lord and Savior, then
    that person would find no comfort or enlightenment from the faculty. The fact
    is TEC no longer can claim it is a historic faith, it has embraced the modern
    culture which all of its sickness. TEC does not speak to the culture, it the
    mouth piece of the culture. Another Seminary dean has called Abortion a
    sacrament; that is madness; but a symptom of how nuts TEC has become. So in the
    long view it matters not who the General Seminary hires to teach, they will
    have to be of the same mind and all this leads thankfully to a slow death.

  9. Joe Sherrill says:

    Thanks for the demolition of Sherrill hall. I don’t desire to have my name attached to a organization that has strayed so far off the path to righteousness. I have no idea my last name has anything to do with the Sherrill for whom the building was name for but it is still comforting to know it is gone from the campus.

  10. Paul Zesewitz says:

    Before the Episcopal Church (or any liberal-minded denomination like the UCC or UUA) can change for the better, it’s seminaries must. I agree with Jennifer. Seems like since after the Civil War, when the Higher Criticism theology came out, all the mainline churches turned away from the Bible in droves. It’s never been the same since. If these seminaries don’t return to the Bible as the divinely inspired Word that it is (2 Timothy 3:16), they’ll just continue killing themselves

    • Xerxesfire says:

      Paul – You raise some good points. I actually believe the social gospel movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s had more to do with the beginning of the slow death of mainline churches. At one time, they actually stood for Biblical authority. After WWII, memberships declined in many churches and the trend has yet to be reversed to this day!

  11. brucegarner says:

    The ignorance below is astounding. Jesus Christ and His mission are preached from the pulpits every Sunday. And as far as the Bible is concerned, Episcopalians probably read more of it, particularly in public worship, than anyone else. (And it is read in context and complete narrative, rather than “a verse and a half.”) During the course of each three year cycle, the entire book is read.

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