Category Archives: Quaker Theology

ESR Upheaval: Dean Resigns, Is Abruptly Banned

Matt Hisrich, who was in his second year as Dean of Earlham School of Religion in Richmond Indiana, was abruptly banned from campus on Wednesday December 16 2020.

Matt Hisrich, smiling but not amused.

His Earlham email was revoked that morning, and he was directed to vacate the campus by 3 PM. Co-workers hurriedly gathered that afternoon to bid him a shocked, impromptu farewell.

Hisrich said in an interview with this blog that he was able to leave campus without the customary perp-walk escort by campus security, but only because, due to recent staff cuts,  the college only has one remaining campus police officer, who was busy elsewhere.

A 2008 ESR graduate, Matt became Director of Recruitment and Admissions in June 2012. Appointed Acting Dean in July 2018, he was appointed Dean, in addition to becoming an Earlham College Vice President, in March 2019.

Early this month, Hisrich announced his intention to resign at the end of 2020.

However, his bums rush exit was early, evidently provoked by a letter he sent to the ESR Board of advisers.

In the letter, Hisrich criticized recent changes in the school’s status, called for them to be reversed, and denounced what he called a “toxic culture of fear of speaking out,” under the administration of new president Anne Houtman, which he said “debilitated the creativity, energy, and community so absolutely necessary to pull off a re-imagination of what the College could be in a radically new context.”

Anne Houtman, President of Earlham College & ESR, not amused either.

This “re-imagination” is underway, as Earlham struggles with major budget deficits and faltering enrollment. Major staff cuts have recently been imposed. (For our earlier posts on Earlham’s financial/academic travail, go here, and here, and here.)

Houtman sent a sharply-worded retort, to Hisrich and the Board of Advisers. (Full text of both letters here: Hisrich-Houtman-Bunner-12-2020)

In it Houtman  declared that

To say I am saddened and disappointed would be an understatement. Matt never once expressed to me the concerns he shared with you, even when I gave him ample opportunity to do so. His “reflections” are filled with misinformation and misinterpretation, and reflect more than anything a deep misunderstanding of ESR’s fiscal situation, its relationship to Earlham, and more broadly the state of higher education in the United States at this time. This is not the first time Matt has behaved unprofessionally in our work together, but I have previously attributed this to his inexperience. It is an unfortunate way to choose to end a working relationship.

For his part, Hisrich firmly denied to me any “unprofessional” behavior, adding that no such charges had previously been made.

He also said that he and the ESR faculty had made numerous appeals to Houtman and other administration officials about ESR’s fiscal situation, and noted that the track record of Earlham’s administrations in recent years did not exactly evince any deep understanding of how to remedy the plight of colleges like Earlham.

About Houtman’s allusion to Hisrich’s alleged “misinformation and misinterpretation,” Hisrich pointed out that the key data his letter mentions are undisputed, namely, that last May ESR was abruptly “incorporated” into Earlham college. The school and  its Dean,  were now put under the direct authority of college officials. Further, and likely more important, the College “de-designated” (i.e., took away) half of ESR’s endowment (about $25 million dollars), which threw ESR’s financial and program plans into complete disarray.

Since then the faculty has been told their programs are subject to revision from above to make ESR a  profit center for the College at large, as it struggles to overcome serious and often called “unsustainable” continuing deficits.

Previously, ESR had its own strategic plan, which was unfolding with reported considerable initial success. Enrollment had doubled between 2019 and 2020, and prospects have been very promising for 2021.

(Meanwhile, overall college admission trends are a mix of a few increases, with the elite schools out ahead as usual, and many others facing pandemic-driven declines or deep uncertainty.) Much of ESR’s endowment income has been going for financial aid for students from non-affluent backgrounds, and headed for non-affluent service professional careers.

Hisrich’s letter argued that

Going forward, tying ESR’s ability to survive to its ability to serve as a financial feeder to the College essentially pre-ordains a negative outcome for the seminary. As the only seminary of its kind, this would be an incalculable loss to the Religious Society of Friends – and many others who have and will find a welcome here.

“Negative outcome” is a euphemism for demise. ESR’s strangulation in an effort to save the College would be a double blow as it has shared facilities and cooperative programs with Bethany Theological Seminary, a school for the Church of the Brethren, for twenty-six years. An informed source told me that Bethany is currently financially sound, but losing its connection to ESR could be fatal.

Hisrich said he had been told that ESR had about eighteen months to reshape its program away from its current offerings to others which would attract a student body affluent enough to pay tuition that was high enough to make the school a profit center (aka “financial feeder) for Earlham’s overall budget.

The reshaping will likely be done from above, based on the conviction  Houtman expressed that Hisrich (backed by his faculty) are mired in a “deep misunderstanding” not only of their own plight, but that of Earlham, “and more broadly the state of higher education in the United States at this time.”

An informed source recounted that in a November meeting with the ESR faculty, Houtman stated that her administration “had a vision” for ESR. Asked what that vision was, she gave no specifics beyond the expectation of it being an income producer. And frankly, it is quite possible to imagine a vision not unlike that of asset stripping by predatory corporate raiders, with ESR being sucked dry to prop up the larger, legally stronger “host,” and the husk then discarded. (Remember Mitt Romney and the depredations of Bain & Co?)

A much younger Mitt Romney and his Bain Co. partners, getting rich. They had fun, but the way they did it did not sell well with the voters in the 2012 presidential election.

What might such new, profitable programs be? Law enforcement was one that’s been mentioned, Hisrich recalled. As well as preparatory courses for pastors in line to run megachurches, with their mega-budgets. Otherwise, the focus will be, as it is in most flailing schools, on attracting students who were shrewd enough to pick wealthy parents.

Well, good luck with that. Speaking from outside the ivy-covered halls, the mess that so many colleges are in makes a hash of claims that administrators have it all figured out.

Last spring, the Wall Street Journal interviewed Robert Zemsky, who has studied college conditions for years and had just published a book, The College Stress Test, based on his research. The paper noted,

“Before the pandemic, ” about 100 of the nation’s 1,000 private, liberal-arts colleges were likely to close over the next five years, predicted Robert Zemsky, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education, in “The College Stress Test,” a book published in February. He now says 200 of those schools could close in the next year.”

It’s nine months later and there has not yet been a rash of actual college closures. But our peek into the machinations involved in keeping Earlham College afloat suggest just how desperate some schools continue to be, and the lengths to which they’ll go to stay afloat.

As for Matt Hisrich, he’s already put ESR behind him. He explained that his family was packing up, and by this weekend they expected to be back in his home town of Canton Ohio. There he’ll join with other family members working to help navigate the rapids and shoals of the current economic slump to save a family owned store there.

What kind of store? Wait for it — a hippie store.

That’s right: last week, Matt Hisrich was an eminently straitlaced theological dean. Next week, he’ll likely be in bell bottoms, and helping resurrect flower power, man, in a head shop, an authentic survivor, dating from the classic period in 1969.

Wait. In Canton, Ohiohome of the Pro Football Hall of  Fame?

That’s right, man.

OMG – Vinyl is BACK at the Quonset Hut. Hey, dudes, you got In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida??

Matt & his people will be at The Quonset Hut, a lively emporium featuring, of course, crystals, all the paisley you’ll ever need, cool staff who know what an LP is, a smoke & vape shop, and even — wait for it — an eye-opening sex toys department (but strictly for 18 and up).

Well far freaking out, all you need is love, and who the heck knew?

Meantime, back at Earlham, Anne Houtman will be looking forward to, as she wrote to the Advisory Board,

the opportunity to conduct a national search for a Quaker theologian with administrative experience and expertise, who can lead ESR into a more engaged relationship with Earlham’s wider community while addressing its enrollment and financial challenges.

Indeed.

After taking all this in, I called an ESR alum who has observed the school for several decades. “Be straight with me,” I said,  “you know the Quaker scene. Is there anybody out there you dislike so much that you’d suggest they apply for this job?

This Friend paused, and pondered. Then,

“No,” he said.

Solving the Mystery of “Murder at Quaker Lake”

In mid-2014, a blast of church schism fever blew into the three-century old North Carolina Quaker community like a line of summer tornadoes.

At its annual conference, a purge was suddenly demanded to “purify” their ranks of meetings deemed theologically “liberal” or friendly to LGBTQ persons. The same wave had already shattered Quaker groups in Indiana, and would soon roll west into Oregon and Washington state.

But the targeted groups in Carolina stood up eloquently in their own defense. They issued cogent rebuttals to the doctrinal charges, and stood firmly for the integrity of recognized Quaker decision making. The purge attempts repeatedly stalled.

Yet they continued. For two years the question was, how far would the crusaders go? Were they, like U.S. troops in Vietnam, ready to destroy their Quaker “village” in order to “save” it?

”A house divided against itself cannot stand!” was the insurgents’ refrain, citing the gospels and Abraham Lincoln. Something would have to give.

And ultimately, it did.

Murder at Quaker Lake unpacks this dead-serious true story.  It is now available, in paperback & e-book form.  Since the turn of the 21st century, five U. S. Quaker Yearly Meetings have become battlefields, truly making the opening decades of the 21st Century as The Separation Generation.

Continue reading Solving the Mystery of “Murder at Quaker Lake”

John Calvi: Boon Companion for Spiritual Travel

English-speaking Quakers today are in dire need of some new “spiritual” books, and I have a top candidate to recommend here. It is John Calvi’s How far Have You Traveled?

Amid all the wonderful stuff that’s in it, some of what makes Calvi’s book so excellent is what’s not in it.

For example — and this fact alone made me an instant fan — in its 200 or so pages, the word “transformation” occurs only once.

Further, the bogus cliche “spice” shows up only thrice – and each time, thank goodness, it’s part of “hospice,” programs that bring comfort and peace to the often painful work of dying; in his career John has very often been a two-legged hospice. “Spiritual journey” likewise is limited to  three appearances.

John Calvi

For that matter, “theology” is mentioned only ten times, and then mostly not from John’s pen, but in quotes by one of his elders/mentors, the late Elizabeth Watson.

But be not deceived; How Far Have You Traveled? is indeed a Quaker theological work, a  substantial and serious (while often hilarious) one. For one thing, while Calvi is pretty loose on doctrine, Jesus pops up about twenty times. The book is not academic. John is an avid learner, but school academics have not been his forte.

Instead, he introduces us to what I would call “un-systematic theology,” and without argument he shows compellingly why it is so much needed. Instead of riffing on the trendy banalities of much “devotional” writing, or wandering into the  mazes of academic abstractions, John’s theology grows out of reflections on decades of hands-on work as a massage therapist. Continue reading John Calvi: Boon Companion for Spiritual Travel

Michael Cohen’s “Disloyal”: A Theological Review

Plunging into Michael Cohen’s book, “Disloyal,” I’m more intrigued by the account of his self-seduction than any of his politically-charged disclosures, at least so far. Besides, the really smarmy stuff will be scrapped over & gnawed on by all the big media dogs.

Instead, I was more struck by passages like this:

To an outsider, my attraction to Trump—or as I described it, my “obsession”—seemed to have its roots in money and power and my lust to possess these attributes, if even only by proxy. What other explanation was there for my starstruck, moth-to-the-flame compulsion to insinuate myself with a man so transparently problematic in myriad ways? Continue reading Michael Cohen’s “Disloyal”: A Theological Review

Indiana Trainwreck: Trauma in Midwestern Quakerdom

 

It didn’t look or feel like lighting the fuse to a load of dynamite.

But that’s what West Richmond Friends Meeting in Indiana did in June 2008 when they added a minute to their website.

They placed the post without fanfare.  But the fuse, once lit, sputtered and flashed for several years, and the ultimate explosion blew up a yearly meeting that was nearing its 200th anniversary.

A new book, Indiana Trainwreck, is the first to tell the story. West Richmond’s 2008 minute announced that the group had “reached unity” on supporting full inclusion of LGBT persons, concluding to do so was in harmony with their best understanding of the Bible, the thrust of Quaker/Christian history & witness, and the will of God.

News of West Richmond’s minute soon reached the leadership of Indiana Yeatly Meeting, the regional association of which West Richmond was a member. And they soon sent word to the group that they wanted the minute removed from West Richmond’s website.

The meeting pondered this demand, prayed over it, and declined to comply; the minute stayed.

Indiana Yearly Meeting authorities said this was unacceptable. Continue reading Indiana Trainwreck: Trauma in Midwestern Quakerdom

Doug Gwyn: Theologian and — Quaker Theological Folksinger ? Yes! (UPDATED)

Doug Gwyn has been a frequent contributor to Quaker Theology. Our readers have known him as a theological historian, who has written in depth about early Friends, as well as recent American Quakers.

Of the books, I’d pick as his masterwork, Personality and Place (our review is here), which he calls a theological history of Pendle hill, the Pennsylvania study center and Quaker cultural crossroads. It’s that and much more: a probing reexamination of the liberal Quakerism for which Pendle Hill was for so long the unofficial headwater and seedbed. You can find it here.

But behind this diligently productive scholar-thinker persona, Doug has long been leading another life, as “The Brothers Doug,” a singer/songwriter, producing and performing, as way opened, dozens of original songs. Many (but not all) have Quaker topics, and many of those have an amusing, satirical, and occasionally trenchant edge. Most, either explicitly or implicitly, reflect Doug’s lifelong theological concerns.

This expansive musical oeuvre has been largely shared with very small audiences; Doug has never excelled at self-promotion. He’s retired now (and of course has a jaunty tune, “Baby, I’m Retired” to show for it).
[UPDATE:  Big Hat Tip to Hank Fay, who passed along the news that Doug’s 2008 double album Chronicles of Babylon, a compilation of 31 songs, including those from his early cassette, Songs of Faith & Frenzy, with its memorably clever cover (below), is in fact available on Google Play. In Chronicles are some of his sharpest Quaker satires, such as “Pendle  Hill Revisited,”  “A Process In the Wind,” and “Making Quakers from Scratch.” He’s also unafraid to aim at his own vanity, in “Hair Envy,” which laments the erosion of his own coiffure (“Why Do I Love Your Hair? Because . . . It’s There.”) Alongside these,  are others which carry serious, if unconventionally expressed Christian religious messages.]

Continue reading Doug Gwyn: Theologian and — Quaker Theological Folksinger ? Yes! (UPDATED)

Quaker David & Goliath, Cont.: Now David Makes his Case

In late January, a post here described the struggle between the Evangelical Friends Church Southwest (EFCSW) and the small Friends Community Church of Midway City, in Orange County near Los Angeles. EFCSW’s Board of Elders decided to close the Midway City church, and fire its pastor, Joe Pfeiffer.

The Elders acted after several homeless people (from the LA area’s estimated 59,000 homeless multitude) were briefly taken in there. The Midway City congregation has gone to court to stop the closure and keep Pfeiffer and his wife Cara as co-pastors.

Background and initial details re in the blog post and a followup. Court proceedings have been put into suspended animation by the pandemic, likely til late this year (at least). But the theological debate brought to light by the controversy continues. It should heat up after today, with the publication of Quaker Theology, Issue #34. In it, Joe Pfeiffer lays out the theological and historical case for the challenge he and Midway City have mounted against its putative ecclesiastical overlord.

In Engaging Homelessness Behind the “Orange Curtain” By Joseph Pfeiffer, Joe calls sharply into question both the history and theology of the “church growth” & corporate brand model of church structure and governance that now reigns in EFCSW, and its flagship Yorba Linda Friends Church. It is this theology, and the power grab it enables, which Pfeiffer argues have produced the current conflict. Further, this theology is built on presumptions of white normativity and corporate norms that are both unscriptural and increasingly dysfunctional. Continue reading Quaker David & Goliath, Cont.: Now David Makes his Case

David vs. Goliath, The “Friendly” Version: Orange County Quakers Face Off in Court

A bulletin from southern California: The biggest Quaker church in the world wants to shut down one of the smallest. The small church sued in late 2018 to stop the shutdown.

But a hearing in Orange County Superior Court on January 31 could lock their doors & make the Continue reading David vs. Goliath, The “Friendly” Version: Orange County Quakers Face Off in Court

Religious Liberty? Or Dogmatic Transphobia?

May 24 was (Authentic) Religious Liberty Day (at least it was here), but the Administration has some strange ideas about how to mark it. Like: turn it upside down & inside out.

Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights, HHS.

That day it released  a proposed federal rule that would deny transgender persons many of the medical benefits and legal protections they gained in the Obama years. The proposal is one more chapter in the continuing drive to roll back just about everything the previous administration achieved or initiated. (Full text of the proposed rule is here. )

As the New York Times put it , the new rule Continue reading Religious Liberty? Or Dogmatic Transphobia?

Abortion & Civil War – 2019 Update

In 1988 I wrote a substantial essay laying out my views about abortion, and describing how they had evolved over time. The piece also considered the increasing parallels, both rhetorical and political,  between this struggle and the Civil War.

Thirty-plus years later, despite some continuing evolution and updates, much of the piece still seems relevant, not least the potential for civil  strife.

(Author’s note from 1998 reprint: Many of the policy issues described in this essay still seem timely more than a decade later. Further, the personal journey it describes was an important part of my life, one not to be denied or concealed. It is also necessary background to the civil war scenarios that will also surface. . . . A much shortened version of the piece was published in The New Republic.)

INTRODUCTION: My Abortion Pilgrimage

Continue reading Abortion & Civil War – 2019 Update