“Why Starr King?”

This may be my Southern and East Coast associations showing, in my twenty-plus years of being a Unitarian Universalist, Starr King School for the Ministry has always been “that school.” You know, the funny one. The one with a penchant for curly, spirally graphics. The one that’s so serious about language — remember the poetry-filled course catalogs from the 80s? — but too often lacks a sense of self-awareness or irony. The one that pushes buttons nobody else does.

I recall being at a General Assembly — so this had to have been a few years ago — when another minister held up a SKSM promotional button that read “Why Starr King?” We looked at each other, speechless. I forget which of us said, “I’ve been trying to figure that out for years.”

But no harm, no foul, as they say. Some SKSM grads are quite good ministers.

But the recent dustup at PeaceBang, which has spilled farther than any of us might have guessed, makes me question the character of the education SKSM provides its students more than ever before. Since SKSM needs and expects Association-wide funds, I think a frank exchange of views is long overdue.

Let the record speak for itself. As before, but only for the moment, I’m speechless.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. I’m not speechless. I’m vexed by the lack of critical thinking displayed by those who think that bowdlerizing language without significant linguistic evidence is prophetic ministry. That’s just…facile and self-serving. It shows good intentions but not serious thought, and I expect better from those in or pursuing ordained ministry.

  2. I’m sad and disappointed about this, too, and would add that ministers who go directly from feeling-threatened mode to attack mode don’t do well in ministry, no matter what the issue.

  3. Sadly, I have to agree with this. My opinion of Starr King has been negatively impacted by the comments of SKSM folks over the past few days (note: not as much by the actual brown bag incident itself). They have been singularly without humor, defensive, and have largely failed to engage substantively with any of the issues being expressed by concerned critics.

    I love my grad school but if a large number of people began to express concerns over an incident that seemed strange, I wouldn’t just want to defend the incident but also to understand how and why our actions had led to such a response, consider ways that the situation could have been handled more skillfully, and try to build bridges. I’ve seen exactly zero of that from a whole slew of people we’re training for the ministry, and that chills me. I hope I’ve overlooked something; but I do think my observation holds for the majority of the SKSM input.

    The level of critical thinking they display is really low on the whole. It bothers me. I feel like they’re not even able to recognize the meat of the issues, as if they’ve been so brainwashed by AR/AO groupthink that they simply respond with pre-programmed monologues about how their work is right and important, and, apparently, above critique. That’s not something I want to think about future leaders of the denomination.

    P.S. I love the new page design too.

  4. I think the responses by SKSM defenders to PeaceBang’s post, and indeed the reported incident in the original “Quest” article itself, are a troubling indication of a lack of critical enquiry and thinking. Passion, yes, but thoughtfulness, no. Some far-fetched notion is given by fiat and is accepted by all. To not accept it is to be ignorant and insensitive. What we have is unquestioned dogma, not reasoned truth. How is this worthy of Unitarian Universalism, let alone a Unitarian Universalist theological education? This is sad as well as troubling.

    I wonder if this is only true when it comes to UU racial justice discourse, and this, specific to the US context.

    I also wonder what place the ambiguous future of UUA funding for Starr King has to play in all this. The conversation very quickly turned to defending SKSM and its approach to education, self-important descriptions of which we were given with rousing violin concertos swelling in the background. Seemed a bit defensive to me.

    [This is not Victoria Weinstein/PeaceBang — Scott Wells]

  5. I believe that there is more to the defensiveness of Starr King students, than is on the surface with the Brown Bag Issue. Starr King is a school with a questionable future, and like many small theological schools suffers from economies of small scale. As such, some people will find ANY criticism of SKSM threatening. The fragile state of the school has been public, and across the past 10 years I have seen news articles about…

    1) Financial problems at Starr King, which have been averted for the time being because of some key donations just prior to GA 2006. But long term financial problems may not have been averted,

    2) The reduction in the size of their faculty. For example, the school no longer has any non-adjunct faculty in the area of pastoral care, and I’m not sure if they’ve ever had non-adjunct faculty in the area of religious education. These holes in their theological faculty could become issues in an accreditation review.

    3) The trend by a good number of West Coast UU students to enroll not in SKSM, but to instead enroll at the neighboring, liberal and multi-denominational Pacific School of Religion. The reasons for this choice are quite often economic, and related to SKSM’s restrictive policies around part-time study (an option many seminarians must seriously consider in order to manage student loan debt).

    4) The recently failed merger/partnership talks with Meadville/Lombard Theological School. This was largely driven by economic issues facing any and all small theological schools that examine their long term viability. On this issue, Meadville has its own parallel problems that have been discussed elsewhere.

    5) Questions also raised about the seminary president’s Doctor of Divinity degree from Northwest Theological Union, which I was once told was as an unacredited theological school. I’ve NEVER been unable to locate any information about what the Northwest Theological Union is. Is it defunct? Where is/was it? Is it called something else today? Was it ever accredited? If it wasn’t accredited, why? Even if the degree is honorary (and the D.Div. most often is honorary), I’m curious about on what grounds this degree was awarded, and what it means to get an honorary degree from a school lacking accreditation. I hope and pray that an otherwise good minister in a position of educational leadership has not gotten involved with a diploma mill.

  6. With regard to Derek’s fifth point:

    SKSM president Rebecca Parker‘s honorary doctorate is hardly high on my concerns list, but it is most likely to inflamed already-frayed nerves, so I thought I’d better have a look. (Her D. Min. comes from a rock-solid institution.) It took me a little while to find out anything about it, other than some people had also studied there.

    As far as I can tell, it collapsed in the early 90s — thus pre-WWW, so no Internet memory of it — before getting accreditation and its legacy lives on at the Jesuit-run Seattle (Wash.) University, which itself has since gotten ATS accreditation and has Protestant students. See the reference to 1987 here.

    Now, I’d like to talk about his first four points . . . .

  7. I think Derek is on target with regards to at least some of the roots of the defensiveness shown by Starr King students over the last few days. (Not that we’ve corned the market on defensiveness by any stretch.) The more I read, the more amazed I am at how consistently folks seem to be talking past each other…I don’t have much confidence at this point that the brown bag meta-conversation will result in any broad-based understanding as the blogosphere simply has too many tributaries and emotions are running too high, but perhaps GA will provide an opportunity to hash out some of this in person and maybe build some of those bridges.

    Anyway, some comments on Derek’s points…

    1. Starr King’s endowment took a huge hit after the tech bubble burst around the turn of the millennium. The school has made a lot of progress since then (the aforementioned contributions in 2006 allowed us to top our capital campaign goal by 1.2 million) but we’re not out of the woods yet and won’t be for some time.

    2. My first year here, the student body was still reeling from the recent departures/layoffs/firings of profs Alicia Forsey (History) and Rosemary Chinnichi (Pastoral Care). The two new professors that were brought in, Gabriella Lettini (Theology/Ethics) and Alma Crawford (Preaching) have different areas of expertise and so necessarily changed the “flavor” of the core faculty. They have both worked hard to both understand SKSM’s culture and to help hold up its better aspects and also change it for the better, but there are a lot of current students and recent grads who still feel wounded by their experiences around that time.

    3. The UUs I know at the Pacific School of Religion are quite friendly and often take courses at Starr King, just like we often take courses at PSR. I might be missing something, but to whatever extent that PSR and SKSM compete for students, I don’t see this at all as translating into defensiveness on the part of either “side”…one of the great things about the GTU is the ability of students to attend a variety of different institutions in a spirit of collaboration. That said, if any school is the “funny” school in the GTU, we’re definitely it. Hey, makes me laugh. :-)

    4. My understanding is that the implosion of the merger talks between Meadville/Lombard and Starr King had many facets (suprise!) but I know that the perception around here was that Meadville’s leadership essentially did a locker-room check of endowment sizes and decided that the winner would get to call most of the shots. I imagine (but don’t know) that Meadville’s students have a similar perception that Starr King’s leadership sabotaged the process by being unreasonably mired in minor pedagogical points. Whatever the case, the end of the current round of talks doesn’t mean there is no hope for merger in the future…just that now isn’t the right time to do it.

    With regards to Starr King’s culture lacking a sense of self-awareness or irony, I’d add “a sense of humor” as a quality that we could work on fostering around here. Along these lines and for what its worth, a few of us decided to parody our weekly newsletter a few months ago: http://linn.ws/test/Starr_King_THIS_Week.html The responses were universally positive, which makes me think either that 1) we weren’t sharp enough, or 2) folks around here really do have a sense of humor about the school’s public image and how our approaches are critiqued. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a bit of both.

    2nd Year M.Div, Starr King School for the Ministry.

  8. As a Starr King graduate who’s distanced herself from the School for the past several years, my disconnect from SKSM is rooted in the anti-oppression fervor that swept through while I was there (concurrently with Melissa Mummert) and which continues to this day.

    While a student, I experienced the climate at Starr King as saturated by hair-trigger reactiveness (on the part of faculty and administration) to innocent miscommunication and misunderstandings (“oppression” related).
    I also witnessed the rampant hiring of sorely underqualified Employees of Color, including one — male — who hit on female students and another — hired to do data entry — who had only seven fingers (I’m not making that up) and snuck into the building at night to finish her typing work. Her resume, incidentally, was submitted on a piece of paper ripped out of a notebook, scrawled in ballpoint pen. There’s only one reason she was hired over the other applicants, who were actually qualified. (Say it with me: “color.”)

    The pattern was the same, at least four times in a row: after months of dismal performance, the School would”let go” of the inept staff member, bewildered as to what had gone wrong. In short, Starr King seemed to prize creating a multi-ethnic staff over a functioning one. It should be no surprise that this fervor has wormed its way into the School’s curriculum and formation process.

    My conversations with administration and Board members (yes, I’ve practiced the gengle art of direct communication) have done nothing to assuage my concerns.

  9. Dearie dears,
    the “gengle art” of communication is something that should be practiced only behind locked doors and with appropriate protective gear. In contrast, the “GENTLE art” of communication is what I intended to refer to in my previous comment. You knew that.

  10. Sorry for a comment on a long-ago page. But the post links, at “Let the record speak for itself”, to the URL http://www.peacebang.com/2007/05/28/brown-bag-lunch/. But that page seems to be absent from peacebang now (2014), and I could find an alternate URL for the old content.

    Fortunately, we have archive.org and the wayback machine. At http://web.archive.org/web/20080906003417/http://www.peacebang.com/2007/05/28/brown-bag-lunch/, I found a Sept 2008 snapshot of the May 2007 peacebang post, plus some May 2007 comments.

    Happy reading!

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