This blog post is not about Starr King School for the Ministry

So, the Unitarian Universalist-o-sphere is blowing up around a crisis at Starr King School for the Ministry, a Unitarian Universalist-related graduate seminary in Berkeley, California.

I would go into detail about the crisis, but there aren’t many details to be had, and much of the commentary — including an appeal letter from incoming president, Rosemary Bray McNatt, lately the minister of Fourth Universalist, New York — takes place on Facebook, and that’s hardly a reliable archive.

The nut is, or seems to be, this: someone gave confidential documents about the presidential search process to those outside the process, including other Unitarian Universalists, the press and the theological seminaries accrediting board. (I have no idea what these documents say.) The Starr King board has made an inquiry. Two graduating Starr King students have not been graduated (a contingent graduation) pending further investigation. Unsubstantiated reports tell of two board members resigning. Past UUA moderator Gini Courter has established a legal defense fund for the students, who are being represented by lawyers. Talk of ethics, boundaries and leadership abound, with a predicable amount of expressed horror and people supporting their friends.

Rosemary Bray McNatt’s open letter is here. A statement from the lawyers representing the students is here.

Not suprizingly, web searches have brought readers to a post I wrote about Starr King in 2007. My basic opinion about the school hasn’t changed, and (plainly) I have a hard time caring if it prospers or dies. This blog post is not about Starr King School for the Ministry. It’s about Unitarian Universalist self-conception.

  • This is the second time in a year (or so) that an unnamed consultant has been brought in to handle major Unitarian Universalist institutional conflict. Who is the consultant? A forthcoming introduction would go far to instill confidence that the consultant is qualified and has no conflict of interest.
  • The lawyers refer to ‘an investigator for the board’s law firm’ which, if true, is alarming. But is very much in character with Unitarian Universalist culture which claims to create bold leaders yet makes the formation process a gauntlet of circumspection, wildly uneven power arrangements and keeping your head down. You have to pass to play. But you can’t build bravery though fear. (So no points to Gini Couter for “doing the right thing.” I’ve never seen so many good people sigh relief as when she stopped being Moderator. For some reason, people are afraid of her. If this is Unitarian Universalism, you can keep it. But she’s out of office and the rest of us are still here.)
  • Which is, I believe, why Unitarian Universalist ministers are so deeply conformist, at least in public, and why ministers close ranks with the speed and force of a bear trap. Can you think of another denomination that avoids public fights so hard? It’s particularly bitter when you consider the brave souls we lionize, say, like John Haynes Holmes.
  • When you spend all you time being “revolutionary” expect revolutionary justice. As in, innocent blood on the guillotine. But we aren’t that revolutionary, and weirdness is not a substitute. I’ll take sober, thoughtful leadership any day. Our rhetoric doesn’t match our reality, even a reasonable aspiration.
  • There’s a Yiddish word you should learn if you don’t know it. Mishigas. Crazy-nonsense. Boy, do we have it. Good, self-differentiated people smell it and they stay away or leave. Remember that the next time you hear someone mew about the Millenials being our future.

As I said, this is far past a Starr King issue, but it is a test for Unitarian Universalist leadership, and we should all be watching.

About Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 45, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.

24 thoughts on “This blog post is not about Starr King School for the Ministry

  1. Scott, I really appreciate your bringing up the larger question of how we UUs “do conflict.” I see this as hugely related to the race and class culture of our founders. One half of my ancestors are from this New England professional class culture and I can tell you that conflict was never directly confronted – instead it was dealt with through social isolation, talking behind backs, and shaming. If we can recognize our own culture of conflict and work to change it we will go far. At the same time my heart goes out to Rosemary and the whole SKSM community.

  2. Scott, excellent post. I especially liked it when you stated, “But you can’t build bravery though fear.” One might add you cannot create positive transformation through bullying. Your analysis cuts through the rhetoric about “revolution”–a term that gets bandied about without any philosophical grounding. We’ve become politically lopsided and desperately hungry for the approved message so we will then know what we are supposed to feel strongly about. Once upon a time we taught our children that our diversity was in our myriad of theological positions. Today our naive conformity is a major reason our churches are dwindling. They come into our churches looking for an alternative and leave soon after finding nothing there but the current talking points of academia.

  3. It’s been said, and repeated in a lot of hazy contexts, that “All revolutions devour their children.” Sadly, that pithy bit of wisdom is attributed to Ernst Rohm, the pitiful excuse for a human being who ran the Nazi Storm Troopers, who was himself executed by an even more pitiful excuse for a human being, Adolf Hitler, as a rival to his power. This means to me that when an ideology (of any stripe) becomes all-compelling and all justifying, someone is going to use it to settle scores and gain power, believing that they are acting in the name of Truth.

  4. Thank you, Steve. What a read.

    So, we now have a name for the consultant: J. Miakoda Taylor, founding director of Fierce Allies.

    And then there’s this:

    When the Board met on May 1 and 2, Miakoda advised the Board that in the absence of anyone taking accountability for causing harm, restorative justice
    would not be appropriate, and we put the RJ process on pause pending more formal means, while continuing to engage Miakoda’s services to assist in fostering open conversations at the School.

    Given that the restorative justice approach we have hoped to employ has been stymied by no one coming forward to accept responsibility for having obtained and distributed the privileged, confidential documents, the Board began a more formal investigation using professional investigators. That process has not concluded.

  5. This is a sad thing to watch unfold for many reasons. I am curious why none of the players seem to have considered that the leak may be completely outside the immediate SKSM community. If the Presidential Search Committee was using any form of collaboration software (iCloud, Dropbox, Skydrive, GDrive, etc.) it is completely possible that the collaboration platform was simply hacked by a mischievous outsider. It is easy to do and it is not hard to find people who know how.

    Even if the Search Committee was taking the unlikely step of using double-key encryption on all documents before they were shared, if anyone wrote down the complex password and put it where someone else might copy it, or entered it while using an insecure network (coffee shops, airports, etc.) the keystrokes can be captured by third parties.

    So the malefactor could easily be a past member of the SKSM community, someone from a rival school, someone from a different denomination who doesn’t like UUs, etc. If so, the digital tracks of this will be long gone and all this investigation, “restorative justice (which frankly sounds more like retribution)” and pain will be for nought.

    No electronic communication is completely secure and if one uses it you cannot then insist on absolute privacy. Even if all the players agree to keep things confidential it is not hard for someone who wants to see the information to find a way to do that.

  6. Thanks for posting this. I just concluded my term as student body co-president at Starr King and as such I was in the middle of this whole thing. I can verify that two board members resigned over this. I have all the various “open letters” and whatnot that have been sent by all parties involved. I’m tempted to post them somewhere to reduce speculation, but I haven’t yet because I don’t really want to get involved any more directly than I already am. I’ve tried to stay as neutral as possible, mainly for the reasons that you mentioned in your article. I have become tired of feeling like the only way to be ordained in the UUA is to conform and be liked by those in power. I have to admit that it is one of the reasons that I recently switched to the UCC. It wasn’t the only reason, or even the primary reason, but it was certainly on the list.

    I pray that Starr King School for the Ministry and Unitarian Universalism in general will find its way through this current issue and will grow and become stronger thanks to it.

  7. Ho, beda?rinda afero.

    I hear you. I once tried to “go UCC” but my interest was low and the prospects were poor. And I’m a Universalist, and so I stay. But I hear you.

    Godspeed. Dikune.

  8. As laity and a leader who has served in some of our faith’s highest elected offices, I am concerned. Part of being a leader is in training new leaders. I depend on our seminaries to train leaders who will serve our churches and communities with distinction. I need to trust those leaders. This breach damages trust. Any student who receives a diploma between the years of 2014 and 2016 could possibly be involved in this ethics breach. That is a large number of innocent and excellent future leaders to be following by clouds of suspicion.

    I don’t want our ministers to be conformist, but in no way can they violate confidentiality in this way. As for “Revolutionary”, whoever perpetuated this ethical violation has done significant harm to the institution that is Starr King and its students. A system that exposes privately surveyed data will not generate future reliable survey results since – cause-and-effect – future surveyees will not trust the circle of safety which allows honesty. With no idea of which students are ethically honest and which students are not, how can any of the graduates be trusted? Each and every one of them will fight an uphill battle fighting a defense which should not be necessary. This revolutionary non-conformist is simply a base villain.

  9. Editorial note: While I do not approve of pseudonymous postings, and reserve the right to disallow them, “Concerned in Cleveland” provided an email address that allowed me to make a prima facie verification of his or her self-description.

  10. I can’t say how sad the posting from “Concerned in Cleveland” made me, especially if this person is actually in leadership in the Unitarian Universalist Association.

    I can’t think of a worse way to be handling this situation.

    The writer says “Any student who receives a diploma between the years of 2014 and 2016 could possibly be involved in this ethics breach….I don’t want our ministers to be conformist, but in no way can they violate confidentiality in this way.”

    You will notice this sentence contains a presupposition of guilt on the part of one or more of the students. I think this is really unfortunate. People are not guilty unless proven innocent. It’s supposed to work the other way around.

    I am not aware of a shred of evidence that the students were involved in the actual breach of confidentiality. The students cited admit distributing the documents unaware that they were supposed to be confidential. They have stated they do not know who sent it to them.

    Any form of email or collaboration software can be readily hacked. There would a vast number of people who might have the motivation to do so: rival school alumni, disgruntled parishioners, militant members of more conservative denominations, etc.

    It is not hard to send an email anonymously. All you do is open up a free email account under a fake name using a library computer. Easy. Anyone could have done it.

    Further, it is quite possible, perhaps even likely, that whoever leaked the information did so by mistake. On our UUSCM Board we have had confidential documents accidentally disclosed when a Board Member intending to send something to the rest of the Board accidentally sent it to our entire Listserv.

    We have had documents get disclosed when a Board member simply hit “Reply All” without realizing that the distribution list had been modified to include new people not in the original chain.

    We have had people send emails (some with attached documents) to the wrong email address because the “autofill” feature in the email program quickly supplied a look-alike email address to the wrong person and it was not noticed. This sort of thing happens all the time. To everyone. Everywhere.

    It is entirely possible that someone involved in the process accidentally disclosed the documents in question without even being aware they had done so. If you use electronic communication there can be no guarantee of privacy. Even with the best will in the world, mistakes can (and will) happen.

    Finally, I am stunned by the writer’s closing remark that, “This revolutionary non-conformist is simply a base villain.” Good heavens. Has the writer never heard of non-violent communication? Does the writer really think this sort of overheated language is going to facilitate anything positive?

    If someone in the SKSM community or in the larger search process realizes belatedly that they made a blunder and unintentionally disclosed the documents, they would have to be an idiot to come forward now. It is obvious that they would be hung out to dry by leaders at the school who appear to be seeking retribution. There is a difference between being an honest person and painting a bull’s eye on one’s kiester.

  11. To me the overwhelming problem here is not first the students (although there is a problem involved in circulating confidential documents). The larger problem is one of power, and the power of members of the Search Committee. In their power they had the custody of the confidential documents, and somebody either leaked the documents, or they did not keep them secure.

    The pattern troubles me. It seems that those with the greater responsibility for this mess have been cleared. While students with less power in the system are being made out as the cause for the conflict. But this conflict would not have happened if a member of the Search Committee had not in some sense been irresponsible (or heaven forbid malicious) with the custody of documents. The double standard in terms of UU leadership worries me greatly.

  12. I have been a leader. I am not presently. My future is in doubt. I did provide the owner of this fine blog with my usual UUA email address, and I appreciate his discretion for posting me. I will also name myself privately if requested. I don’t want my past opportunities and relationships to affect the reading of my words.

    If my words sadden you, we feel the same way. I sense that our reasons may be different so these are mine. I am reacting to something which turns my stomach and breaks my heart. Our faith community has been intentionally damaged by someone involved in the leadership or studies at one of our two seminaries. Someone called into leadership for our faith has shown disrespect and disregard for others similarly called. It is the job of a leader to open and create safe spaces where holy work can occur. The discernment and election of leaders is holy work. The culprit(s) violated that.

    These are my feelings and impressions. I have read the information on all of the various provided links and the Courter Facebook group. This is what I am left with. As a complete outsider (to Starr King and these events), the reports make it appear that a student is responsible. It will be hard, without a real face, to trust the students which deserve so much more. Our community needs their ministry of these recent and future graduates. The honest do not deserve suspicion.

    Yet, I am led by Occam’s Razor. This is how I understand the facts:
    * Confidential presidential search documents were exposed. Someone exposed them.
    * Search documents are ordinarily only available to members of the search committee. Subsets are available, based on search policies, to the candidates and overseeing Board of Trustees.
    * Sharing these documents is an ethical violation.
    * Whoever chose to expose these documents is not yet known.
    * The situation was significantly worsened by a letter self-identified as coming from a student: “Strapped Student”.
    * There is no evidence exonerating the entire student body of responsibility.
    * Some number of students (at least 2) did not graduate with their class, and are in a conditional degree process.

    So I believe the simplest answer is this:
    * Someone closely enough involved to the search process chose to expose confidential information.
    * Someone that close is a member of our faith community, almost certainly part of the Starr King community.
    * Whether hacked or leaked, the original exposure was purposeful. This breach is an ethical violation.
    * The culprit is intentionally hiding. The person or persons has chosen to not come forward and reveal any further information.
    * By not coming forward, at least two students did not graduate with their class and the situation has created clouds of suspicion and innuendo. Those clouds are causing further damage over the original issue and to a much wider group.
    * Most of the damage to the search process and the candidates, was done by the breach.
    * Most of the damage to the community occurred by hiding.

    Why do I name this person or persons a base villain? Because they choose to inflict harm. They do not seek reconciliation. Tomorrow will be three months since Strapped Student made the mess worse. More than three months have elapsed since the original ethics violation. A mistake should have been readily corrected. Instead I see legal filings and students missing graduation. This has gone far past mistake. My turn of phrase will not prevent the original culprit(s) from coming forward. The decision to not come forward has already been made. There is power in naming. If the name I choose is invalid, let the culprit(s) provide a different name.

    Where do we go from here as a community? I believe that we need to prepare these classes of graduates with positive and helpful answers should they ever receive questions about this unfortunate series of events. These ministers should be prepared, not with canned answers, but personal statements of their strong ethical convictions – more Heart than Head. If/when a search committee or credentialing body asks, the students must be prepared to answer.

    Starr King must also continue the formal investigations, and once public statements can be made, shine the light of truth onto what happened. Clouds of innuendo exist. They can only be banished through trust generated by personal relationships or facts. I don’t know all of the affected parties personally. Few of our community do. The sacred bonds of trust must be restored. Facts will aid this. I await and trust that we will again put in the necessary work to promote healing.

  13. The statement “There is no evidence exonerating the entire student body of responsibility.” is prejudicial. It is an attempt to implicate students only in the sharing of some embarrassing information. One could easily say “There is no evidence exonerating the entire Board of Trustees of responsibility. ” The same sort of prejudicial statements could be said for the Search Committee or the Staff of the School. As to who has mishandled this affair, that responsibility lies clearly with the Board of Trustees who have blown this up and mystified the event to such an extent that every day more and more people are drawn to it. It is they who are hurting the reputation of the school.

  14. Scott, if you recall, I wrote to you a couple years ago about the situation here in Indianapolis in which the two largest UU congregations both blew up in an 18 month span, both having some 40% of their memberships walk. And now this. I’m coming to the conclusion that the specific issues are not the issue: the issue is how conflict is handled, and from the top down- the congregations I refer to had advice from UUA leaders, and Star King is where such leaders are trained. I’ve come to believe that this is the unaddressed issue that has resulted in the perceived lack of growth.

  15. Addendum: Starr King has withheld the diplomas of two students. One was Spangenberg. “Suzi Spangenberg and Sukay Sow said they were injured by flashbang grenades thrown by officers. Spangenberg, a 52-year-old seminarian was awarded $500,000 in compensation, while Sow, who suffered chemical burns to her foot, received $210,000. Spangenberg said on Wednesday: “I was in the middle of telling OPD I loved them when they threw explosives at me. The loud explosion caused permanent hearing loss and unrelenting ringing in my ears. As a result, I can only sleep 2 hours at a time which has had a serious impact on my life, including adversely impacting my graduate school studies, when I graduate, and when I will be ordained.”

    The other student was Julie Brock, also a feminist/marxist activist.
    The stories were in the Guardian, the online newspaper based in England.

  16. When one turns away from all the print and begins looking for vids on YouTube posted by the principals in this kafuffle, the personalities begin to come through and the situation looks very different than it does on paper.

    I think the Canadian Unitarians were very wise to leave the social action component over in the Service Committee instead of mixing it with other elements of congregational business.

    Prairie Mary
    Mary Scriver
    Valier, MT

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