Former White House spokesman Mike McCurry, who served as press secretary for President Bill Clinton from 1995 to 1998, is well known to television viewers around the world. After leaving the public stage he became a principal in Public Strategies Group, a public affairs consulting firm and, since 2000, he has served simultaneously as CEO of Grassroots Enterprise, a provider of internet-based advocacy management and communications software.
Less well known is that McCurry is also a devoted husband and father, avid golfer, and active United Methodist. Since 2001 he has been a member of the Board of Governors of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.
He shared his insights with readers of In Trust in an interview in late March.
On Joining A Theological School Board
My relationship with Wesley grows out of the relationship with my local congregation, St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Kensington, Maryland, where I am the church school superintendent, and a member of the administrative council. Doug Lewis [Wesley President G. Douglass Lewis] likes to tell the story that I received, I guess in that capacity, a mailing from Wesley that had gone to local congregations asking people to join their partner program.
One of Wesley Seminary’s missions is to be in service to the local church. They have what they call the Partner Church Program that is both the way for the institution to relate to local congregations but also as a matter of development to generate new financial support amongst local churches for the work of the seminary. The concept of partnership extends to learning about best practices and helping local congregations take advantage of the seminary. I received a mailing from them and I said, you know, boy, that sounds really neat. I’ve always been very impressed by the people from Wesley I’ve encountered—some of whom have been pastors in our church—and I said, I think I’ll send them a check.
It was a modest contribution compared to what I’ve been entitled to give since, but I sent a note to them saying “This sounds like something that would be interesting and fun.” Doug recalls that someone flagged it in the seminary office and said, “Is this the Mike McCurry we think this is?” And, of course, it was, and that’s how we developed a relationship.
Actually, it was the call from Doug Lewis, who invited me to go out and play a round of golf with him and David [McAllister-Wilson, Wesley’s executive vice president]. They told me a lot about Wesley and it just fit very nicely with some of the things that I wanted to do in my post-White House incarnation.
On Combining Business and Seminary Interests
I’m directing a software company that’s developing an internet product aimed at helping organizations communicate more effectively in mobilizing their members to take action on issues that matter.
Our product currently is a highly-sophisticated database system that is aimed at large corporations, large trade associations, and large membership groups. So we’re starting as a company selling a high-end product to clients and customers with very large information technology budgets. But eventually it has an applicability to the local church. Increasingly, in a world in which it’s difficult to communicate anyhow, taking advantage of the efficiencies of the internet, and e-mail particularly, to get a message in front of people, get them engaged with the message of the organization and get them to respond and take action and participate—that is something that the internet facilitates. That’s one of the reasons why I kind of ended up professionally in this line.
On Being Involved in the Public Discourse
[Seminaries] are left out of some conversations but, of course, they’re strongly participating in the most important conversation of all, which is the one about faith and the expression of faith. There is, sometimes, this sense that not only the seminary but the academy generally is an ivory tower unto itself and remote from the world in which we are all called to presumably serve. I do think that in order to serve the purposes that God intends for religious institutions we have to take advantage of all the means available to reach out and fulfill our evangelistic mission. And I think the internet is a perfect example of that. I think it kind of goes to some very tried and true things, it is the electronic version of circuit riding.
You really have got the obligation almost to use these resources and use this technology to further the culture of the call to be a witness to God’s truth.
On a Scriptural Basis for Personal Mission
There’s one that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently and it’s Ephesians 4:11. I don’t have it on the top of my head but it says God’s gifts have to be expressed in a lot of different vocations. It’s the one that says teachers and pastors, and kind of refers to everybody discovering and finding their gifts and using them to God’s glory.
... and he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some pastors, and teachers ...
... and some webmasters. That’s the general idea, that we all have an ability to widen the circle.
Right now in my church we’re doing an exercise in discovering spiritual gifts. That passage has been one that we’ve meditated on and reflected on so that comes easily to mind but I think it’s very applicable in this case. And that, by the way, that passage is so useful if you think about the typical board of trustees or board of governors of a seminary. Hopefully most theological institutions have people that are prophets and teachers and pastors and doctors and drawn from different walks of life that they find themselves in a place where they can nurture an institution that is trying to educate the next generation of leaders.
On Facing Up to Scandal
You can’t simultaneously protect institutions and individuals. You have to make the individuals accountable for what they need to be accountable for, but institutions have to decide very clearly, you know, what is important to them to move forward. That’s true of the church, it’s true of the presidency, it was true in the United States Senate too. An individual who faces trouble, who faces scandal or turmoil, has to be accountable, but they are also entitled to a defense if there is a defense available. If you’re professional about it you have to be like a lawyer who would defend a person facing some kind of charge. They are entitled to their right to make their case in court, in this case, in the court of public opinion. But at the same time they are not entitled to do damage and disservice to the institution.
I think that’s why separating out the issues that have to be reconciled in the light of the individual’s behavior versus the work of the institution—that has to be done. Now, that was obviously the theory of how we did public relations in and around the Clinton White House during the time of the Monica Lewinsky matter. We had work to do; the president’s program continued. He, in fact, continued to work each day on the things that he thought he was elected to pursue. So, we proceeded in that fashion. You know, we’re going to do the work that we were hired to do and this other business is something the president alone, as a human being, must account for.
“I think the internet is the electronic version of circuit riding.”
I think that’s—to the degree I understand—what the Catholic bishops are wrestling with right now, what they’re trying to do. They’re facing this issue: is there something endemic in the institution that we have to deal with here? I’m not in a place to give them advice but that is historically a problem—that they take all these things into the cloister of the church and treat them all as the church’s problem when I think what they need here is to understand that they’ve got some individuals who need God’s love and probably treatment. And not be shy about dealing with that in a very individual way.
On Attracting Candidates for Ministry
I sense this from just my time at Wesley, that people who want to serve, or feel the call to the clergy need to know that they’re going to be out there in the world addressing the real problems of real people. I think very often there’s a sense at the seminary that you’re moving away from that, you’re moving into introspection and the contemplative light and things are very remote from that world in which you have to serve. Part of the problem is people don’t see the connection between what they can learn from and gain from seminary and what they would do as they go out to serve God in the world.
At every single board meeting I’ve sat there and I’ve looked at Wesley’s program of offering, its bulletin that’s got the listing of all of the courses. If the meeting starts getting a little too dry for me I sit there and start thumbing through that bulletin. I think, man, that would be a fun course to take, that looks really interesting.
On Feeling the Call
I would go back willingly as a student and pursue, you know, maybe a continuing education degree, a master of divinity or something like that. But I sort of feel like that would be cheating someone out of an education if they really feel a call to be in the ministry...taking up a seat of someone who might actually go out and serve in a local congregation.
But that inevitably gets you thinking, well, do I have a call? Should I be trying to listen to God’s call? What should I be doing to make myself more receptive if there’s a call there that I’m missing? I haven’t—you know, to be honest with you, of all the stuff that I’ve been doing, I haven’t stopped and slowed down enough to really pray about that and think about that.
We have a Partner Church Sunday when someone comes from the seminary and preaches. And when that happens one of the things that Wesley does is, it asks the people in the congregation to nominate to Wesley those in the congregation who should be considered for conversations about whether or not they have a call to the ministry. My name always comes up in that context and I flee in the other direction.