Thursday, October 2, 2014

Normal Enough

The following letter was emailed to the full Board of Trustees one hour ago.

Dear Trustees of General Seminary,

Yesterday I sent Bishop Sisk my two recent blog entries on what are trying times at General Seminary, where I was formed for the priesthood and given the freedom to work to build skills that enable me to excel at my first calling as communications officer for the Diocese of California. The links to the blog entries are here and here.

When I first read the faculty's letter of September 17 on Monday (which though heavily redacted by the seminary was released at least a day beforehand in full by the faculty) I was deeply troubled particularly by their claims of Dean Dunkle's sexist, racist, and homophobic comments — and the claim that he has desired the seminary to emphasize "normal people." My first reading of that comment made me think of a classmate who has planted a worshipping community, is a priest, and whose hair has never since I've known her been a naturally occurring hair color. She's normal enough for her manner of life to be found suitable to exercise the ministry of a priest, but wonder if she'd be considered normal enough to get Dean Dunkle's attention.

I am writing to you today not in anger; I've moved past some of that and it's what delayed my writing. I write in great sadness today seeing the faculty's claim — verified by a third party — of Dean Dunkle saying that he didn't want General to be known as the gay seminary. 1/3 of my class was gay men, but that leaves 2/3 who weren't. While the concentration may have been higher than some would have liked I would not be where I am if not for how General trained me.

I went to General Seminary from the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast, not answering questions to my bishop or Commission on Ministry that hadn't been asked. As far as anyone in Alabama / Florida knew I was single (though probably no one assumed I was straight). I came to General terrified of my bishop "finding out" and constantly looking over my shoulder. Because of the support of my classmates and faculty I moved from a place to fear to not being afraid, knowing that God was going before me. My counsel at General and back home encouraged me in this path. I do not regret taking it.

I am speaking gingerly about the faculty's claims because for the time being they are that — however I know the faculty. I have only met Dean Dunkle on one occasion, and it was as he chatted through the distribution of the Eucharistic Elements at a friend's ordination, unaware or uncaring that some people around him might consider that a time for prayer, quiet, and respect — not for networking and catching up.

The faculty who have been removed from their posts are people I know and cherish deeply, regardless of how much I enjoyed their class (or didn't). They are people I know to be good people of faith in their lay and ordained vocations who take counsel with others before they act, who discern in community, and who truly have the heart of students at General in their minds. I do not mean to suggest that Dean Dunkle is not deeply faithful person; I do not have the experience to know. I trust the words of the faculty and the words of students who were at General him, however. My conversations with members of the class of 2014 encourage me to take the faculty at their word in their allegations.

In a slightly different vein, I have been fraught and upset with the tactics and habits of some members of the board in engaging this conflict via social media with individuals, as well as the general silence from the board in response to the materials made available from the (former?) faculty. As a communications officer I know very much that my personal blog and social media presences cannot reflect on goings on in the Diocese of California; despite any disclaimer I make, I speak with the authority of the bishop's office. 

It has been disturbing to know that trustees have reached out to classmates and asked them not to share their discomfort (and retraction of gifts as a result of said discomfort) about the situation in public because doing so seemed indulgent and judgmental, ignoring that good people with good hearts were working and this was tearing down the body — as though racist, sexist, and homophobic comments didn't do the same, and silence on the issues builds up the body. I have been disappointed to see a trustee suggest that a media story was moving farther away from the truth — although no one was saying what the truth was other than that the faculty were lying. I am appalled that the first reckoning of the situation from the board was a board member's reflection on Facebook.

In the 21st Century it is unfair and unreasonable for those in leadership to say "I can't say anything else, but you have to trust me," when those who oppose them are saying, "They haven't listened to or trusted us until this point, so we must make a drastic move." It is particularly unreasonable to make that request four and a half years after being on the brink of absolute financial disaster. The deafening silence — or perceived silence — is only drown out by unofficial communication made in one-offs.

I understand the value of confidentiality on sensitive topics, but silence is not these same as confidentiality and discretion. A statement about the need for confidentiality and an awareness of the situation — before accepting untendered resignations during the course of an investigation — helps people have faith, grace, and patience. Failure to communicate (and collaborate) does not work in the 21st century. Google is more powerful than "please don't talk about this" and redacted letters. 

[Update 2:02 p.m. PDT, 2 October 2014: the final paragraph has been removed for the purpose of blogging to protect students on the Close who are the most vulnerable to retaliation currently.]

Normal enough for God,

Joseph+
---
The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews
M. Div. '12

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Letter from the Class of 2012

Dear Bishop Sisk and the Board of Trustees:

We greet you from across the nation; we greet you in the midst of the good, good work God has called us to, but we greet you with heavy hearts as we read news from General. We know some of you well, but we know the faculty deeply, and our hearts break at this schism in the seminary. Having been students at other recent moments of crisis for General, we know well the potential this community has for finding common ground in the face of division. In our own time, the faculty supported us with great courage and love, and we hope to live into the example of our Lord, who is reconciling all things to God.

In the past four days we’ve seen accusations formal and informal thrown from one side to the other, and we are deeply worried that this division will have dramatic consequences for the future of General. We are looking for visible signs of Christian mediation in good faith, and have not found them. Each side seems to have taken an irreconcilable stance against the other, though they both profess their willingness to meet and be flexible. As the Trustees, you have the highest stature in the system at this point, and so, as loving alumni and alumnae of General, we urge you to find a way to mediate this conflict quickly. Meeting with all the faculty together – separate from the Dean – will show your intention to take steps in good faith, even if some of their demands seem untenable at first request. Meeting with the faculty together will also show your willingness to take responsibility for a situation that the two sides seem unwilling or unable to fix. We worry that letting this conflict entrench is leading to a loss of trust in the institution, and will further compromise the trust of current and future students.

We speak out of deep love, and we speak out of deep respect. We also speak out of Christian authority; as leaders of the Church, we need you to fulfill your obligation to the future of the seminary.

Matthew 18:15-17 seems to be brought out in every church conflict. We remember Jesus’ final words in the passage: “If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.” We understand that some of you feel your trust and good faith has been compromised. Yet even the Gentiles and tax-collectors found favor and reconciliation at the table with the Lord. We urge you towards a similarly-inspired charity. We urge you not to write off one side of this conflict for the other. We urge you to creatively and willingly engage this conflict in order to secure the future of the seminary.

With loving, broken hearts,

The Class of 2012

Including:

The Rev. Chris Ballard
The Rev. Rebecca Barnes
The Rev. Greg Brown
The Rev. Cathy Carpenter
The Rev. Colin Chapman
The Rev. Amy Cornell
The Rev. Jeff Evans
The Rev. Howard Gillette
The Rev. Jadon Hartsuff
The Rev. Jean Hite
The Rev. James Joiner
The Rev. Brad Jones
The Rev. Cathy Kerr
The Rev. Suzanne LeVesconte
The Rev. Renny Martin
The Rev. Sandra McLeod
Mr. Adam McCluskey
The Rev. Joe Mitchell
The Rev. Brandt Montgomery
The Rev. Jean Mornard
Mr. Michael Mornard
The Rev. Sue Morgan*
The Rev. Matt Oprendek
The Rev. Joseph Peters-Mathews
The Rev. Linda Racen
The Rev. Andrew Reinholz
The Rev. Jim Robertson*
The Rev. Sam Tallman
The Rev. Keith Voets
The Rev. Ben Wallis

*names added after initial release due to communication difficulties allowing consent before initial release

You can't always "Shake it off" Part 2

Instead of getting down to all the troubles of the world — and heaven knows there are plenty — I invite you to get down...

to this sick beat.

By get down, I clearly mean ground yourself in this time of trial at GTS, pray without ceasing, and try to have patience and charity.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

You can't always "Shake it off"



And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off

Two weeks ago as I was going in to have dessert and drinks with some friends another told me that his new jam is Taylor Swift's "Shake it off" (video above). It has a catchy beat, there are issues of cultural appropriation in the video, and can have a positive message ideally — be yourself, don't let others bring you down, keep being you even if there is disapproval from those around you.

This kind of message of affirmation works great on the dance floor: be there to dance, enjoy yourself, shake it off when the haters hate. It does not, however, work well in the board room or faculty meetings. A perpetual mindset of shaking it off prevents one from being open to hearing criticism and necessitates taking on an air of perfect superiority.

And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off

A letter was just released from the faculty of General Seminary to the Board of Trustees from almost two weeks ago. The board interpreted it as letters of resignation (that is to say corporately decided that instead of talking to the faculty it would be easier to fire them) while making no mention of what how they were handling the very serious allegations against the current Dean and President.

If you read the letter (available here) you'll note that there are charges of sexism, racism, and homophobia not only from the dean to the faculty, but also in the interactions of the dean with students. I take personal stock in some of the comments the faculty say the dean made, notably that I'm a gay man who went to General which he is scared of being seen as the gay seminary (even with 1/3 of my class being gay men — that's still not a majority by any means) and emphasizing "normal people."

And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off

I'm not sure who he envisions the normal people to be, but based on his general tone and lack of awareness about cultural sensitivity to anything but being a straight white man, it would appear that's the kind of normal people he wants. More straight white men even as the patriarchy loses just a tiny bit every day...and as non-religious friends on rare occasion will think about coming to church with me — because the people inside aren't quite as homogenous as they'd imagined, and because the leadership definitely isn't — and that's with a major awareness of just how many faithful old white people are in our congregations.

As I've read the writings of the dean and the letters from the faculty something that strikes me as out of touch not only is seeking "normal people" but the refusal and insistence on non-collaboration. Various sources have said that in the interview process Dean Dunkle said that he didn't like collaborating. Why, oh why, would a board of trustees charge someone who doesn't believe in collaboration with leading formation for those who will see the church into the future? Has no one read Tweet if you <3 Jesus? Has no one ready anything about how millenials function? As a millennial those pieces often drive me up the wall, but are sometimes spot on. It's terrible modeling to rule by fiat and expect the Church to stay alive. 

And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off

In April 2010 I wrote, "Andrew Sullivan points out that most of the reaction from the Vatican and American bishops has been either denial or to attack those who are critical, often by calling names. This is denial after decades (centuries) of this being not talked about and not dealt with. And now we have more people saying 'I didn't know,' 'It wasn't my fault,' and that they won't 'be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion.'

I think there are times when people just want those who bore responsibility to own that responsibility. Not to have closed door meetings and be less than forthcoming about what is actually going on, but to include the people who have been, are being, and will be affected in the process of determining next steps, for justice or for institutional advancement."

And the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate
Baby, I'm just gonna shake, shake, shake, shake, shake
I shake it off, I shake it off


The financial ills at General have changed, and there's a new Dean and President. Ills are running anew, though. When confronted with reports about the Dean and President the board instead of claiming they didn't know seem to be trying to just shake it off because the professors must be haters. 80% of the faculty, who have been there for varying degrees of time — from I've never met in the two years since I graduated to before I was born (literally). 

Twice in five years I've had major challenges and frustrations with the Board of Trustees at my alma mater. Their only communication with alumni to this point has been commenting on Facebook posts or critically messaging them privately about posts concerning money saying, "Good people with good hearts and mere human capacities are of course struggling with this. Public postings taking away gifts from GTS are not helpful in building the Body," which also implies that the situation is normal and shouldn't be criticized or aired — although nothing at all has come from the seminary in any form or from the trustees in any official form. As the faculty points out, the board continues to investigate accusations against the dean but ignores his impact on the working relationship with the faculty.

We shall know the truth, and it will make us free...but it will make us free by transforming us, which it can't do if we just shake it off.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

On striking and (not) communicating

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. —Matthew 18.15-17

On Thursday morning I was reminded that it was the last Thursday of September, Matriculation Day at General Seminary. As the tradition has developed, I changed my profile picture on Facebook to an instant from the last Thursday of September in 2009, when I matriculated to the General Theological Seminary.

Yesterday morning as I got ready for work, a classmate with whom I matriculated and graduated, messaged me and asked if I'd heard about our seminary. I asked if I'd heard what. There has been much to hear since September 2009: a financial crisis, a dean's resignation, separating the offices of dean and president, selling property, rebuilding the endowment, ending debt, appointing a new dean. I  had not heard the latest, which was this email sent to students
Dear students,
We have a serious conflict which we are seeking to resolve and are taking to the Board of Trustees. Until they respond we will not be teaching, attending meetings, or attending common worship. Please be assured that we have not taken these steps hastily or lightly. Trust that we have acted in what we believe to be the best interests of your formation, our common life and the future of General Seminary. We hold you in the highest regard. Please pray for us, the Board, and the Dean and President.
The email was signed by almost all of the faculty, many of whom I know from my time as a student. I thought it odd and that the conflict must be serious: if these professors who I cherish deeply and greatly respect as lay and ordained Christians were willing to boycott chapel, it must be extremely serious. I hoped for more information throughout the day.

In Spring 2010, as I ended my first year and prepared to be a chaplain at a hospital, the seminary community learned the depth of the seminary's financial challenges not from a  meeting with the dean or faculty, not from an email from the administration, but from The Episcopal Cafe and Episcopal News Service. A press release had been sent to the press — but not to the students. Students and alumni/ae learned of the challenges (partially) from the news, even as some were living in Chelsea Square.

After I learned of the faculty strike from my friend's Facebook message pasting the email to me, I heard nothing from the seminary as an alumnus. As of this writing I still have heard nothing at all from the seminary, which has access to alumni/ae mailing lists, even as the faculty have said more and as speculation simply swirls. Yesterday evening The Episcopal Cafe had another letter to students which referenced some sort of issues the faculty finds with the current dean and president of the seminary and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

I come at this current situation as an alumnus of the seminary wondering what the hell is going on and as a diocesan communications officer — a role for which the seminary did not directly prepare me, but encouraged me to explore my interests which led to my being ready for such a position. It's disheartening to see that the seminary has not said anything at all via email, not even to acknowledge the situation or release an official statement.

The faculty who have elected to strike seem to be communicating with the students as the principal stakeholders, but they aren't the only ones. They seem to have attempted to raise their concerns with the dean and president, and that hasn't worked. It seems they've done it as a group and as individuals, and that hasn't worked. Now through initiating a direct action they're bringing the whole church into it.

Jesus tells us in Matthew to point out the fault at each of the phases. The communications that have been received from the faculty — secondhand — are vague about what the faults are. The longer letter from the faculty references the Letter from Birmingham Jail, but there is a sharp difference. While the faculty note that they hope to negotiate — but not what about. King and civil rights workers engaging in direct action had a clear goal (in Birmingham specifically it was the removal of Bull Conner).

I trust the faculty who have chosen to participate in a strike and hope that negotiations begin soon under the direction of the board of trustees...however in making semi-public half-statements they have introduced anxiety for their concerns, yet not enumerated those concerns. This half speech leaves rumors to build and gain traction or people to simply be dumbfounded and not know what's going on.

I appreciate the value of direct action — but have witnessed it being more effective when there are clear expectations and requests that are set out publicly beforehand. I live in California where everyone strikes, from nurses to transit operators to produce workers. These strikes are powerful by effecting others and raising awareness of the concerns. They annoy people who have to take buses, but those riding the buses learn about drivers' lives...but those striking don't say "We've got some problems, and we want to tell you we have problems, but we don't want to tell you what they are," which is how the letters from the faculty read — perhaps in an attempt to save embarrassment for students or to avoid discomfort...but they aren't clear communication.

At the end of the days, I am praying for the seminary because that's all I can do — and ask others to do. However I think that yet again what's happening at General Seminary can teach the church what its missing about communication. Everything gets out. Quickly. We as a church need to be prepared for that, and know what we want to say to avoid the wonderings and the stresses. Ignoring events doesn't make them not happen, it makes us look like we're out of the loop, even as the loop is growing bigger.

What helped the anxiety at General in 2010-2011 was how blunt and honest the administration was about the financial challenges the seminary faced. When we knew the truth we were set free. I pray that much sooner than later we will know much more about the challenges the seminary is facing now so that we can be set free of this anxiety and continue about our mission of restoring all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Please stop hugging me

I am a touchy person. I enjoy touching others and touching things. One of the reasons I became an Episcopalian is that in our belief in the Incarnation — that God became human and walked on two feet and touched and felt with two hands — we live with substances we can touch, feel, taste, and smell in water, wine, oil, incense.

I greatly value touch to convey relationship. As I get close to friends my arm is regularly around shoulders, or around my husband's waist if we're out and about. When I was in the 7th grade I was oblivious about my privilege and my experience of randomly putting my cold hands on others' faces or necks — even after they'd asked me not to. I was "just playing." The thought of it makes me shriek now.

Different kind of touches — romantic, friendly, ritual, etc. — all convey different levels of intimacy. As a general rule the first time I meet someone in a social or professional setting I shake their hand. If we become friends in time we may come to hug one another or offer each other a kiss of greeting. Unless we've met electronically and developed a certain kind of relationship, however, we never start with a hug. I suspect this is true for most people in their lives. Lately I've been more conscious as my touches grow beyond a simple greeting hug to ask, "Is it okay if I put my arm around your shoulders?"

Hugs convey a certain level of intimacy. The first thing I did upon seeing my mother after my wedding was hug her. My best friend and I greet each other with a lasting embrace when we're reunited across the continental US. I briefly hug my brothers and friends as we greet or part, sometimes but not always both.

I've found myself wondering lately, largely as I have become less and less comfortable with it, why people insist on hugging me when passing the peace — regardless of if I'm vested or not. In Celebrating the Eucharist, Patrick Malloy writes, "The Peace is a ritual act of reconciliation, just as the Eucharist is a ritual meal. It need not be protracted to be genuine, nor does every person have to greet every other person." (p. 127, emphasis in the original).

Part of what's made me increasingly uncomfortable is not that people want to give hugs inasmuch as they don't care if I do or not, whether they know me or not. This has been apparent when people have ignored my extended hand to put their arms around me or say, "We just hug everyone here!" Malloy wonders, "What sort of formation can help the entire assembly to recognize the Peace as a ritual action in which they all participate, not a recess in the ritual?" I have attended churches that not exactly that in the bulletin...

However Elizabeth Drescher noted, "Might be helpful to add what is not obvious to many: a handshake, a hug if you're more familiar with the person, or a friendly wave constitute the 'passing' gesture or 'greeting.' I've had students tell me that they thought some object was going to be passed around." Why are people so comfortable ignoring a social norm — to the point of ignoring someone's non-verbal communication — and hugging strangers? What does it say to visitors when their preferences about their bodies are ignored? How might survivors of assault, sexual and otherwise, respond to being violated?

Earlier today I read a New York Times opinion called "Losing our touch." In it the author wonders how much digital communication — replacing touch with touch screens and such — contributes to excarnation. As Christians we value the Incarnation, the messy earthliness of being human. I wonder if we lose our touch by not having appropriate boundaries about it, where it doesn't mean anything to hug a new person.

Our rituals offer places for safe touch: administering bread, passing peace, anointing with oil, smearing ashes. We chew and we drink, noticing texture and burning. What happens when the space isn't safe, though, when the level of touch is unwanted and unsolicited?

What is your experience? Are you comfortable with hugging strangers — or being hugged by them? How do you communicate your preference? Those in leadership, what training do you do about the Peace as a ritual action and what level of touch is appropriate for it?

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Cheering from the sidelines

In the last few weeks the question for me has shifted from, "What do I think about the words 'tranny' and 'she-mail/male'?" to "What do members of the trans* community think and feel about those words?" As a self-avowed, practicing homosexual I'm okay self-identifying as a faggot from time to time — but I know some people are not comfortable with that word and I don't use it around them. I also know that when someone calls me that to create a dynamic of inequity because they're straight or see themselves as more masculine I shut it down.

I recently read an article that pointed out the sharp different between Justices Kennedy's and Scalia's approaches to gay people. Scalia consistently uses language that suggests there is no such thing as gay, just people doing gay things. When gay people say things like "Someone just putting on a wig," to describe trans* life, we're doing the same thing that was done to those whose shoulders we stand on  — ignoring the existence of trans* identity. To Justice Scalia we get gay married but not real married.

Telling trans* people to not be so sensitive is the same as principals and teachers telling the 15 year old gay boy — who may not be out to anyone, including himself — to not be so sensitive and just deal with the harassment. So quick and so right to denounce bullying of gay and lesbian teens, we then turn and ignore a group that says, "Hey, this is harmful to us."

On Facebook I've seen discussion from one particular friend who seems like he's beating a dead horse but may actually be changing minds, and I've seen others spout off in opposition to trans* people. I haven't said anything because I feel like I don't have a voice; I'm not trans*, so my opinion on the words doesn't really matter any more than the straight bully's to the gay kid in rural Florida.

I love the Castro, I love Hell's Kitchen, the West Village, and on occasion Gay Chelsea. I can love those gayborhoods because when majority voices told gays to get over themselves and buck up, to ignore the violence against them, to just toughen up they did — by challenging the problem and making their voices heard.

Are we going to unplug our ears or keep ignoring our past?