Clarification on the question of an ombudsperson

Dear friends,
We thank all for your concern and your energetic support for a neutral organizational ombudsperson. We continue to hold that the appointment of such a person, who would be agreeable to all parties, is very important to ensure that complaints can be treated expeditiously in a process that is safe and agreeable to all, whatever the outcome. We see this as an important ingredient to reduce unnecessary tension during the coming months, and to facilitate the rehabilitation of trust.
In light of some responses we have seen on social media, we feel it is important to clarify an aspect of the proposed agreement sent by the Board of Trustees to the group. The Board renewed its proposal of using the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center (LMPC) which specializes in conflict mediation as part of a process of reconciliation. We continue to think this plan is promising for the health and healing of the entire community, and so are pleased to see that it continues to be part of the Board’s commitment to the long-term health of the Seminary.
We consider it very important, however, to have in addition to or alongside LMPC an organizational ombudsperson, who is designated neutral and who is agreeable to all, a person to whom all could turn if concerns should arise.
This role is quite well-known in educational institutions, governmental agencies, and even private corporations in North America and elsewhere. Such persons are always designated neutral persons, high-ranking, but not part of the executive management. They stand along side, but are distinct from people working as conflict mediators.
We learned this afternoon that there is provision in the Seminary’s agreement with LMPC to have an independent third party attend certain sessions. This may provide an opportunity for a role for an ombudsperson; it would need to be determined by the mediators whether such a person would help best inside or outside this process.
Above all we long to return to our ministries in the Seminary for the good of our students and the good of our institution.

Faithfully

The GTS 8.

Where things stand–October 27, 2014

The GTS Board of Trustees saw fit last Friday to release a statement that prematurely implied our return to the Seminary was imminent. We therefore believe it is necessary to clarify just where we are in the negotiating process.

From the outset, the central issue we have sought to address is the existence of an abusive environment at GTS. This is why we called our Facebook page “Safe Space.” Many of the details have been well-publicized and do not need repeating here.

The Board of Trustees’ unqualified vote of confidence in President and Dean Dunkle understandably raises a concern about whether anything would be different upon our return other than our reduced academic roles and our new status as “provisional.” Our proposed solution to this concern has been for the Board to name an unaligned, objective ombudsperson who would be available to any member of the GTS community who believes he or she has a legitimate complaint. That doesn’t seem like a radical step to us, but on Monday evening the Board’s attorney informed us that this idea was unacceptable.

Rather than name a single impartial person to act as ombudsperson, the Board proposes to appoint a four-person committee of trustees, chaired by the Rev. Ellen Tillotson, to field any complaints. But a month ago, the Rev. Tillotson sharply criticized us in a 1,200-word essay she posted on social media. One of the first trustees to speak out on the dispute, the Rev. Tillotson said she felt “profoundly betrayed” by us, and she falsely accused us of timing our work stoppage to cause as much distress as possible to the GTS students. Her view of the situation has been made crystal clear, and it is not an objective one.

The other point the Board seems to miss is that, despite deciding that there were not sufficient grounds to terminate Dean Dunkle, the complaints we made about him remain, and continue to create a toxic work environment. A four-person committee chaired by an outspoken critic is not going to rectify that problem.

In its Friday public statement, the Board lifted language from an earlier letter we wrote for an entirely different purpose to suggest that in a “joint response” we had thanked the trustees for giving attention “to a long-term process of reconciliation for the entire Seminary community.” There can be no reconciliation as long as students and faculty lack the confidence that their work, their contributions – even their presence – are valued by the President and Dean.

So here is where we really stand in our efforts to return to GTS: We have made a proposal that we consider reasonable and essential, the naming of an ombudsperson, and the Board has rejected it.

We cannot know whether all the trustees are listening to what we say. For the sake of the institution we all love, we pray that they are.

A note from the GTS8 about continued negotiations toward our return to work

Dear Friends:
While we are encouraged by recent developments, please know that the issues regarding reinstatement of the GTS8 have not yet been fully resolved. (The recent story headline you may have seen on Episcopal Cafe is premature.)
Last evening we communicated our good faith response to the Board’s invitation of reinstatement. We are eager to return to our positions as full members of the faculty. But we must first work for clarity about the details of our reinstatement. We are especially concerned about insuring a safe seminary environment for all.
We remain hopeful about our continued negotiations with the Board of Trustees.
And we look forward to celebrating with our students and friends once these critical details are finalized, contracts are signed, and we can carry out the mission of GTS together.
In Christ,
The GTS8

The response of the General Theological Seminary Faculty members to the Board of Trustees’ offer of October 20

Dear Friends,
Thank you for your patience and prayers for us and for all the students, staff, Board and administration of the Seminary. We last spoke publicly last Friday, and have spent the intervening time reflecting on the Board’s press release, and privately seeking clarification on the meaning of that statement.
Last night we received a letter from Bishop Sisk which clarified the offer, and we drafted a positive response, which we needed to have checked with our legal counsel. Since some aspects of the contents of the Board’s offer were made public this afternoon in the Bishop of Pennsylvania’s public statement via Episcopal Cafe we feel it is appropriate to make our positive response public also. We look forward to returning to resuming our ministries in the Seminary.

 

October 20, 2014.

Dear Bishop Sisk,
Thank you for your invitation to come together to find a way forward. We receive this invitation in the good faith in which it is offered. Thank you also for acknowledging that healing is not an easy thing to accomplish; we are appreciative of both the alacrity with which you seek to facilitate our return to work and the attention you are giving to a long-term process of reconciliation for the entire Seminary community.

We accept your offer of reinstatement to our positions, and the salaries and benefits outlined in our contracts in effect prior to September 25, 2014. We look forward to being able to do this as soon as possible. Like any member of the Seminary’s faculty we agree to abide by the terms of the Seminary Constitution, Bylaws and policies. Given some of the confusion that has arisen about these texts in recent weeks, we will need you to provide us with copies of them: this would help us as we seek together to work within them. We are pleased to see that during the “cooling off period” all of the parties’ respective legal arguments and positions will be reserved.

We also commit with energy to the holy work of reconciliation which we understand to be very important for the health of the entire institution and all of its constituent members: faculty, board, administration, staff and students alike. You mentioned in a telephone conversation the possibility of using a Mennonite group to facilitate this process. We heartily accept this proposal, since we have great respect for their expertise in this area. If, God forbid, at the end of the academic year we find that the collective process of reconciliation has not worked well, we ask that there be some understanding that appropriate severance will be made available to enable us and our families to make a transition. Lest we be misunderstood here, let us state clearly that we will devote ourselves fully to the difficult work of reconciliation this year.

As you know, one of our principal concerns has been to ensure that the seminary workplace be one of mutual respect and collegiality. As we move forward and return to our work, we ask that you consider the appointment of an ombudsperson agreeable to all sides who would act during this “cooling off period” as an interlocutor and safe person to whom complaints could be referred if need be. This will help all of us to feel less on edge and safer, and so will be an indispensible means of helping the process of reconciliation to work well.

As an important sign of our movement forward together, any public acknowledgement of these agreements should be issued together.

Thank-you for this very positive step forward for the sake of our Seminary, our students, and staff and God’s church.

Yours sincerely,
Professors Davis, DeChamplain, Good, Hurd, Irving, Kadel, Lamborn, Malloy.

October 10, Frequently Asked Questions

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS OF THE
GENERAL THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY FACULTY

For news and documents go to www.safeseminary.org

In the past two weeks, both legitimate questions and erroneous information have surfaced
about our work stoppage. This is an attempt to set the record straight on some of those.
Q: What precipitated your communication with the Board of Trustees about
conditions at GTS?
A: There was no single event that “broke the camel’s back” but rather the accumulated
frustrations of the past 14 months over matters ranging from the curriculum to the
scheduling of chapel services. In a short period, an atmosphere of collegiality and
collaboration had become one of management by fiat where the views of the faculty were
no longer invited and were, in fact, grounds for reprimand. Unprofessional and
inappropriate comments by the Dean and President – made in public and in private – also
contributed to making the situation intolerable.
By September, an accelerating series of exchanges between individual faculty members
and Dean Dunkle demonstrated that our climate had become adversarial, prompting us to
seek legal counsel and to begin the process of collectively organizing.
Q: Many people resist change in the workplace. Could it not be the case that Dean
and President Dunkle was faced with some towering challenges when he came to
GTS and is simply doing his best to meet them?
A: We are sympathetic with the financial challenges the Board and the Dean and
President face. Our issues, though, are not about financial cutbacks or cost-saving
measures but rather an environment in which students feel intimidated and unfairly
scrutinized and faculty members are disrespected and have no voice in matters that are
important to them including patterns of teaching and learning.
Q: Did you make a sincere effort to express your concerns and complaints with the
Dean prior to going to the Board?
A: From the time of his arrival, Dean Dunkle has said he wanted “healthy
communication” from faculty and students. In reality, however, he stifles not only any
kind of dissent but even normal questions about policies and practices. Some areas of
dissatisfaction, such as the completely disruptive moving of daily Chapel to 10 a.m., were
raised in nearly every faculty meeting. Because of the breakdown in our communication
with the dean, the faculty prevailed upon him to engage in a day-long meeting in May
with a professional facilitator who specializes in communication and conflict resolution.
But it had no lasting effect.
Q: Did the eight faculty members resign or not? Why is there a dispute about this?
A: There was never any intention to resign and we never used that word in any
communication. Our goal was to have a businesslike conversation with the Board. We
just wanted to be heard, which most leaders recognize is a fundamental human need. We
have made it clear that we are prepared to return to the classroom as soon as we are
allowed to, but the Board has effectively fired us. We believe the Dean and some
members of the Board of Trustees have used our letter of complaint as an excuse to clean
house, undoubtedly with the intention of bringing in a compliant faculty.
Interestingly, the Board has retained a nationally prominent law firm to conduct an
investigation into the allegations made concerning Dean Dunkle’s behavior. If that
investigation does produce evidence of inappropriate conduct by the Dean – and if 80
percent of the faculty has been fired – where will that leave the board and GTS?
Q: You have said many students feel intimidated and unfairly scrutinized. What
does that mean?
An example would be Dean Dunkle’s chastising students for meeting to discuss a series
of issues they wanted to raise with him. Rather than invite them to speak with him, when
he learned of their meeting, we understand that he chastised them for having a “secret”
meeting and was dismissive of their concerns. GTS is a “close,” where students, faculty
and the dean live, study and worship together, so contact among all members of the
community is constant. More than once, including when having lunch with students, the
dean has said that if people have trouble with authority at GTS, they should go
somewhere else to study or work.
Q: One Board member has said that you were planning this current job action as
long ago as June. Is that correct?
A: No. We did begin having conversations last spring and summer about the best ways to
express our concerns, and we did draft a letter addressed to Dean Dunkle. But we reached
no decisions at that time and did not send the letter. In August we decided to instead
address our concerns directly to the Board, and we used some parts of the letter we had
begun in June.
Q: Board Chair Bishop Sisk’s letter to GTS students on October 7 says that he and
the Executive Committee only recently became aware of the severity of the crisis
and that they are “working non-stop behind the scenes in an effort to move as
swiftly as possible toward reconciliation of the current crisis…” Are you actively
engaged with Bishop Sisk and the trustees in a reconciliation effort?
A: We have accepted Bishop Sisk’s invitation to meet with him and the Executive
Committee on October 16.
As to when the Chair realized the seminary was in crisis, we leave it to others to decide
whether he missed or ignored obvious signals. For certain he was informed in late May
via a letter written by Dr. Good to Trustee Bishop Eugene Sutton and then in a follow-up
phone call with Bishop Sisk that we anticipated a major crisis with the Dean unless the
Board intervened. It is correct, however, that before communicating with the Board, the
faculty made every attempt to resolve the issues directly with the Dean. We, of course,
were not privy to his communications with the Chair or Executive Committee.
For the October 16th meeting, we still have hope. It has become clear to us that we have
tapped into a huge public conversation—an emerging movement, even, for a new and
creative approach to theological education for a new model of being the Church. We
think General Seminary can have a real and remarkable future as a center of theological
education. How amazing it would be if our efforts toward reconciliation could include
conversations for what is possible on the other side of this very difficult conflict.

NY Times photo GTS8

Hope for theological education and GTS

A full day and two parts of days have passed since our little group posted the statement below on safeseminary.org and shared it around. No word from the Board of Trustees. Period. We are hopeful people. We believe that theological education is a serious business, turning out fearless disciples of Jesus Christ is important enough to stand up for. General Theological Seminary is a beautiful place where God is worshiped and the depths and the riches of millennia of Christian discipleship are explored. But it is not, and never has been, about the past. Ordination is for the church moving forward, for those babies being baptized, for people struggling in their faith and finding authentic ways to live in confusing times. Ordination is for serving people who are in pain, or sorrow, or who need to be affirmed in celebrating the joy that breaks into their lives with the grace of God or the goodness of creation. The people who prepare for ordination, need to be prepared to be patient, and listening, and fearless in telling the truth in love.

Theological education for the church of the future is vitally important, and it can still happen at the General Theological Seminary. But I am confident, that whatever happens, the church moving forward will have, and must have vital theological education, forming Christian leaders who will build disciples of Jesus in this very changed time for religious institutions.

7_heavenly_city

Here’s our statement of October 9, 2014:

We are dismayed by the response of our church’s leaders to the situation at General Theological Seminary. When the eight of us brought to the Board of Trustees what we believe are extremely important issues affecting the fundamental life and mission of our seminary, we expected them to follow the procedures set out in both the seminary handbooks and our church canons. We believed they would establish a safe and non-hostile environment in which to carry out an impartial investigation. Instead, neither these procedures nor the substance of our concerns was honored. We received only a compassionless and intimidating demand that we cooperate with a corporate law firm’s investigation.

Even now, as we have lost our jobs for continuing to plead that these matters be addressed honorably, we cannot believe that our Presiding Bishop, the entire House of Bishops, and the good people who serve as trustees of GTS truly intend to punish those who have brought these issues to their attention. Nor do we think that they actually want to support and defend an environment of fear and anxiety that so many have told us they experience as humiliating. If they did intend to do these things, what message are they sending to Episcopal clergy and lay-persons? What would this say about the church’s respect for the vulnerable all around our country? What would this say about the moral conscience of our church’s leaders?

We continue to hope – and believe – that our trust and confidence in the commitment to mercy and justice of the leaders of this great church are well founded, even if those qualities are not yet clearly evident. We have now agreed to a meeting with the Board of Trustees and stand ready to return to our work once they are prepared to reinstate us.

An Open Letter to the Students of The General Theological Seminary

Originally posted on fatherjeremy:

An Open Letter to the Students of The General Theological Seminary

“Archie Gates: You’re scared, right?

Conrad Vig: Maybe.

Archie Gates: The way it works is, you do the thing you’re scared shitless of, and you get the courage AFTER you do it, not before you do it.

Conrad Vig: That’s a dumbass way to work. It should be the other way around.

Archie Gates: I know, but that’s the way it works.”

from the movie Three Kings (1999)

Dear Students of The General Theological Seminary,

Over the past couple of weeks I have seen many letters written to you, and about you. Most of those letters express concern for you and are full of pastoral pablum that seem to suggest that you are fragile flowers being tossed between storms. That you have no power to control your experience at General Seminary.  This letter is a little different. This is…

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