Where is Meadville Lombard going?

25 May. I’ve been getting a lot of traffic for this post and don’t want it to “fall below the fold” so I’m giving it a bump back to the top. Welcome to my new Chicago readers.

Like other–perhaps all–Unitarian Universalist ministers, I got an email from the Rev. Lee Barker, the president of Meadville Lombard Theological School informing me of a significant financial gift and the school’s board of trustees “unanimously approved all of the ojectives outlined in the Going Forward: Integrated Enrollment Plan.”

Yes, ojectives. Did you hear me sigh? And reading them, it doesn’t get better.

The writing is poor: turgid, ambiguous and filled with cliche and jargon. Are they trying to hide some critical fact? Puff up the work they accomplished? I look to the signatories and see respectable people and one in particular I respect. What is this? I can’t help but think of singer-writer David Byrne’s Envisioning Emotional Epistemological Information, his sly homage to PowerPoint and its culture: this report says more about corporate America than anything religious or perhaps even educational.

Some examples:

  • its use of enforced joy, optimism and consensus. (“In January 2007 Dr. Sharon Welch was announced as the elected candidate to the delight of all.”)
  • ambiguous use of tense so it is not always clear if an action is desired, is planned or has occurred.
  • use of passive voice sometimes cloaks roles and actors.
  • typographical and spelling errors (“In it’s initial efforts . . . ” “liberal protestants”) plus the pixilated PDF of a printed copy of the report (rather than one generated from within a word processor) invite doubt in the quality of the report.

They seem to intent to

  • networks of working groups instead of hierarchical bureaucracies (which looks more like the UUA’s governance model.)
  • to get experienced staff members.
  • increase enrollment.

But the details, the content? I am disturbed that the technical fixes are limited to aging and pedestrian choices as “DVD/VHS players, LCD projectors, visual presenters, interactive whiteboards, and other instructional technologies, and web-based tools like Blackboard and SharePoint. . . .” What, no zoetrope?

While the plan may call for networked leadership, analogous learning models like learner-generated content and peer resource creation–anyone heard of YouTube? wikis?–are absent.

I just can’t see what’s going on here.

The Rev. Adam Tierney-Eliot (Parsonage Life) has also written about this, with a bit more optimism.

14 Replies to “Where is Meadville Lombard going?”

  1. I glanced at it yesterday from Adam’s blog and was really put off by a number of elements you mention (enforced joy, passive voice, weird typos), so I just quit reading. And it looks like a crooked photocopy of a copy!

    In general, and from an editorial point of view, when the end result reads that way I think that it must have had:

    a. a committee writing it piece by piece without an editor unifying the document;
    b. a love festival occurring in Insert-Comments where writers praise one another in an attempt to be positive and supportive rather than fix what ‘s wrong (Brilliant point! (so I’m not going to fix your typo, so it won’t hurt your feelings), Well-said (so I’m not going to rewrite it in the active voice); and
    c. no content or copy editing of the final form because the writers think that words come from their mouths in final form (Another possibility? No time for copyediting).

    What’s truly interesting to me is that I see most of this sort of end-result in professional development settings where adults are writing for other adults (and trying to impress other adults).

    I hope that’s not too snarky though you did mention the zoetrope….

  2. “Where do we come from…what are we…where are we going?” Isn’t it great that this is Unitarian Universalism’s new favorite song? “Mystery…mystery…life is a riddle and a mystery.” Amen.

  3. Hey Guys!

    Well, I am more optimistic, but it may be that sort of relentless optimism of, say, a Spongebob. I agree with you particularly on the writing. It strikes me as vaguely Gnostic in that to truly understand one must (perhaps) have already been intitiated into the mysteries of the M/L redevelopment plan. I also thought it was interesting that they managed to make my freshly-printed copy look like it had been photocopied multiple times and with a rather sketchy toner cartridge at that!

    Still, I like it that they are thinking, at least, in their own way. It sure beats the alternative. Ah well, a higher grade for effort, a lower grade for execution…

  4. Phil, are you quoting the 1986 B-52s single “Detour Through Yours Mind”? An Athens, G-A boy ya’ got here.

    Of course, the more apt 80s alternapop tune would be the Talking Head’s “Road to Nowhere

  5. The condition of the report made me cringe. I saw writing in the margins, crooked graphs and language that I just could not understand. It is embarassing that it was sent out to all the ministers in the UUA in that condition. Besides that, I could not comprehend what, if anything, M/L is doing differently and how the school intends to change direction to encourage more students to go there. Sigh.

  6. As I read it, the only major thing I came away with was a desire to increase enrollment. But how? Who is the target population? Why would they increasingly choose M/L over other possible schools? Where are the gifts of M/L meeting some untapped or underserved need?

    I fear that the desire to increase enrollment might have more to do with the economics of scale at small theological schools. Consider the shrinking of Starr King, and the terrible struggles of Bangor Theological Seminary. If economics of scale are mostly at play, the planners may have miscalculated and failed to realize that liberal Protestant theological education is a shrinking pie, with M/L hungering for a bigger slice. A very difficult position to try and stake out.

    I for one would have loved seeing some concrete plans regarding recruitment and funding of international UU students, and of capitalizing on M/L excellent reputation for studies in religious education. Which reminds me, when is the last time that M/L did anything outreach related, using their vaunted Fahs Center for Religious Education? It is a shame to simply sit on one of your treasured resources/facilities. But perhaps the Fahs Center is like Grandma’s “good good china” which we get to admire but never use.

  7. There’s something to be said for not knowing how sausage is made. That this plan and its overabundance of appendices was included as a download related to a one-sentence news release does not speak well for M-L’s potential for improving its marketing effort, which seems to be the ultimate thrust of the plan.

  8. The good news is that I didn’t get this report — my repeated requests to be removed from Meadville Lombard’s email distribution lists (and my practice of blacklisting email addresses that send me unwanted email) seems to be working!

    The bad news is that this sounds like yet another manifestation of Meadville Lombard’s tendency to avoid conflict. They do not state their goals clearly. Instead, taking a stand can be avoided, thus avoiding conflict, with the use of the passive voice, and by using circuitous syntax, and unclear sentence structures.

  9. As a graduate of M/L and a former student representative to the M/L admissions committee for roughly two years, I see flaws in the plan that I imagine others cannot perceive:

    • The major reason so many excellent candidates for our ministry did not opt to attend M/L in the mid-1990s was not because of any shortcomings of the program but the cost of attending the theological school. Time and again, potential students wrote back that they were enthusiastic about attending M/L but the financial aid was not significant enough. M/L is probably one of the most expensive seminaries to attend in the United States. The plan does not mention increasing financial aid to students, as far as I can see. When I was there the major issue that students asked the board of trustees to address was the high cost. This issue might have been resolved but I doubt it.
    • The plan calls for increased revenues by increasing the number of students enrolled. The last plan for M/L called for increasing the number of students as well. When I was on the admissions committee I learned that the only way that the M/L could increase its enrollment in those days was to lower its standards for admission. Yet, if the seminary lowered its admissions standards, the students would fail because the University of Chicago Divinity School had no intention of lowering its standards and the M/L students admitted would probably not succeed in the intellectually rigorous environment at the U. of C. All M/L students were required to take more than a third of their courses at the U. of C. The attrition rate would result in lower morale and not improve M/L’s reputation.
    • Increasing the budget by increasing the number of students is like church plans that assume that new members are good because they will help us pay our bills. Is there any greater reason for M/L to admit more students. Perhaps a statement like, “We believe that the theological school has a mission to form ministers for ministry to the UUA and the larger community.” No mention is made of why M/L wants more students. No real mention in this plan is given to the reason why students would flock to pay the high tuition at M/L. Marketing alone will not help M/L if the problems that have existed in the past persist.
    • Increasing the student body size without a concurrent increase in faculty and staff will lead to larger classes and less attention to the ministerial formation of individual students. If the plan intends to promote excellence in ministry it will need to address this issue.

    Meadville/Lombard was a stressful place for me to study for the ministry. In retrospect, my reasons for going there were sound. When I first entered the doors of the Curtis Room I had been a Unitarian Universalist for only two years. I felt that I needed the specifically Unitarian Universalist ministerial formation that only Meadville/Lombard could provide. Starr King had its appeal but I needed more structured study.

    I still have high hopes for Meadville/Lombard. It does indeed have a noble history in our movement. I just do not believe that this plan will fulfill its goals.

  10. When I was looking for a seminary in 1993, Meadville Lombard and Starr King fell off the list pretty quickly. Neither had so stellar a reputation to justify the cost and (being politic) I blamed the cost for not going. Indeed, Brite gave me a full scholarship, a discounted apartment and a small stipend. Deeper reasons for looking elsewhere were Starr King’s continual wackiness and Meadville Lombard’s reputation of being hostile to Christians, mainly from the student body.

    I believe my two-word reply was a four-letter word beginning with F followed by that.

    I have not regretted my decision.

  11. I’m sort an outsider to this whole thing, but I’ll be taking a class at Meadville this summer with Sharon Welch. Given what I’m hearing here, and what I’m reading in her books, isn’t it a bit ironic that they’re plagued by these problems and have just hired her on as provost?

    It seems like part of her emphasis is upon not masking the conflict that leads to decisions and on allowing conflict to give rise to deep connection. Does anyone think that her presence will challenge the seminary?

  12. I considered both Meadville-Lombard and Starr King, as well as Harvard Divinity School. In the end, cost was the deciding factor. Berkeley, Chicago, and Cambridge are hugely expensive places to live, and I was offered no scholarships. I got nominal financial assistance from UU denominational bodies which did not really amount to much.

    To be honest, after visiting Starr King, I could understand why I was being dissuaded by many from going there. It was a little too “out there” for me, and I worried that an MDiv from there would look bad to ministerial search committees. One ordained minister at the time asked why I would want to study with “the crazy people” at Starr King (his words).

    I went to a non-UU school that offered me very generous scholarships. Today, four years after my ordination, I am almost completely out of debt from my seminary education. I had a well-rounded theological education from a respected seminary. I have no regrets about not attending a UU seminary!

  13. How ironic that immediately after criticizing the plans typographical and spelling errors that this follows:

    “They seem to intent to

    * networks of working groups instead of hierarchical bureaucracies (which looks more like the UUA’s governance model.)
    * to get experienced staff members.
    * increase enrollment.”

    – intent to networks of… ??
    – intent to to get… ??

  14. Today I posted my personal “take” on my blog: “The Dis-Incarnation of Meadville/Lombard.”

    I stepped out of the UU ministry in 1988.

    One does not need a denomination to be a minister, since we are a “priesthood of all believers.” I’m in a hamlet of 350 souls, Lutheran and Catholic, and still find this part of my education valuable and useful.

    But ministry starts at home, eh?

    Prairie Mary
    Mary Scriver
    Valier, Montana

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