Reflecting on the May Board of Trustees Meeting – Bruce Garner

Garner _webBruce Garner
Member, Board of Trustees
The General Theological Seminary

I was pleased to be asked to be one of the reporters for our meeting. An element of that involves note-taking. Anyone who has been around me and tried to read my handwriting quickly realizes the hazards inherent with that! My apologies in advance for anything I report that is less than accurate, due to my inability to read my own notes!

Monday
After being called to order, we began with Bible Study led by fellow board member, Bp. Stacy Sauls. We studied the Gospel narrative where the apostles are fishing and notice the resurrected Christ on the beach beside a charcoal fire. This included the passage where Peter is put to the test about his love for Jesus. The various Greek words used for “love” added a dimension to the study I don’t think we undertake very often.

We proceeded into some of our routine business activities, including approval of meeting minutes, approval of graduates, and so forth, and were introduced to Michael DeLashmutt, our new Academic Dean and Vice President.

The break for chapel services came next and with it, for me, came a low-level, but still present, anger over parts of our common past that I need to release, in order to move on with our common and collective ministry. As always, the Chapel of the Good Shepherd was for me a space filled with fascinating elements of our spirituality, ones that I explore with my eyes, while listening and worshiping with other senses.

Our Dean and President, Kurt Dunkle, shared with us his thoughts on a multitude of elements of his ministry and work at General. It was good to hear phrases such as: “different atmosphere,” “we continue,” used to describe life at General. He reminded us again of the importance each of us have in recruiting students. He also talked about the good new relationships that are building with new faculty. One of the most important concepts I heard was that of “routine;” not meaning boring or mundane, but conveying stability and a form of strength.

Kurt also shared with us several items of information (in no particular order):

  • A third of the faculty is female; maintaining a diverse faculty is essential to thrive and grow. He said we always need to be on the lookout for the best folks not already at the proverbial table.
  • For the first time in many years, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services were held in the chapel.
  • Our accrediting agency, ATS, told us after the fall 2015 Focused Visit that we were well in excess of required faculty coverage and that they were impressed that all constituents had a common vision.
  • The Wisdom Year is fully subscribed and we have more parishes interested in participating than students.
  • Four faculty members received Episcopal Church Conant grants this year.
  • The first year of weekly staff meetings has been completed, each including an element of Bible study.
  • Kurt was thankful for sound board leadership.
  • He reminded us again of how things had changed in the world of seminaries of the Episcopal Church: 10 years ago there were 11 Episcopal seminaries admitting about 200 students each year; 5 years ago 10 Episcopal seminaries averaged 125 students per year; now we are looking at 100-110 students for 9 remaining Episcopal seminaries. Local resources, other denominational schools, and the like, have had an impact on us, as has the ever-increasing cost of a residential seminary education.

We engaged in a good discussion about the diversity of faculty. We were reminded that the adjunct faculty members add an element of diversity that we do not necessarily see as a board, due to class schedules.

There was a frank discussion about admissions. I was hearing that there is still a hint of elitism in our thinking; we need to broaden our view (and our vision). There was a bit of a tone of being closed off to broadening our scope. And there was still some holding on to the past. Editorial comment: To borrow language from the New Zealand Prayer Book: What has been done has been done; let it be.

Tread Davis lead us in a discussion about trusteeship. We will elect three new trustees in October. We need to be aware of our board’s diversity as we look toward those elections. Tread asked that we send him nominees reflective of our needs no later than June 9.

We broke into committee meetings to continue our work in those areas and when we reconvened, the Alumni Executive Committee joined us for the first time in anyone’s memory. We talked about the four good alumni/friends gatherings which have been completed and that two more are scheduled. One learning we gleaned so far is that people are not likely to attend anything outside their own diocese, no matter how close, even if in an adjacent diocese! So, more comprehensive gatherings are planned.

We received an excellent report on the possibility of a capital campaign that included pictures of various parts of the interior and exterior of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. It later seemed that many of us saw the interior of the chapel with new eyes after this presentation and spent more than the usual time observing our physical surroundings. The needs for restoration were very clearly seen.

It seemed most appropriate that we recessed into Evensong to have rings and crosses blessed for the upcoming graduates and to honor Profs. Owens and DeChamplain. We fêted them more in a reception in the Refectory after the service.

Tuesday
We began with Bible study, led by fellow board member Ann Brown, that used a gospel passage from the propers for the observance of Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, whose feast day falls on May 10. Of particular interest was his Moravian heritage and how that now connects with us and the Moravian Church. Among his work is found a rather profound quote: “There can be no Christianity without community.”

The day continued with reports from our various committees.

We received a report from the Audit Committee, and the process has begun for our next annual audit. No issues are anticipated. We reviewed insurance renewals and coverage, and we heard about continued work on an audit by New York State.

We received and acted upon the budget for the upcoming fiscal year as presented by the Finance and Operations committee. One area of focus was the Children’s Garden, which included a robust discussion wondering how it fits into our core mission. Interestingly, New York City now provides Pre-K education, and that impacted our enrollment. We are exploring providing services to a younger age group, since they are not part of the New York City services. We also talked about the need to expend funds on communications; our constituents need to know what we are about at all times, whether sharing great news or just sharing, including disappointments and less than successes.

Again, we passed a budget with a deficit. Kurt and the staff have done an extraordinary job of lowering the operating deficit from $2.2 million to around $500,000 in three years; and even making actual deficits smaller than projected. But, even with this progress, it’s not sustainable and we need to be constantly vigilant of working toward “financial, missional and cultural sustainability.”

The Investment Committee gave an update on our endowment and other performance of there funds, and what we can expect.

Education and Formation involved us in a discussion around our Anglican identity. There is a uniqueness about our formation that does not exist in other seminaries in such a fullness as we see here. In particular, we are interested in what bishops, Standing Committees, and Commissions on Ministries want and need from graduates. Listening is important.

Institutional Advancement and Alumni Relations topics were covered in various other times in the meeting with particular attention on how to integrate fundraising activities to the various 200th anniversary celebrations that will come up in the next few years: 2017 for our founding; 2019 for the first graduation; 2023 for the move to Chelsea Square. We brainstormed about opportunities for making connections over these events in fundraising and alumni, friend, and church relations.

We heard from a task force which has been working to continue imagining our future on the Close, with other Episcopal and non-Episcopal seminaries and institutions, and help think through what the church needs from General in its next 200 years. It is exciting to think through the possibilities of broadening our reach in education and learning, as well as embracing partnerships and affiliations with other institutions for the 21st-century church. There are exciting possibilities out there.

We ended with a brief report on the beginning work of a special committee to address the relationship between General Convention and General Seminary; that, in accord with a resolution from the 2015 General Convention, heard a report from the Chancellor, discussed future meeting dates—including beginning at more convenient times for travelers—and had our closing prayers and received benediction. Then, we attended Baccalaureate in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd, followed by a reception on the lawn and dinner for the graduates and honorary degree recipients in the Refectory.

In closing, let me note that the atmosphere of our gathering was one of professionalism with appropriate and necessary humor, calm with a sense of necessary urgency, and efficiency with needed flexibility.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!