Readers, please accept this invitation to communicate with “Soundings,” either to react to articles in this issue of In Trust or to comment on other issues of concern to leaders in theological education. Feel free to be provocative, but do limit your letters to a maximum of 350 words. All letters are subject to editing. Our e-mail address is <firstname.lastname@example.org>.
As a graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary in the semester that the Board of Trustees had the audacity to call “the best spring semester in years,” I am grateful to In Trust magazine for having Ken Briggs outline the Don McCullough case so clearly (“When Scandal Erupts,” Autumn 2000). How else would SFTS students find out that the Board of Trustees knew about McCullough’s “problems” as early as the summer of 1999 and then repeatedly rejected his offers to resign?
The SFTS case is a classic example of why telling the truth openly and early on is so important. I knew the school was in deep denial this May when students were told not to speak to the news media about the crisis, but to instead refer all questions to the administrator in charge of communications, who then asked an outside consultant what to say. I am one of the students who did not abide by the school’s “voluntary gag order,” and the last semester of my academic life at SFTS was by far the “best spring semester” in my four years at the school!
Teresa Blythe graduated from San Francisco Theological Seminary with an M.Div. in 2000.
Congregational conflict still seems surprising to many of us. Images of family worship, potluck dinners, and pastoral caring for each other dominate my off-the-top perceptions about congregational life. Problems have generally been personalized to a poor pastor, a headstrong board member, or circumstances that could have been avoided!
I appreciate that Linda-Marie Delloff’s article (“Field Notes,” Autumn 2000) begins to peel off some layers of our misrepresentation of harmonious congregational life. Reporting that close to one-third of congregations report conflict within the last two years opens our eyes to conflict being endemic and not the unfortunate circumstance of a few congregations.
The article is really pushing whether seminaries are doing enough to prepare church leaders for situations in which conflict occurs or, more importantly, to address problems before they get blown sky high. Acknowledging that not enough is being done is the inevitable answer to this question. I do appreciate that Delloff offers a variety of examples of how seminaries are beginning to recognize conflict management as part of their leadership development programs or curriculums.
Let me add a few supporting notes from my United Church of Canada and Toronto School of Theology perspective:
After suffering a few too many of these congregational conflict situations, and their inherent fallout of clergy burnout, or charges of abuse, fractured relationships in the faith community, and so on, the UCC has devised policies that require mandatory consideration of conflict resolution procedures. It is mandatory to consider them, not necessarily to choose them if the assessment of the situation warrants other actions.
In creating the policies and options for conflict resolution, the church is acknowledging the inevitable presence of conflict. It is trying to assert conflict can open new opportunities, if understood as such, as easily as it can lead to bad relations.
Indeed, conflict is a spiritual issue. It is a stirring of individual and collective energies that names the need for change. Conflict is never easy, but, viewed through our Christian lens of struggling for justice and love, conflict is essential to this faith journey.
In response to Delloff’s quotes from clergy who feel seminary did not prepare them for conflict in the congregation, I have been around theological education long enough to have heard this charge about almost every dimension of the basic degree program. This is not to dismiss the criticism but to push for a broader—life-long-learning—view of educating church leaders.
To imagine that church leaders could handle all situations after three to five years training is absurd. Let both denominations and seminaries take seriously their commitment to the ongoing educational development of their leaders. I appreciate in the article those schools who do incorporate a wide-ranging approach to leadership development in their programs. This is a good beginning and a view of leadership development that needs to be nurtured throughout people’s ministries.
Maybe the recognition that conflict is inevitable, and even desirable for change, may help both denominations and schools move from crisis responses to considered, long-term programs that utilize conflict as a God-given opportunity. With new generations of church leaders working constructively with conflict, rather than hiding from, or resisting it, we all may feel the Spirit breathing some new life into our institutional structures.
Ted Reeve is the director of continuing education, Toronto School of Theology.
Thank you for your lovely article about Chicago Theological Seminary in your Autumn 2000 issue ("Reversal of Fortune"). I did want to add, however, that Dr. William Myers, who was academic dean during the turn-around period, was also very instrumental in identifying negative financial trends, planning adjustments, and working to bring about a successful change. Thank you again.
Susan Thistlethwaite is president of Chicago Theological Seminary. William Myers is now director, leadership education and accreditation, at the Association of Theological Schools.