By Kirk Petersen

The 13th dean and president of General Theological Seminary has announced he intends to resign at the end of the academic year, bringing an eventful seven-year tenure at the nation’s oldest Episcopal seminary to a close.

The Very Rev. Kurt H. Dunkle made the announcement November 9 at a regularly scheduled meeting of the seminary’s Board of Trustees, on the campus in New York City.

In a letter to the seminary community, Dunkle said he has discerned that the Holy Spirit “is calling me to conclude the season and make room for room for the next person called to lead General.  It’s not about any particular event or circumstance.  Rather it’s a call, that powerful word only fully understood by a life in Jesus.”

In a separate press release, GTS said that since assuming leadership in 2013, Dunkle:

  • Oversaw the reaccreditation of the seminary;
  • Led the seminary from a $3 million deficit to a balanced budget;
  • Oversaw the creation of two new degree programs: doctor of ministry and master of arts of ministry.

Dean Kurt Dunkle at lunch in the Refectory with the Rev. Emily Wachner

Controversy arose when he had been on the job a little more than a year, when eight of the 10 full-time faculty members walked off the job and demanded that Dunkle be fired. They accused him of micromanaging, harassing, and bullying, and made other more inflammatory charges. “Simply put, we must respectfully inform you that if Dean Dunkle continues in his current position, then we will be unable to continue in ours,” they said, in a letter to the board of trustees.

In what the New York Times called “a tale of hardball negotiating tactics gone awry,” the board sent back a letter saying the professors’ resignations had been accepted. Most of the professors were ultimately reinstated, although none of them remain on the faculty today.

The evening before the board of trustees meeting, Dunkle spoke at length with TLC in a wide-ranging interview. He looked back on his tenure to date, discussed the purpose of seminaries, expressed hope for the future of the Church, and yes, talked about the faculty incident. The transcript below has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

TLC: You said in your letter [to the seminary community] that you don’t know what God has in store for you. I just wanted to pick at that a bit – do you have some idea what you might do next?

Kurt Dunkle: I say with half a tongue in half a cheek that I’d like to retire. I’ll be 60 next summer, and I think about that, but I’m pretty sure that that is not what God has in mind. I’m absolutely confident that’s not what my wife has in mind. I think both those things conspire against me. I’ll do as instructed.

There’s a thread that’s really run through each of the three things I’ve done in the Church. When I first got out of seminary, I was canon to the ordinary in Florida. [In many dioceses, a canon to the ordinary is essentially the chief of staff.] Out of a hundred possibilities that anybody would give me, that would not even be on the list of a hundred. But it was very clear that for the time and temperature of our diocese and of the Church it was the right thing to do.

Then a couple-three years later I went to Grace [Episcopal Church in Orange Park, Florida], where functionally everybody had left. I mean we had 1,200 people on Easter Sunday of 2006, and there were 35 remaining. That move seems like a really bad idea, but it turned out to be the absolutely right thing to do. It was God-inspired.

Coming to General was equally not magnetic to me, at the time, but soon before the board elected me, I really had a genuine call. Each of these have been calls. The nice thing about talking to The Living Church is, we don’t have to do a lot of explaining about what “call” means.

I feel very called to end my time at General at the end of this year. I also feel called to continue to work in the Church, I just don’t know what it will be. It will be interesting to see what that is.

You’re an attorney, are you not? Do you think it would be something that makes use of that skill set?

I’m absolutely confident that each of the things that I’ve done have taken advantage of the training. Law school is not about the rules, it’s about a way to think. Seminary was similar to law school, in that it was not about learning who was Malachi, what are the synoptic Gospels, did Paul really write Thessalonians. Seminary is about how to think theologically. If I think critically, which is how a lawyer thinks, and think theologically, which is how a priest or theologian thinks, I’m pretty happy with those two ways of thinking coming together.

I guess the question I really meant to ask is, do you think you would go into practice as an attorney?

Oh, no. [laughs] No. Well, if God called me to do that – I’d argue a lot. But if it was a genuine call, I guess I’d do it again, but since I retired on June 1 of 2001, I’ve never gotten the feeling that that is even a number that he’s dialing.

Let me know how that works out with God if you get into that argument.

[laughs] Exactly! We’ll all find out, won’t we?

It hasn’t been a really good time for the Episcopal Church in the last few decades, in terms of shrinking membership and attendance, and there’s been some shakeout in the world of seminaries as well. Do you see that process continuing, do you think there’s some hope of turning it around?

There’s absolutely hope to turn it around. The members of the Church – the big body of Christ, the million or two million people in our Church – their job is to do the ministry of Jesus. To go out and change lives. Their job is to go out and protest injustice, to lobby Congress, to begin feeding programs, to talk about and do something about racial injustice. All those things.

The clergy of the Church of course are to support that. But they have an even narrower job. It’s three things, and if they can do the three things, then they can do the fourth thing.

The first is to make sure that they know, and know about, God. It’s about learning the stories. Jesus constantly used stories. The writers of the Pentateuch, the writers of all the books of the Old Testament, the Pauline letters – everything revolves around story. So, knowing and knowing about God is learning those stories, and learning them so well that they in fact become your story.

The second thing is, the priests in our Church need to fall in love with Jesus, again and again and again. That is largely an emotive decision. Jesus is so magnetic, so life-changing, so life-enhancing, that to live life outside of the body of Christ wouldn’t be worth living.

And the third thing is, we have to recognize and respond to the movement of the Holy Spirit.  That’s the way God gets us going in life. In the creeds, we say ‘we believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life.’

If our seminary students, the future leaders of the Church, can do those three things, then they can do the fourth thing. And that’s to teach people how to do that for themselves, and then to send them out into the world to do all the ministry that God has imagined, and change the face of the earth.

But if what we’re doing is training clergy to be sort of hyper-active parishioners, then who is there to actually teach people how to be hyper-active parishioners? It’s not that one is better than the other, it’s simply the job definition.  This is my standard speech for years at General.

How do we stem the decline in the Episcopal Church? We go back to that fundamental basic. I’ll use commercial terms. The only product that we sell is life in the kingdom of the Triune God. If what we’re selling is [good works], then we’re selling the wrong thing, because everybody else is, too. They’re just selling a different twist on it.

If we give up our primary job of selling life in the kingdom, and therefore giving people the fuel to go out and change the world, then nobody else is going to do it. I think that is the primary reason the Episcopal Church has been shrinking.

Bishop [Michael] Curry’s message is the Jesus Movement, and it’s spot on. That is the antidote for decline in the Episcopal Church. It’s not further social action. Social action is what comes out of the Jesus Movement. The clergy have a very clear job, to make sure there are enough people out there to have a movement.

You’re not having classes on campus these days, are you?

Oh yeah, absolutely. We are one of the few. About a quarter of our students have asked for permission to be remote, because either they’re over 65, or they have underlying health conditions, and we’ve granted all those. But we require our students to be in class and in chapel. We’re doing it the most difficult way. It would be far easier to just tune in every morning on the TV.

My church is doing online services. Then we’ll have a coffee hour online, and it’s a good way to reconnect with friends. But it’s not particularly a good way to make new friends.

At General, we do two things: education and formation. Education happens mostly, but not exclusively, in the classroom. Formation happens exclusively, almost, outside the classroom, like in chapel, and at lunch, and walking around on the Close, and sitting around at night drinking a beer, or a lemonade. You can continue education, and you can continue formation, that has already begun in person, but it’s very difficult to start it.

For General, and a handful of other seminaries – Virginia, Sewanee, Southwest – we’ve made very clear statements that in-person education and formation are not just important, but essential, because the Church is a high-touch business. It’s about human interaction and human relationships. Seminary needs to be the same way. We are continuing to lean into that being the default option. I think online [education] has emerged overnight as a helpful tool, but it’s not a sea change.

I can’t write about your tenure at General without talking about the faculty problem in 2014. Are there still lingering resentments on campus, or is that in the past?

I would say there are lingering resentments, but not on campus. I suspect there are people around the Episcopal Church that don’t want to really know what happened, because they are satisfied with what they think they know. I’ve said to people, ‘whatever question you want to ask me, however blunt and however personal, I would be glad to answer it.’ Because there just aren’t any secrets.

When I was elected dean in 2013, I thought my job would be to drive the bus. I realized very quickly that General was in such dire financial straits that we didn’t own a bus. Even if we did have a bus, nobody was on it. Everybody had their own car and their own homemade road map. And there was a sophisticated, generationally honed system of rewards and punishments to keep your hands off their car. It was missional anarchy.

We needed to have a common mission, but nobody wanted to have a common mission. They felt that their individuality at General was threatened – which in fact it was. But not their individuality of being a person and a child of God.

For the majority of faculty that decided they were going to strike, they had come to the end of their rope in pushing back against a common vision. From the very beginning I said we must have the vision of what the Church needs, not what we need. We exist only to serve the Church, and if we’re not serving the Church anymore, we shouldn’t be in existence. That was very threatening to that group of faculty members.

None of them are currently at the seminary, is that correct?

Correct. They walked off the job, and about a month and a half later the board offered them their jobs back, with the proviso that the board and the dean would set the mission and ministry of the seminary. They were welcome to talk about whether they want a long-term opportunity to do so, or not, but they would have their jobs back until the end of that academic year.

One of them decided he just couldn’t do it. Seven out of the eight came back, I talked with about three of them about staying, and only one wanted to stay. So six of them left in the summer of 2015, and one stayed for another year.

Are you and your current faculty all rowing the boat in the same direction?

Absolutely. Not only do I think that, but the Association of Theological Schools (ATS), when we went through  our reaccreditation a few years ago, said ‘we’ve heard your bus analogy, and we just want you to know you’ve got a bus now, and everybody’s on it.

If that’s all I’ve done here, that’ll be good.

Can you give me an example of the kind of changes you made?

Sure. For many years, our chapel practice was anachronistic. Chapel needed to be either 7:30 or 8 in the morning, because of course you wake up and do chapel. That’s an excellent spiritual practice in a close community. The problem is, an ever-increasing number of our students don’t live here. When I got here, about 50 percent of our students lived in the tri-state area, they would take the train or the bus. If you have chapel at 8 a.m., guess what percent of those 50 percent came to chapel?

Either zero, or something that would round off to zero.

That’s pretty much it. It was like we were having chapel at that time so we could say we had chapel at 8 a.m., but fewer and fewer people were going to chapel, maybe seven or eight.

So I changed it to 9:50 – right in the middle of two class sessions. There was one class session from 8 to 9:40 in the morning, and then one from 11 to 12:30. So if you had chapel right in the middle of that, there’s no good excuse not to go to chapel. Almost overnight we doubled chapel attendance.

If you are preparing to be a priest, where Sunday service is practically the only thing that many people experience, you’d better really like going to Sunday morning service. If you don’t want to go to chapel during the week, that says something about your vocational call.

The chapel time was controversial?

Oh my goodness. You’d think I had said we were no longer going to have it in English. That was just one detail – simply wanting to have a modern, fresh experience for our students.

Seminary is like a three-year-long marinade. You put people in the marinade, and they come out acting and thinking like the seminary has trained them. So, don’t you want to pay a lot of attention to what goes into the marinade? If the marinade is about simply having a church service so you can say you have it, and it doesn’t matter who comes, that’s sounds like a crummy ingredient in the marinade.

We have to focus on three things: missional, financial, and cultural sustainability. It’s a three-legged stool. If one of those fails, we’re not going to be very stable.

Missional sustainability means we do something the Church wants and needs. Financially, we need to live within our means. And cultural sustainability simply means that everybody’s got to have a common vision. We can’t be an institution that relies on fighting for the energy. The energy has got to be service to the Church.