It’s been an interesting week to ponder this story in light of what has been unfolding at the Episcopal Church’s oldest seminary – General Theological Seminary in New York City. For those of you who don’t monitor the Episcopal Church’s “insider baseball,” eight of the ten faculty walked off the job this week in protest against the current dean and president, The Very Rev. Kurt Dunkle. They have leveled allegations of his being overbearing and authoritarian in his leadership, bullying students and faculty who disagree with him and making racist, sexist and homophobic statements. In fairness to Dean Dunkle, many of the things which the faculty demanded of him and the Board of Directors were unprecedented and an overstepping of their roles as professors but which came after many months of requesting mediation and being rebuffed. In the end, Bishop Sisk of New York and the Board of General Seminary chose to interpret the actions of the professors as a mass resignation of the faculty. Now it’s all up to the lawyers…
I confess I really don’t have a dog in this fight. I went to the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg and frankly it would be easier for me to blow off this kerfuffle and wait for the dust to settle and move on. You know, “Not my circus. Not my monkeys.” But the truth is that the scuffle at General is only bringing to light deeper problems and the shadow of what we hate to admit – that at various times, we ourselves are the wicked tenants in the vineyard!
One of the issues underlying this conflict at General is what authority looks like in a Christian context. This question of authority featured prominently in last week’s Gospel and raised the question of to whom do we give authority and why. Clearly, the dean and president of the seminary has authority conferred from the Bishop and Board to accept this position; however, it appears on the surface at least that Dean Dunkle forgot the other source of authority – that of the faculty and students. If the allegations of his unprofessional conduct regarding racist, sexist and homophobic statements are true, he could be tried in Ecclesiastical Court under Title IV of the Constitution and Canons for misconduct – for conduct unbecoming a cleric. If the allegations are true this could be why he has not earned the trust of the faculty and students. Without trust, there is no basis for authority. The alleged statements are not only unacceptable, but they fly in the face of the Baptismal Covenant where we promise to “seek and serve Christ is all persons” and “respect the dignity of every human being.”
From the words flying around social media, it seems that Dean Dunkle has perceived the resistance to his leadership in a very different way than the students and faculty have. It appears he interprets this resistance as a sign of his decisive leadership. After all, decisive leaders are going to be on the receiving end of push back and sabotage – so resistance is a sign he is doing something right … right? Well … maybe … and maybe not. It may just be a sign you are a jerk too. The line between jerk and decisive leader can, admittedly, get kind of cloudy and it’s easy to end up being a decisive jerk. The difference is whether you possess the spiritual gift of humility which will allow you to listen to the dissenting voices and the prophets God may be sending your way to help you see your own functioning more clearly than you can all by yourself.
What has been born out of all this conflict is the raising of old and deep wounds the Church itself has inflicted on its members – in this case, its own leadership. We can sit around and gloat when a megachurch pastor like Mark Driscoll gets taken down over his sexist and homophobic statements … but now that one of our own has now had some pretty damning allegations leveled at him for the same behavior, what are we to make of that?
Laurie Brock, a priest in Louisville KY who blogs at Dirty Sexy Ministry wrote a post entitled “I am not the exception” regarding the longstanding toleration of abusive racist, homophobic and misogynistic behaviors in the Church:
“When I wrote of my experience of institutional abuse in the church, I hoped, likely foolishly, that my experience was rare.
From the hundreds of emails, stories told in hallways with tears, and letters received from women and men in the church who have experienced degrading behavior and harassment, often by superiors, I can tell you I am not the exception.
I am not the exception to being offended when a male superior discussed my breasts or my vagina and, when expressing my offense, being told I was ‘too sensitive.’
I am not the exception to being encapsulated in an atmosphere where sexual orientation, ethnicity, income level, or any other differentiating facet was fodder for jokes, and any conversation as to why those words or phrases may be offensive was disregarded.
I am not the exception for expressing my discomfort and distress to those in authority, only to have my concerns be ignored, dismissed, excused, or turned back on me.
I am not the exception to feeling so weary, so exhausted, so emotionally beaten that when I finally said, ‘Enough,’ I realized I was the one who would slip out the back door with my scars, and the ones whose actions caused the wounds would never be held accountable.”
So what happens when we become the wicked tenants ourselves?
Don’t get me wrong … I love the Episcopal Church and in it I see the promise of refuge for many who have been beaten down in other places. But if we deny and ignore our own darkness and tendency to want to control and dominate, just like the wicked tenants in the parable who want to dominate and control the vineyard and its fruit, then we are culpable of perpetuating a cycle of violence and degradation which flies in the face of Christ’s call to humble service and generosity of spirit.
At varying times, we have all taken the path of protecting our egos and, rather than listening to those who may tell us things we don’t want to hear we kill the messenger. But what if the ones who challenge us, the ones who get under our skin, are being Christ to us? Remember, Jesus often encountered resistance when he put his finger on the spiritual and emotional diseases of others. Who in your life has touched a place of brokenness in you – not as an enemy who is trying to hurt you, but as a friend trying to offer you feedback? Are you open to hearing what they say? Or is killing the messenger to protect your ego, your false self, what happens?
The parable ends with the Pharisees condemning themselves by saying the landowner will put the “miserable wretches to death” and find more worthy tenants. While I don’t subscribe to a God who metes out punishment as is the human tendency, I do see consequences for the wicked tenants … even when they are us. When we fall into the trap of killing the messengers who may very well be bearing Christ’s presence and light to us when we don’t want to hear them, we die. We die at least spiritually and emotionally, if not physically. God doesn’t have to put us to death … instead we kill ourselves and in so doing, we deny the inheritance of the fullness of life offered in Christ in favor of our small, puny egos that demand control.
So what if we give up … give up the need to control and defend these small selves we carry? What if we stop killing the messengers God is sending to us and let them in to help us grow? Yes, it will be hard and yes it will feel like death … it always does when the ego gets stripped down to nothing. But maybe, just maybe, Christ is calling us to risk becoming something more than who we think we are … because underneath every wicked tenant is a beloved child of God aching to be born anew.