Friday, August 27, 2010

The End Of Something

Amanda was hired for her dream job the other afternoon only to discover that her new roommates had reneged on their apartment offer, leaving her simultaneously employed and homeless in NYC.

Since she lived at my former seminary for the past two summers during her Citibank internships, and since the seminary has been complaining in its frequent solicitation letters to its alumni about hosting too few students and too many beds this coming academic year, I suggested that she give them a call.  That turned out to be a useless suggestion.

It would have been one thing for the person responsible for such to have simply stated that nothing was available, even though that would mean their solicitations have been inaccurate, but I was profoundly disappointed to hear of the rude manner in which the institution deals with a public inquiry.  So much for that business about how Episcopalians "respect the dignity of every human being."  I suppose it's difficult when one works for an institution that's in financial distress and I am trying to be charitable, as difficult as that may be.

I wrote the following four or five years ago, I forget for what publication, but I came across it yesterday and it reminded me of the like/dislike relationship I've had with my alma mater for the past 30 years:

The White House press secretary, Tony Snow, was asked a question some weeks ago about a memoir that had recently appeared on book lists. Its author was a former administration functionary who was making the rounds of talk radio and cable news shows. Naturally, and like most memoirs written by former administration officials, it was critical of whatever president and/or cabinet member didn’t recognize the author’s “true genius”. In responding, Snow pointed out that every memoir should probably carry the subtitle, “If They’d Only Listened to Me.”

This isn’t a memoir, but I’m in danger of sounding like a former administration member if I don’t qualify what I’m about to write. Or even if I do, I guess. Whenever I sit with brother and sister clergy, usually in a hotel bar and usually after a day of diocesan convention, I think about how all of us could qualify our statements with the verbal subtitle, “Ah, if I were the bishop, dean, canon, bursar, etc….”

In this case I suppose I should say, “Ah, if I were the dean of my seminary….” This is because lately I have been receiving a great many mailings from my seminary appealing to my financial, not necessarily spiritual, generosity. Obviously I have nothing against contributions, especially since my salary is dependent upon them. I have taught and preached about stewardship for enough years to respect the requests, the numerous requests, to “save” my seminary. In ordinary circumstances, I am happy to oblige, even the year that the development office decided to attempt to coerce contributions by designating us as “associate alumni” who had to “pay dues.”

There are some things that have caused me to be a little stingy in regards to my seminary from time to time, though. One reason was that the seminary changed their method of paying tuition while I was in the middle of my three years; going from a kind of “pay as you go” approach [admittedly, not a very good way of doing business, but one that had been in practice since the institution’s founding] to “pay in advance.” This change insured that those of us from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, poor dioceses, or any diocese that believed the seminary was, in essence, the belly of Satan to which they would not offer any support, even to their own candidates, would now have to bear at least a ten year debt incurred through the various student loans that were to be quickly negotiated.

I would have wished that this change had been mandated beginning with the incoming classes rather than with those of us already there; those who had sacrificed jobs, homes, and family stability to carefully balance finances for the three year course of study. But, as the dean explained to us, either one had what it took to attend the seminary or one didn’t. I had originally thought that a reference to our faith and industry. Apparently, it really referred to our bank accounts. Faced now with a $30,000 debt, a staggering amount in those days, especially when one remembers that the average starting salary of clergy was $17,000, it seemed that “having what it took” meant several years of being parsimonious in contributions outside of those to one’s own parish.

Interestingly, when I read the seminary’s annual report today, I notice how comparatively slight the contributions from my class have been through the years.

I suppose I could get really worked up and note that the seminary has never posted a photograph of my graduating class on their website. The graduates before us are there, as are those after us. My class, I lament, is absent. This really isn’t much of a surprise. I remember the photo being taken, but I don’t remember ever being offered the chance to purchase a copy. Since we have lost some of our classmates through the years, to accident, AIDS and age, I wouldn’t mind the chance as I get older to stare wistfully at that photo and those eager, hopeful, young, or at least younger, faces. But to complain about such a thing is the sentiment of middle age, I think, and not charitable. Again, though, I look to the history of giving from that “missing” class and wonder if there is a connection.

A better reason for my concern is that the seminary has grown remote from me; a remoteness that began almost immediately after that missing photo was taken. To an extent this is supposed to happen, as it is the role of any educational institution to prepare its students and then liberate them into the world, or at least the professional arena. However, it seems that the successful professional seminaries and divinity schools are those that spend a considerable amount of capital in creating and developing workshops, seminars, degree programs and speaking series that address the very real needs of parish clergy in all types of congregations, not to mention those who work as chaplains in a variety of institutions.

About a decade ago, when I wished to gain further education in my field, I first looked at the offerings of my former seminary and found them wanting. I shopped around, read a great deal of admissions literature, and chose, of all things, a predominantly Presbyterian school. It was one of the best professional decisions I have ever made. Not only did I earn two subsequent academic degrees, but I was now privy to a variety of annual continuing education offerings that were practical, affordable, and convenient. Ironically, it is to that institution that I feel a connection; it is to that institution that I give without a second thought.

Perhaps the most disappointing moment came recently. Call it, if you will, a tale of two parishioners. My former seminary handed out, in the manner of all academic institutions, honorary doctorates to a variety of people, one of whom was a former parishioner of mine; a prominent person. Certainly, he is prominent in many ways, except in attendance at worship and other parish events. In the time I was his rector, I never saw him in the congregation, not even at Christmas or Easter; not eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, not buying crafts at the parish fair.

According to my seminary, he’s now qualifies to be a doctor of the Church.

I had another former parishioner, who died this year, a man of no prominence whatsoever. Except in his parish, of course, where he attended worship every Sunday, where he helped at every parish event, and where he pledged to the work of the congregation. His means were limited, very limited, but he would always fill out a pledge card in the amount of $52; the one dollar a week that he could afford. Every Sunday he would put on his worn dress shoes and his cleanest, neatest t-shirt and sweater, and receive the sacrament. When an usher was absent, he would substitute. When we needed a processional cross for Good Friday, he made one, singular in its beauty, from discarded wood he found in the city dump and in long dormant neighborhood “construction” sites.

If I were a seminary dean, he would have been awarded one of those honorary doctorates. If not him, then one of the many, many like him who grace our parishes. I appreciate that folks like him are not wealthy or prominent and that they will never be able to write a check that will “save the seminary”, or introduce the dean to those who can. But I would also hope, somewhere in the life of this increasingly necrotic church, there would be room to recognize, in the most formal way possible, those who have represented that which Jesus taught in simplicity, purpose, and participation.

However, I am not a seminary dean, and I do not begrudge him his position or his duties. If the deans, bishops and other leaders of the church are those who must recognize with grand honors indifferent “members”, then those of us in our quiet parishes may see, and lift up, the works of those who are there to worship and work.

This year, though, I think I’ll send my former seminary $52. It seems fitting somehow.
 Actually, they'll be lucky to get that much this year.

Update:  A friend forwards some remarkably pungent observations from Walter Russell Mead.