The man confirmed May 14 to lead The General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church believes the school must educate clergy who can help congregations grow, and that requires teaching what works.
Trustees approved the Rev. Kurt H. Dunkle, former rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Orange Park, Florida, to take the reins as General’s dean and president on July 1. The trustees’ executive committee nominated Dunkle in February, announcing then that the trustees would vote in May.
Dunkle foresees a larger role for successful church leaders and New York congregations in helping form priests who know how to evangelize — or, as he calls it, to do effective Christian marketing.
“Churches that talk about Jesus and use his name [outside of the liturgy] are not shrinking,” Dunkle said. “There has been far too little emphasis on our need to grow numbers of people in our church. ... It’s important that we look around in the Episcopal Church and see what is working, analyze it, figure out how to replicate that, and train people to go out there and do that.”
Dunkle’s pragmatism reflects his background. Unlike many top seminary administrators, he does not hail from academe. First trained in law, he practiced as a commercial litigation attorney in Jacksonville, Florida. He later attended General. He graduated in 2004, and then served as canon to the ordinary for the Episcopal Diocese of Florida, where he focused on managing clergy and congregational conflict. He touts how he helped Grace Episcopal Church reverse declining membership numbers, increase its ministries, and boost average Sunday attendance to nearly 200.
“I like taking things that need lots of work and growing them,” Dunkle said. “I think that’s what God is calling me to do at General.”
Dunkle, 51, comes to General at a time when Episcopal seminaries are struggling to make ends meet, especially in high-priced settings like lower Manhattan. Though the school has recently retired debts in part by selling real estate, it still runs an operating deficit in excess of $1 million a year, Dunkle said.
Dunkle aims to boost revenues through fundraising and working with organizations attracted to the school’s location in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. The Desmond Tutu Conference Center, for instance, now hosts a hotel that provides “an enormous source of revenue for General Seminary,” he said.
The new dean foresees adding more dimensions to education. Expect, for instance, more visits to campus from church leaders who will impart their experience in congregational growth.
What’s more, Dunkle hopes to make third-year seminary education more practical and affordable. He foresees students working closely with some of the 400 Episcopal congregations within commuting distance of General, earning stipends and honing skills that will make them in-demand as priests.
“General Seminary,” he said, “will be the primary place where people learn in the Episcopal Church how to grow churches — urban, rural, suburban; all the myriad types of churches that we embrace in our denomination.”
G. Jeffrey MacDonald