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.

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