Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

Stop, Sit, Listen.

Though I have hinted at it several times, I have not specifically mentioned on this blog the current turbulence occurring at my seminary, the Meadville Lombard Theological School. I have not done so for several reasons, not the least of which being that I love my school. I chose to attend Meadville Lombard for wonderful reasons, most of which have not changed. I do not want to do anything that would harm my school. Though I may not agree with the procedures and decisions of the administration, I do believe they are acting from the best of intentions.

In all honesty though, I have also not spoken of this directly for fear that doing so could jeopardize some decisions currently before the administration that will determine whether or not I can graduate next spring. I am also aware that my posting this will be considered, in the words of one staff member “airing the school’s dirty laundry”. My intent is not to air laundry, but to model transparency, and to allow the voices of our student leadership to be heard in the wider UU community. One of the things we of liberal faith need to model is how we deal with the imperfections of our institutions, which arise from the imperfections of our own human natures. I believe that we do this in part through transparency.

After reading the prophetic voices of my fellow students, and receiving requests that I use this blog to give those voices a wider access (including from Dr. Tim Barger, the editor of “The Stairwell Wall”), I have agreed to post the most recent edition of “The Stairwell Wall” and to call attention to it among those who read Celestial Lands. The stakeholders in this institution of this Liberal Faith are far and wide, and the voices of its current students need to be heard. I love my school so much that giving voice to truth on its behalf is a risk I have to take.

It has also been hard, on this blog which is my public practice of reflection, to not mention a controversy that has been weighing so heavily upon my spirit these past few weeks. 

Click here to read the edition of “The Stairwell Wall”, at the request of Celestial Lands and Dr. Tim Barger…   
Yours in Faith,


13 Thoughts on “Stop, Sit, Listen.

  1. David, thanks for posting this. It can be a difficult thing to balance an internal struggle with an online presence, and to figure out how and when to air that laundry for the greater good.

    Personally, after watching through my husband’s four years at the school, especially through his term on the student leadership team, and now these developments — I think it is past time for a change in leadership at MLTS.

  2. Jess,

    I thank you for your comment, and I understand your concern. Yes, it has been weighing on me how to balance my online presence with my student loyalties in a responsible way. I do not know if I have.

    I am going to say though that I do not think this is a time for a change in leadership. Adding more change to this already turbulant situation would not be a good idea. What I think it is time for is to find a way for the school to pause, slow down, and do some deep listening of all of the stakeholders. That way, consensus can be reached from the stakeholders up, not from the leadership down. It seems to me I learned something about that in some of our classes…

    Yours in Faith,


  3. David: The issues that you mention and others have mentioned in “The Stairwell Wall” are deeply ingrained and go back for generations. One of the things that I learned at Meadville is the importance for transparency in process and always always include the primary stakeholders in the major changes to be made. The primary stakeholders are not the alumni, not the congregations, not the funders, but the seminarians who choose to attend this school for their ministerial formation. I learned this not because Meadville modeled this, but precisely because Meadville so blatantly in its actions went against our UUA covenant of principles and living traditions.

    Meadville could be a model for other theological schools by honoring its religious principles and convictions in how it runs its institution. Unfortunately, Meadville ignores its religious principles in favor of how the secular world chooses to operate. The administration is no different from any other institution of its size. The only difference is the product that it purports to be developing.

    There was a phrase that was used alot in Christian circles of my youth, that asked the question, “if you were arrested for being a Christian would there be enough evidence to convict you?” The same is true for MLTS. Looking at the administration’s behaviors and decisions of the last 6 years, is there enough evidence to convict it of being Unitarian Universalist?

    Sadly, I think not.

  4. Fred,

    I do not necessarily agree with your comments… but I understand them. You are an Alumn, and your voice needs to be heard. I would not go as far as you have in condemning the school. I have seen it exemplify Unitarian Universalism, especially the faculty and the student body. But, your experience of the school is sadly not unique…

    I hope that this instance can lead to a wider and broader conversation about these underlying systems within the institution, and how we can create from them an institution of beloved community.

    Yours in Faith,


  5. David, it is precisely because change like this should happen from the stakeholders up that a change in leadership is so needed, even in a tumultuous time. This administration has repeatedly demonstrated an inability to even sit down and hear what the stakeholders have to say, much less act on it. And it’s been one poorly thought out decision after another that has brought the school to this point, all on the part of the administration acting in a vacuum away from the students and the faculty.

    The faculty, what is left of them, have done a remarkable job of serving the students within a broken institution acting from the wrong priorities. The quality of education in the classroom, from what I observed while in Chicago, is the one thing the administration hasn’t been able to muck around with, until now. That’s the main reason this whole thing gets to me in such a deep way — the work of the faculty in serving the students to serve the movement, which is what the institution should be about at a fundamental level, is now being threatened by an administration that can’t be bothered to write a proposal on paper before touting it as a “done deal,” much less letting the Board vote on it.

  6. Jess,

    I understand, and as a Meadville Spartner, you are almost an alumn yourself. But here’s the thing… I believe that there is still good intent in the administration. I know that the members of the administration share a deep love for the school. I know that they have worked tirelessly for the school. I know that they are having sleepless nights because of the turmoil.

    I guess it is just my brand of faith. It would not be my place to speak about changing leadership, nor do I think that we are at that point. I have been the leader who feels beseiged by many different insoluable problems. I have been in reactive mode, and not been able to see a way out of it. I have been at the point where I was operating out of fear, when there were people who called for me to be replaced.

    In the case of which I am thinking, what I needed was not to be replaced, but to come to an awakening. I needed to break through a barrier, and it was listening that did that for me… listening to those who might have been clamoring for me to leave.

    In my case, it was to get past myself, to get past my own ego at having just become the boss, at having been promoted over my peers. It was a friend of mine, who risked alot to take me aside and tell me that I needed to consider how others felt, peers who were now subordinates, but had been in the military much longer than I. I was now the Sergeant, but I needed to keep listening just as I had when we had all been the same rank. I needed to learn that my authority did not come from the stripes on my collar, but from the respect and support of my soldiers… from those I was with.

    The young man who taught me that lesson risked alot to do it. I could have slammed him for insubordination, I was now his Sergeant too. Instead, he shocked me out of my reactivity and into actually serving… he shocked me out of my ordering and into actually leading.

    It is a poignant memory for me, because I laid a stone in a garden on Sunday in the memory of that young man, because 18 months ago he died in Iraq.

    Changing leadership will not change the system. Changing leadership will just distract us from the symptoms once again, let us try to blame a systemic problem on a personality. For once, the systemic problem is showing… and I think we should do our best to pull it all the way out of the ground and figure out a new way of being together.

    Travis taught me that.

    Yours in Faith,


  7. David: My comments which were indeed strong were only aimed at the administration not the faculty, nor the staff, nor the student body, and if push comes to shove, not even the board of directors. No where in my comments did I lob these remarks at the entire school, only at those who are in the role of running the school. Last I knew that role did not lie in the faculty or the student body. So were I to write about the faculty, the student body, the staff, I would be writing a different tale of a group of folk searching how to honor our covenanted principles. I would be in total agreement with you on this different perspective.

    My perspective of the administration (and I am compartmentalizing this term to those in this department) comes from my serving on the student leadership team as Board student representative and working in the development office aka institutional advancement.

    I had thought, I indeed really did think, that at the close of my time there that a shift had occurred in the administration. I saw some attempts at really listening to the student body and faculty. But I now see this as a last ditch effort to repair relationships for the hope of financial support. Many of my class, not all, but many chose not to have their ordination/installation offerings go to the school but rather to the Living Tradition Fund or to other charities.

    In regards to other comments… Leadership change is not the answer. This is a systems dysfunction that as I stated has been going on for generations. When I was at Meadville, we made phone calls to alum to seek donations. I heard many an angry minister from the decades past, who still are wounded in their experiences here. Yet, there needs to be a change in the way the administration handles personnel. I have seen first hand questionable and possibly unethical approaches to staff and faculty hires and dismissals. There needs to be a change in the way the administration views its students. We come from all walks of life with myriad of life and career skills. These skills are dismissed with an arrogance that is unbefitting for any religious institution. It is one thing to state thank you no, it is another to have those skills demeaned and trampled upon.

    I stand by my conviction of what Meadville could be; a model institution that lives up to its religious core values in how it chooses to run the institution as a shining contrast to how corporate America runs its institutions. Instead, this administration seeks to emulate the corporate America model instead of being a leader of how institutions could be. If holding out that hope and vision is considered to be condemnatory of the school, then perhaps I misunderstand what a prophetic voice in ministry is all about.

    Blessings, Fred

  8. I can see where your experiences have led you to continue to hope that good intentions will prevail, and I respect that.

    However, good intentions do not make up for a demonstrable lack of the basic skills required to do a job well — listening being the crux of those skills. And nothing I saw while in Chicago, and nothing I’ve seen since, suggest that the awakening of which you speak is anywhere on the horizon for the school’s current leadership. Perhaps I’m cynical, and I do hope I’m wrong.

  9. Fred,

    I accept your correction, and the focusing of your prophetic voice upon the administration of the school. Either way your response was a valid use of the prophetic voice, and I’m glad my response inspired you to a deeper calling out of what you see at the school, my friend.

    I am just conscious and afraid that, in the heat of this ongoing discussion, we may lose sight of all of the wonderful things that are part of Meadville Lombard, and take our gaze off of the systemic issues that are at the root of so much hurt.

    We are at a wonderful moment for the school, if we can address and focus properly, I believe. Issues that have been buried are right now not, and I am committing myself to continue to call attention to the systemic problems and away from particular personalities.


    I, of course, keep coming back to the well of faith. I think there is a chance of an “ah-hah” moment, if enough pressure is applied. I will say that there are certain skills that are sometimes hard to come by that the current administration possesses… such as fundraising and long term vision. I believe that the skills of listening and consensus building are there as well, just a little dormant.

    My faith is not yet broken… tried and a little frayed, yes… but not yet broken.

    Yours in faith,


  10. Nuts n' Bolts on Saturday May 31, 2008 at 11:23 +0000 said:

    Without passing judgment, have any of you considered discussing this with the school’s accreditors (they would be the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools) (Editor’s Comment: The Accreditor is actually the Association of Theological Schools). Accreditors work closely with school administrations to help them to develop and maintain appropriate relations (including authentic leadership voices) between faculty, staff, students, and administrators; to maintain meaningful academic standards; to help a school fulfill its own visions (ministerial/academic/otherwise); and generally keep up a sound community.

    While, in extreme circumstances, they can be coercive, they usually work (effectively) cooperatively with administrators to build effective community.

    Masters-level schools have been around a long time, and principles of sound/just administration are well-established by now. Accreditors –which are run by faculty/admin from their member schools, are effective ways to bring an administration into discussion about these principles.

  11. Have you heard about the changes at Meadville Lombard? 20 minute classes? (go to the link I provided) 🙂

  12. I have only just found this blog. Thank you for keeping me updated with an alternative view of Meadville than the one the school likes to portray in its mailings. As a dedicated UU of over thirty years, it saddens me to hear about the way Lee Barker has mislead that school in Chicago. I am SO happy that my alma mater – SKSM – did not merge with what appears to be a joke of an institution among us UUs. I have heard so many stories about Barker’s lack of tact and using his position of authority to launch personal vendettas. Have you not thought about expressing your concerns on the Meadville Lombard Theological School entry on Wikipedia or even establishing your own website to communicate your worries? I live in hope for our beloved religion. Shalom, Beth.

  13. Bethany,

    I too am glad the merger did not go through, but not for the reason you mentioned… and I would be cautious forming the argument around comparing SKSM and Meadville. I have connections with SKSM as well, and that institution has issues and problems that run just as deep (if not deeper) than those of Meadville. I believe that in recent days the issues at the heart of Meadville have been more on the surface because of the new curriculum design, but I would not claim that either insitution is on firmer ground… and I would never be so ungracious as to refer to either of them as a “joke”. They certianly are not.

    I also will remind everyone who posts here that Rev. Barker is a colleague and a fellow UU minister… and though I may not agree with some of the decisions and positions he has taken, our faith calls us to always see the inherent worth and dignity in every individual. There is a difference between critiquing action and personal attack, and I remind us to stay away from the latter. In my conversations with him, he has always been gracious and has attempted to engage with me openly, even when we are speaking at different levels to different points. We can disagree in love…, and such is what we should do here.

    This article was written in the heat of the engagement over the new school curriculum. The Board has made its decision now, and we are moving forward. For my part, I am focused on my ministries and on my path to the ministry. I will pray that I am wrong and the school is right in the path they have chosen to take, and I will continue to support my school. Dissent is the highest form of loyalty…

    Yours in faith,


Leave a Reply

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: