Transition: Bill McKinney to retire

by Russell Schoch

William McKinney, president of Pacific School of Religion since 1996, announced in August that he will step down from his position at the end of the coming academic year, June 30, 2010. “This has been a hard decision to make, because I love my job and I love Pacific School of Religion,” said McKinney. “This feisty little theological school has a special role to play in the renewal and transformation of contemporary Christianity, and I feel very optimistic about PSR’s future.”

McKinney, 63, informed the Berkeley seminary’s board of trustees a year ago that he and his wife Linda were considering retirement, and he officially informed the board in May of his decision to do so in 2010. He said he wanted to make the news public before the beginning of the school year so that the seminary would have ample time to find a replacement.

When he became president in 1996, PSR was going through difficult times, both financially and in terms of the relations among the board of trustees, the faculty, and the students. In McKinney’s first years as its leader, the seminary’s financial problems were smoothed out, as were frayed nerves on campus. PSR mounted a successful $12 million capital campaign between 2001 and 2003, and opened two pioneering centers in 2000: the PANA Institute (Institute for Leadership Development and Study of Pacific and Asian North American Religion), and the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry, the first such center at any theological school. McKinney also has been a leader in helping the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley—with its nine theological schools, including PSR—adjust to the changing landscape in theological education in the 21st century.

As the fall semester began, word of McKinney’s decision had spread. “The response has been very warm, very kind,” he says. “I’ve heard from people I don’t hear from everyday, alums and friends. They’ve asked me a lot of questions I don’t have answers for, like: What are you going to do? Where are you going to live?”

Reflecting on his tenure, the president said: “You learn a lot in a job like this. As I look back, it’s interesting to think of how much more I know not only about theological and higher education—but about myself. For example, the things I like to do and don’t like to do; things I do well and things I don’t do so well.

“In reflection, I can see I’m a builder. I’m not a person who likes to keep things as they are. Ever since I came here, I’ve been looking for new opportunities for the school, new partnerships, whether it’s the work with the GTU or the Swedenborgians or C.A.R.E. or the program centers we’ve created.

“I think I’m better at building than I am at day-to-day, routine planning and the crucial work of institutional maintenance. Although I was never called to the field of architecture, I think there’s a sense in which architects imagine something where nothing was, and I’m drawn to that.

“One thing I hope I’ve help to build here is a ‘can-do’ attitude. When I came to PSR, the seminary was in a deep funk. PSR had been through so much conflict and so much difficulty that people were feeling disempowered. For all of the struggles we face now, I think there’s a much greater sense of agency, that if we can imagine something better, we have a shot at making it happen. More innovation happens here than used to happen. And I’d like to think that I’ve had something to do with that.”

Sharon MacArthur, pastor of Sycamore Congregational Church in El Cerrito, CA, said: “As a PSR alum and member and now chair of the board of trustees, I am deeply aware of the gratitude all of us owe Bill McKinney—for his thoughtful and intelligent leadership, for his energy, and for his boundless commitment to the institution we all hold dear. His 14 years as our leader will rate as one of the longest and strongest tenures of any president in PSR history.” MacArthur added that the board has already formed a presidential search committee and is beginning the process of hiring a new president. “It’s a task we plan to have completed before Bill leaves next June,” she said.