Law and Anarchy at General Theological Seminary

By guest author, Dave Belcher.

As a current ThD student at The General Theological Seminary, perhaps the most troubling piece of information to have been disseminated in the slew of blog posts, comments, tweets, and emails that have piled up since the beginning of the ensuing crisis at GTS for me has been the Facebook post of Rev. Ellen Tillotson, a GTS board member (and priest in the church). Rev. Tillotson alleged that faculty members had knowingly planned their actions for many months in an attempt to undermine the authority of the Dean and President and force the board’s hand by strong-arm tactics. These allegations have been addressed quite astutely by GTS professor Rev. Dr. Amy Lamborn in a comment to Tillotson’s post at the Episcopal Café. However, Tillotson makes additional claims also at work in the Board of Trustees’ Sept. 30, 2014 letter that thus far have not been addressed. They pertain to the numbered list of requests in the Faculty’s first letter (Sept. 17, 2014). After providing her own paraphrases of each of the requests, Tillotson says, “Numbers three and five aren’t bad ideas at that. The others are simply impossible. Impossible.” Numbers three and five harmlessly request for someone external to the institution to be made available for pastoral support of students, staff, and faculty, and for the hiring of a fundraiser, respectively.

In what follows I briefly want to touch on those faculty requests Tillotson calls “simply impossible” and that the Board’s letter (Sept. 30) says are at odds with the “governing structure” of the institution. I will quote from each of the three remaining requests and work through all publicly promulgated bylaws of both the Board and of the 2012 Faculty Handbook (FH) as well as the 2012 Community Life Handbook (CLH). We should make note from the start that Tillotson and other board members have consistently referred in their communications to the “current bylaws,” which apparently were revised in May. However, these revisions have never been promulgated, despite the fact that they have been invoked against the Faculty’s requests and affect the entire community: the Board, the Faculty, and students. Canon Elizabeth Geitz, a member of Executive Committee and Chair of the Governance/Trustee Committee, stated in an email today she oversaw these changes and redirected my request for them to the Chancellor of the Board. What her communication makes clear is that these revised bylaws have never been communicated either to the Faculty or to the student body. This is particularly troubling, since, as Tillotson recently confirmed, the four student seats on the board were recently removed by “revisions to the bylaws”—again, revisions not publicly known.

On to the Faculty’s remaining three requests:

Number 1: “The immediate appointment of a committee of Board members, to be determined by the faculty [so they know it’s not rigged against their concerns no doubt!], to meet with us to discuss conditions necessary for moving forward as an institution during the October meeting of the Board of Trustees.”  

  • • 1995 Constitution and Statutes of GTS (hereafter C&S), II.7: “Other Committees. The Board or the Executive Committee may appoint from time to time such other Standing, Special Committees or Ad Hoc Committees as either of them may deem desirable, with such duties, membership, and terms of office as shall be stated in such appointment. A majority of each Standing Committee shall be members of the Board.”

The Board may establish an ad hoc committee consisting of various members, provided that its majority are members of the Board. Even non-board members and faculty may be a part of such a committee. Nothing prohibits consultation with faculty about the membership of these committees, and thus nothing in the “governance structure” of the seminary or its publicly accessible bylaws prevents this request from being met.

Number 2: “That action be taken to empower the faculty with immediate oversight over the curriculum, schedule, worship, and overall program of formation for the seminary. This should also involve the appointment of a faculty council who will implement a pattern of worship consistent with the Book of Common Prayer (1979).”

  • • a. Curriculum: “Subject to policies of the Board of Trustees, the ordering of all details of the curriculum shall be by action of the Dean and Faculty, subject to the provisions of the Constitution and these Bylaws” (C&S, article VI).

Two points must be made here.

  1. 1. Though the bylaws empower the faculty to determine and order all details of the curriculum with the Dean, the issue at stake is that the Dean has been imposing requirements upon the curriculum without collaboration with the faculty. This particular bylaw, however, has longstanding historical precedent: collaboration has been written into the very law of the seminary with regard to curriculum for many, many years. It is thus precisely the bylaws of the institution that have been violated by the Dean’s non-collaborative leadership, including oversight of the curriculum, producing a “hostile work environment.”
  2. 2. According to the bylaws, from the very institution of GTS, the Dean has been understood to be a member of the Faculty and so collaborative efforts between Dean and Faculty with respect to ordering the curriculum are expected. (See the Act of Incorporation and the corresponding first C&S, April 5, 1822: “The title of Dean shall be held in annual rotation by the resident Professors, beginning with the first appointed, and proceeding in the order of seniority,” VI.6.2.) However, when the Dean is not a qualified person to teach, has no experience in theological education, and has not earned the advanced degrees necessary to teach and lead within an institution of higher theological learning, there is a real question whether this bylaw together with a Dean who is not only a member of the Faculty but one who exercises any form of control over the curriculum breaches ATS standards: “The faculty who teach in a program on a continuing basis shall exercise responsibility for the planning, design, and oversight of its curriculum” (Association of Theological Schools, General Institutional Standards, 5.1.4; hereafter ATS; cf. ATS 7.3.3). Though the Dean is a member of the Faculty according to GTS bylaws, he is not one who “teach[es] in a program on a continuing basis” and so has no place exercising responsibility for the “planning, design, and oversight” of GTS’s curriculum. This particular bylaw, in other words, can only maintain accrediting standards when the Dean who is a member of the Faculty is also a qualified instructor/professor who teaches on a regular basis. This has not been the case under the leadership of Dean Dunkle, who has arrogated to himself via the protection of the bylaws responsibilities he simply cannot perform.
  • • b. Schedule:

There is nothing specific pertaining to the schedule, either of classes, programs, or worship, in the bylaws. However, we should note that many if not all faculty members were so constrained by increasing pressure from the Dean to be present at worship in the chapel and at midday lunches at the refectory (to the point that the Dean was counting how many times faculty members were present and absent in an obvious display of intimidation and coercion) that the Dean’s tight control of the schedule was interfering with classes, professional development, and the simple ability of faculty members to get their jobs done. One particular faculty member told me that, after sitting on committees and sub-committees, attending morning prayer scheduled at a time that literally interrupted the first class of the day and caused innumerable delays in the schedules of those classes, along with Eucharists and evensongs—in addition to all of the other normal requirements attendant to professors for teaching, advising, and formation—there was literally 0% time remaining for ongoing professional development in terms of research, publication, attending conferences, and so on. The Dean’s control over the schedule thus interrupted and hijacked the classroom and rejects the demand and expectation for faculty members’ ongoing professional development, which is a requirement not only of the bylaws of the seminary and of the FH, but of ATS accreditation requirements as well (see especially FH, “Other Policies Established by the Board of Trustees,” C4, p. 15).

It should also be noted that in previous C&S’s the following language was used: “All members of the Faculty are expected to attend the scheduled Seminary chapel services to the extent that their schedules permit” (2.8.1, C&S 1987).

  • • c. Worship: “All religious services shall be under the charge and direction of the Dean” (C&S III.2); “It is expected that all full time faculty members, as well as all students, will participate in the regular worship life of the Seminary community and will assume responsibility for the planning and leadership of worship” (FH, “Other Policies,” C6, p. 16).

While “religious services” have been under the “charge and direction of the Dean” basically from the beginning of GTS’s history, how “charge and direction” has been understood has developed over the years. Since the adoption of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer the Dean, who has almost always been selected from among the Faculty on rotation rather than being someone with no experience in theological education, has been pressed to collaborate with others, including both faculty and staff, in the “planning and leadership” of worship as laid out in the FH.

If we compare the student CLH, however, we also see that the Dean does not possess the immediate oversight of the design of the liturgy, nor of the usage of space (including whether to remove pews), nor of the Guild of Sacristans (nor its Chief Sacristan), nor or the training of liturgical leaders—all of these according to the CLH (rev. 2012, the only copy currently present on GTS’s website) are under the charge of the Liturgics professor (, p. 12; note that the name of the .pdf is “09 17 2014 revision”). In addition, the CLH states that the Dean, the Liturgics Professor, the Church Music Professor, and the Professor of Preaching will constitute the “Worship Leaders’ Guild,” which, together with the “Worship Committee” made up of “representatives drawn from all sectors of the seminary community,” offers “advice and counsel to the Dean on all matters related to worship” (ibid.). Not only has the Professor of Liturgics not been allowed to design the liturgy, or be responsible for the usage of space and oversight of the Guild of Sacristans, under the leadership of Dean Dunkle, but the Worship Leaders’ Guild and Worship Committee both vanished upon his taking up of his duties.

Finally, note carefully that the CLH still produces the old chapel schedule that was subsequently superseded by Dean Dunkle in Easter term 2014, despite unanimous objection to this new (and now current) schedule by the entire faculty as well as students (see, e.g., the letter from students to the Dean, February 7, 2014, sent first by Fr. William Ogburn to Executive Committee board member Robert Wright, and then posted here:

  • • d. Program of Formation:

The only recent version of the bylaws I could find (and purely by accident, it would seem) is a set of proposed amendments for consideration at the board’s meeting of May 12–13, 2014—which means, I do not know which of these were accepted/ratified. The new Article I.9 of the bylaws proposes that the following roles be assigned: “The Board of Trustees shall set policy for the Seminary. The Dean shall administer and implement that policy. The Faculty shall educate and form future ordained and lay leaders of the church, subject to the policies of the Board and direction of the Dean.” Now, it is important to point out that this is a brand new revision—again, this is not a publicly promulgated document!—and essentially undermines the collaborative vision of previous bylaws between Faculty and Dean. Nonetheless, note that “formation” is still under the charge of the Faculty, so this particular request is not in fact impossible according to the current governing structures of the seminary’s bylaws.

  • • e. Faculty Worship Council: See above on worship and the details of the CLH, which envisions a “Worship Leaders’ Guild,” a collaborative group of Dean and representative Faculty, which works together with a worship committee made up of members of the entire community. Once again, this is not an outlandish claim, or an impossible one, according to currently publicly promulgated bylaws and documents of the seminary.

Number 4: “Steps be immediately taken to restore and ensure that the faculty members be afforded due process in connection with all appointments, worship and formation, and the implementation of our curriculum. The Academic Dean should be empowered with the authority necessary to implement properly the academic program, consistent with the standards of the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) and our own recent Declaration of the Way of Wisdom.” 

Current publicly promulgated bylaws of the institution provide faculty members with precisely the due process they request here. Moreover, ATS standards require faculty to be afforded such due process (see ATS; the bylaws, the FH, and the CLH of the seminary also expect faculty to be afforded such as well).

It should be noted that Tillotson’s rephrasing of this particular request misconstrues it as a demand “placing the authority for the implementation of the program of the seminary in the office of the Academic Dean.” That is not in fact what it requests: it requests that the Academic Dean “be empowered with the authority necessary to implement properly the academic program,” that is, that the Academic Dean be allowed to do (in this case) her job. Nothing more. And it is specifically making this request in conformity with ATS standards. Tillotson’s rephrasing (really, misquoting) is in fact a misconstrual. Moreover, this requests that steps be taken to restore faculty members due process for these important aspects of their leadership within the seminary that were taken away from them when the Dean was lodged with unprecedented powers over what never had been the Dean’s duties in the past at this seminary (at least not with one as unqualified academically as the current Dean).

One other consideration:

The CLH specifically addresses situations in which the Dean is accused of harassment, whether against faculty, staff, or students. The procedure that the CLH stipulates in such instances is that such accusations be brought to the immediate attention of the chair of the Board—in this case, Bishop Mark Sisk (CLH, 59)—who is then to follow the procedures set out in the preceding paragraphs of the CLH. This is precisely what the Faculty did. They thus followed the set policies and procedures of the school, which also includes a non-retaliation policy for any member who brings accusations to light. Indeed, there is a whistleblower policy, which notably includes the following: “No person at the Seminary who in good faith reports a possible violation shall suffer harassment, retaliation or adverse employment consequence. A trustee, officer or employee who retaliates against someone who has reported a possible violation in good faith is subject to discipline up to and including termination of employment. This Policy is intended to encourage and enable employees and others to raise serious concerns within the Seminary without fear of reprisal and prior to seeking resolution outside the Seminary” (ibid., 62). Because the CLH also specifies that the accused should be prevented from having on-on-one contact with the accused (ibid., 58), especially in a situation with as many allegations and parties involved as the present dispute, it would only stand to reason that the Dean should have been removed temporarily according to the CLH’s own procedures. At the very least he should have been removed from chapel, faculty meetings, as well as any private (or casual/extemporaneous) meetings with accusers as soon as allegations were lodged with the Chair of the Board. And none of this of course even addresses the question of Title IV procedures.


The Faculty thus acted in every instance in consonance with the promulgated documents governing the life of the seminary, documents Executive Committee, however, has not followed. It was this situation that precipitated the work stoppage. All of this leaves us with a very unsettling question: If in fact the Faculty’s requests in their Sept. 17 letter do not stand at odds with the publicly promulgated laws of The General Theological Seminary of The Episcopal Church—as I believe I have shown—how can they (or any other member of the GTS community) be held accountable to bylaws not publicly promulgated? In a recent meeting at GTS between students and Ellen Tillotson (along with two other board members), I asked directly about the issue of the bylaws. When I mentioned one example among the faculty requests, Tillotson’s response to me was, “I understand that you do not understand the bylaws.” Here’s the rub. How can I know anything else of the bylaws when they have not been publicly promulgated? Can the Faculty be beholden to bylaws that were never communicated to them? Can indeed an entire institution be held hostage by laws that are in truth anarchic? All the more, what does this say about the nature of a Board of Trustees that operates in this manner? The profoundly disturbing truth of this crisis is that the Faculty and students all deserve much better answers than the current administration has been providing. Regardless, it has been clear for some time that we have all deserved better leadership than either the Dean or Executive Committee, with Bishop Mark Sisk at the helm, are capable of providing.

J. David Belcher is a public theologian and a ThD student in liturgy at General Theological Seminary.

One thought on “Law and Anarchy at General Theological Seminary”

  1. Wouldn’t the 8 be covered under whistle blowers protection? They have identified some pretty serious breaches of leadership – stuff, that in a parish, would be dealt with under Title IV/clergy misconduct. I am an alum of Seabury. So, like you, I am seeing friends and colleagues in great sadness and agony. The only glimmer of hope is that Bishop Griswold is going to be the facilitator.


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