Open, engaging and compassionate: The presidency of Bill McKinney

Russell Schoch

William McKinney’s 14 years as president of Pacific School of Religion began officially July 1, 1996 and will conclude with his retirement June 30, 2010. But during the six months before his official start, McKinney was a commuter between Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, which he had served as dean since 1985, and PSR. “I spent a week a month in Berkeley,” he recalls, “because there were things that PSR needed to do.” Most important, PSR was preparing for an accreditation visit; because a school is accredited on the basis of its success in realizing its mission, the seminary needed an up-to-date mission statement.

Thus, even before assuming office, Bill McKinney spent countless hours listening to people on what was then a deeply troubled campus—students, faculty, staff, alums, and trustees who had been at odds in the mid-1990s. “I listened to all of these groups and tried to craft something that would establish some common ground among groups that were not exactly enjoying each other’s company.

“In retrospect, I think it was fortuitous that this effort had to be made, and the fact that I was an outsider, without particular ties to past controversies, meant that I could probably see some common ground that people in the middle of the battles couldn’t see.”

The tenth president of the seminary was able to take over with a mission, captured in this statement: PSR is committed to serving God by equipping historic and emerging faith communities for ministries of justice and compassion in a changing world. “The statement captured something I think the community was ready for,” he says. “First, it acknowledged that we are not just a school; we are a school that serves God. There is what scholars call a ‘doxological’ quality to theological education. It’s a worshipful enterprise.

“And we do that by equipping—the word comes from the letter to the Ephesians: ‘equipping the saints for ministry’—historic and emerging faith communities. The school was trying to send a signal that PSR is deeply committed to those churches that had brought us into being, mostly mainline Protestant churches that we have been serving since 1866. It also sent a signal that central to our mission are emerging faith communities, whose shape was unclear at that point, and is still unclear. But it acknowledges that something new is happening in American religion and that we want to tap into that as well. And, because we’re equipping our students for ministries of justice and compassion, we’re making a difference in the world.”

Uniting the school

At the very outset of his tenure here, McKinney showed one of his strengths: an ability to listen to diverse (even feuding) groups and to help forge a unity from disparate elements. “I’ve always tried to find common ground,” he said in an interview this spring. “I think it’s in my DNA to look for ways that seemingly conflicting ideas and personalities can be brought together.”

An important coming together happened just prior to McKinney’s appointment when a group of young faculty members—Jeffrey Kuan, Mary Donovan Turner, Joe Driskill, Randi Walker, and the late Michael Mendiola-—carefully considered whether this school was worth saving, and serving. They decided it was and, showing a willingness to get beyond the seminary’s recent conflicts, put forward a strong statement of values. “Their statement was very important, both in the school’s history, and in my decision to take this job. I saw in those young faculty members a stronger group than existed almost anywhere in theological education. It was a group of scholars ready  to emerge onto the national scene, and I wanted to work with them.”

McKinney considers himself “bi-coastal,” with ties remaining to his and his wife Linda’s native New England and Cape Cod, where they have continued to spend their summers. But he has become a Californian in many ways as well. “An early insight in my presidency came when I saw people starting new businesses after an earlier business had failed. In New England, a failed business could lead to a kind of shame that the family might never recover from. But here, those same people who had started and failed...started again!

“That kind of entrepreneurial spirit is something I’ve pondered for church life—how can we instill more of a sense of adventure, of experimentation? Lord knows, we’ve got a lot of churches that are stuck right now and in need of an infusion of new energy. We also have, and I’m delighted to be able to point to many examples, places where our graduates and others are helping to bring into being the church as we’ll know it in the future. 

“Not everything innovative is being done only by our alums, but I’ve really been impressed by the way many of them move into ministry with a willingness to break dysfunctional practices that have lasted a long time. We have alums who have gone into places that were considered impossible situations, and somehow, with the help of God and wonderful lay people, they have fresh visions and are able to build new congregations out of the old.

“I also love the fact that we’re sending increasing numbers of graduates to the Midwest, the South, and the Northeast. People in those areas are now coming to us and saying, ‘We’ve had a great experience with PSR graduates because they do things differently.’ I hear again and again that our graduates have a skill set and experience in leading worship that others lack—one that incorporates the arts, that appreciates music and liturgy. We have people calling up, saying: ‘We’ve got a church that really needs to renew its worship program—our guess is that you might have somebody who can do that for us.’ That’s a good thing to be known for.”

Reflecting on the past

Asked to explore what he’s learned about himself on the job, Bill offers a startling comparison: “I’m like George W. Bush,” he says. “I’m not terribly self-reflective on questions like that.” But he does say that over the past decade he has found more of a connection between his preaching and his day-to-day life. He preaches about twice a month. “And I’ve tried to discipline myself to stick to the lectionary so that I’m feeding myself in terms of my own theological development. It was fun to journey to Jerusalem with Jesus and the Disciples over the course of last fall, the liturgical season. And I find this speaks to me—it’s not simply figuring out what I can say to be helpful to a congregation, but how this can also inform my understanding of myself and my work at PSR. I guess I can say I’ve learned to listen to scripture, not just to expound upon it.”

The most difficult moments of his presidency? “Dealing with the reality of racism and the struggles that have occurred as it’s been faced. PSR had a tendency for a long time to both acknowledge race as an issue and to avoid dealing with it. I’ve tried to open up racial issues and say: ‘We are going to be an inclusive community, and we’re going to deal with forces here that make life alienating to some members of the community.’ I believe that one of the responsibilities of leadership is to let those issues emerge, to create space where people can disagree and yet remain sort of a family. There has been anger expressed here over the years, but I’d rather have somebody cry out in anger about their pain than to pretend the pain doesn’t exist.”

How PSR experiences its problems and its joys suggests that it has a certain culture. McKinney agrees. “There is a culture here, and it’s one of the great things about this place. PSR really tries hard to make space for people to be exactly who they are and who they want to be. There’s a sense of safety here, a sense that we aren’t going to let the system, or individuals in the system, treat someone as less than fully one of God’s children. And so we give people permission to act out, to try on new things. And that’s  a great thing.

“But, on the other hand, this culture is sometimes dangerous. Because sometimes we act like little kids. While people grow by trying new things, new  roles, new languages, and new ways of being together, in doing so, sometimes they make mistakes, and they hurt themselves and they hurt others. Nevertheless, given a choice, rather than being restrictive, I’d prefer to risk letting the spirit flow.

“We’ve seen the beauty of the PSR culture in the past few years as we’ve experienced so much illness and death. In the face of suffering, this community surrounds people with love. As faculty, staff, and students struggle with serious health issues, there is no better place on earth to be than to be part of this community. This is a place that really embodies the compassion that we hope for in the world. And yet we can be cranky to one another! That’s PSR.”

And it’s the people of PSR that McKinney says he will miss most. “All the people, even those with whom life has sometimes been a struggle. This is a dynamic place, where you come to work every day, not knowing exactly what’s going to hit you—both positively and negatively.

“I’ll also miss the GTU. I’ve put an enormous amount of time and energy into the GTU. The Graduate Theological Union is an amazing place—an amazing aspiration. It’s aspirational in character: Imagine what you could do if you could bring a wide scope of religious diversity together in a single place. What we haven’t always figured out is what to do with that diversity once we have it. There is amazing diversity here on the Holy Hill, but we don’t always engage one another as we could, either around things we have in common or in areas where we have serious differences.”

As Bill and Linda McKinney prepare to move out of the president’s house, they are lightening their load. “We decided, because we’re at a stage in life when we’re ready to do it, to give up two-thirds of our stuff: clothes, furniture, books.” Nearly every day this spring, McKinney has brought in a bag of books, spread them out on a table in the reception area of Holbrook, and watched them disappear. “It’s hard, because I’m giving up books I really love, which is painful. But someone else will get to love them!”

Looking to the future

Looking ahead for PSR, McKinney offers: “Just as I’m ready to do some new things, I think PSR is ready to do so. And just as there will be continuity in my life, there will be some continuity in the life of PSR. A new president is going to have the opportunity to do what I had the chance to do 14 years ago—to get to know the people and to see if in interaction with them she or he can articulate what the next phase of the life of this place ought to look like.

“I know that financial challenges are going to remain important. We raised a lot of money during my time here—probably $40 million. We were able to insert $12 million in new money into the endowment, which at one time reached over $50 million. We also saw a lot of it go away in the last couple of years. Fortunately, it’s coming back, and we know we’re going to be okay in the long run—but we’re not in the long   run yet.”

The long run for Bill and Linda McKinney is largely unknown. At the semester’s end, they will return to the Cape Cod cottage they bought in 1980 and have since winterized. In July, they will travel to Indonesia and Southeast Asia, where Bill will lecture, and then head back to Massachusetts. “I’m excited about various opportunities that are open to me and to Linda,” he says, “but we really don’t know what the future’s going to look like after this summer. We’re approaching it a little bit like a couple does when they first get married: They don’t know exactly what the future will bring, but they know they will journey there together. That’s how we’re feeling about the next phase.”

One thing McKinney hopes to be able to do in the years ahead is to write. “I was working on a book when I came to PSR, 14 year ago, and I’m glad I didn’t finish it because I would have gotten so many things wrong. It’s about the future of the old line Protestant churches, and I think now I will have something fresh to say. There’s also some interest in revising earlier books of mine, particularly American Mainline Religion: Its Changing Shape and Future, which was published in 1987 and was a pretty important book for people’s understanding of what’s going on in American religion; 30 years later, it might be time to take another look at that.”

When he thinks of PSR’s legacy, Bill McKinney thinks of individuals. “There are just certain names that to me embody Pacific School of Religion. And we’ve lost so many of them recently: former presidents Neely McCarter and Davie Napier—two very different people, both wonderful human beings and both important to me.

“I think of [faculty members] Doug Adams and Mike Mendiola, of [former dean] Del Brown, and [director of advancement] Diane Thomas—take them together and you get a whole lot of what PSR has been about. Each of those four was quirky, in a wonderful way.

“I think of trustees like Tom Henderson, who was so crucial [as interim president] during that time of trial in the 1990s and later as board chair.  And I’ve been blessed to work with other wonderful board chairs. With Hubert Locke, Scott Hafner, Jerry Vallery, and Sharon MacArthur, we’ve had the best team in that role. And other long-term trustees like Bob Riddell, Tom Clarke, and Julien Philips—amazing human beings. I think of the remarkable staff and faculty we have assembled here in Berkeley. And I think of emeriti faculty whom I had the blessing to know in their later years.” 

One of those was Harland Hogue, who was Carl Patton Professor of Homiletics at PSR from 1954 to 1975. Among his many books is Christian Seed in Western Soil (1965), the history of Pacific School of Religion. McKinney’s inauguration was held during the Earl Lectures at Bill and Linda’s home church, First Congregational Church in Berkeley, in January 1997. Hogue, then almost 90, was the seminary’s oldest emeritus faculty member. Together with a new alum, Christina Sasaki, Hogue presented PSR’s new president with a stole picturing the world’s faiths. “Harland was very, very frail,” McKinney recalls, “but he stood up, along with Christina, and in a booming voice, with no microphone, said: ‘MR. PRESIDENT! THIS IS YOUR STOLE!’”

Two years later, Bill McKinney was with Harland Hogue (in photo at left) the night before Hogue’s death. Professor Hogue sent everyone else out of the room, saying, “There are a few things I want to say to Bill alone.” Among those things were his last words to the president: “Bill, you take care of our school.”

By all accounts, including those of faculty, staff, trustees, and alums represented on these pages, in his 14 years of service as the tenth president of Pacific School of Religion, Bill McKinney has done a remarkable job of doing just that.