Reflections on a Presidency
Director of the Auburn Center for the Study of Theological Education: Bill McKinney is no good at conventionality. I have never heard him mouth a platitude or try to peddle a tired or trite idea. If there is an original view or twist or edge to bring to a topic, he’ll find it, frame it succinctly, and use it to wake up those of us who might be tempted to settle for the usual or the obvious. His leadership of PSR has been very much in this original vein. Conventional wisdom maintains that institutions, especially theological ones, have to choose between solidity and boldness. Bill insisted from the moment he arrived at PSR that it had to be both: a top-rank institution, known for academic and pastoral quality, and a place where new, daring, and sometimes controversial ideas get a full, appreciative airing. Under Bill’s leadership, PSR has broken new ground without sacrificing any of the educational and scholarly excellence for which it has long been known. That’s a signal accomplishment, and an original one. Bill deserves the thanks not only of PSR but also of the wider theological education enterprise for proving that high standards and a venturesome spirit are not alternatives, that the best schools need both.
Mary Ann Tolbert
PSR dean and George H. Atkinson Professor of Biblical Studies: By the standard of the average tenure of a president of a theological school in America, which is about five years, Bill McKinney’s fourteen years at PSR stand out in sharp contrast. The length of Bill’s tenure points not only to his commitment, energy, and “thick skin,” but also to the fine quality of his leadership. Bill came to PSR in one of the school’s most difficult moments, and by the clarity of his vision, by the transparency of his administrative style, and by his insistence on keeping everyone talking to everyone else turned that situation around into one of the most exciting decades of growth PSR has ever experienced. Personally for me, Bill’s enthusiastic and untiring support for the establishment and development of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry at PSR is a public and lasting example of the best form of prophetic leadership in theological education. I will miss his wisdom about how PSR works best and his clear articulation of what PSR can and should be contributing to a vision of progressive Christianity in the world.
Facilities staff member since 1986 and facilities director since 1995: From the very beginning of his time here, I have felt comfortable with Bill and his leadership style. His office door has always been open, and I have felt free to walk in and say, ‘I need a minute,’ and then sit down and have a conversation with him; afterwards, I always feel I’ve been well received. To the staff as a whole, he has shown an interest in knowing what’s going on with us and has shown that he values our talents and listens to our voices—even if he doesn’t always agree with what we have to say. He has given me professional respect, and he has also been supportive in my personal life. It’s not always the case that the facilities director gets to say ‘I’m a friend of the president,’ but I feel I can say that about my relationship with Bill. Too bad he’s a Red Sox fan!
Associate professor of church history: I remember a conversation two or three of the junior faculty had with Bill when we were considering him as our president for the first time. We were eating at Fat Apples. He asked us to talk with him about our view of the future direction of the school. Five of us had recently issued a statement explaining to the PSR community why we were going to stay in spite of some recent difficulties. We were committed to a vision of theological education that would serve the traditional faith communities that had founded the school, and we also turned our eye to the unformed churches of the future, to leaders who might not work within mainstream denominational structures because those structures might not be there. What kind of theological education would shape a leadership for Christianity that would be responsible and accountable to the community and the world but creative enough to reinvent the Church for a new millennium? Bill took up that task and ran with it. He put us on the Web, attracted younger students, encouraged our engagement with the wider community in the foundation of PANA, CLGS, and the Faith and Health Consortium; he maintained our ties to the denominations we traditionally served but encouraged our students to think about the long-term future of those denominations and the change that may be required, and to become pastors of the new as well as the old flocks. Only the next couple of decades will tell if we were right to turn into this maze of unexplored territory!
Vice president for institutional advancement: There are many ways to describe Bill McKinney: avid Red Sox fan, rabid Connecticut Huskies supporter, New England Yankee, voracious reader, faithful churchman, erudite scholar of American religion, and entrepreneurial leader. However, the descriptions do not fully capture the totality of the man. The past 14 years have been marked by significant success and growth on the PSR campus attributable to Bill’s foresight and innovative leadership; yet, it was during times of turmoil and challenge that his skill as a thoughtful, compassionate leader kept the school on course and focused on our mission. He has the capacity to see the big picture and pay attention to the important details of governance. On a personal note, I will miss his careful and insightful counsel and the friendship we have developed these past several years.
MDiv 2001, chair of the board of trustees: Bill has been and is the face and spirit of PSR. He has modeled for us an openness to new ways of thinking about theological education and to bold responses to challenges and blessings as we discern and follow God’s call. From my first days at PSR, it was evident that this institution was like no other. I was delighted to feel that the board, administration, faculty, staff, and student body worked together on the same team as we worked toward anti-racism and cross-cultural competency and to transform faith communities and society by establishing the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies and the PANA Institute. Serving on the board and with Bill, I have come to understand that the “team” has grown to include something bigger: We are partnering with the GTU and CDSP to provide coordinated services in new and exciting ways. All this is due to Bill’s leadership. And it’s just like Bill to leave us feeling empowered to continue the work and joy that he has begun. We will miss you, Bill! And we thank God for calling you to lead us for 14 years.
M. Linda Jaramillo
MDiv 2005, member, board of trustees: Bill McKinney demonstrates a deep respect for students and values their input into PSR’s decision making. I experienced that when I was a student on campus, but it became even more evident when I heard a PSR alumna publicly congratulate Bill on his commitment to spending time with students and engaging them in meaningful discussions. During his tenure, Bill faced a number of confrontational situations, but he did not shy away from them. Instead, he did his best to gather all the information and then facilitate solutions. Among his many gifts, he has the ability to bring key players together for collective problem solving. That gift has served the PSR community very well through the years.
Professor of spirituality and dean of the Disciples Seminary Foundation, Berkeley campus: One of my early memories of Bill was a meeting he held with the faculty in the dining hall to present a mission statement for discussion. It was the first time I had seen such phrases as “equipping historic and emerging faith communities,” “ministries of compassion and justice,” “for a changing world.” Bill arrived not only with a good sense of the stress the institution had experienced, but also with a clear, positive, and hopeful statement of direction. While we as a faculty did our due diligence by amending and reordering some of the phrases, essentially I think we breathed a sigh of relief that we had a common direction and a leader who was excited to run with it. The story of how we got from there to “a tradition of boldness” and finally to a “feisty little theological school” is the story of Bill’s time with us. His commitment to transparency and his desire to uphold his theological commitments, even when the road was rough, are characteristics an able leader needs. The tenure of presidents at most schools is less than five years. After leading us for 14 years, Bill leaves this institution in a strong position. This is no small accomplishment! He was clearly the right person at the right time for PSR. And for this I am most grateful.
Staff member in accounting since 1980: I’ll speak of a recent impression Bill has made on me: It was the appearance of the mystery novels, among other books, Bill was giving away in the reception area of Holbrook. Bill reads mystery novels?! Bill is retiring?! Another, longer-term impression: Bill wearing Hawaiian shirts (actually they’re from Indonesia), and not only on Fridays. If the president of a graduate theological school can find time to read a light novel, can decide to finally stop and rest after a long and successful career here, and can wear Hawaiian shirts not only on Friday, then the rest of the staff can take a moment to admire the flowers, both on and off shirts, and not only on Friday!
Associate professor of Old Testament: When I think of Bill’s contribution to PSR, a number of things come to mind. First, very early on in his presidency, Bill talked about gathering the PSR community together to talk about things that really matter. What that signified to me was a president who was going to bring a style of leadership that would be collaborative, a president who was willing to listen to the opinions and perspectives of others instead of making unilateral decisions. Second, after a difficult and tumultuous period in PSR’s history, Bill brought to PSR a needed sense of stability so that we could move forward as an institution. It was this sense of stability that enabled us to begin establishing ourselves as a significant voice in progressive Christianity. Third, under Bill’s presidency, PSR has made great strides forward in anti-racism work. It was with his unqualified support that a racial audit was conducted by the UMC General Commission on Religion and Race. This has led to the establishment of a Dismantling Racism Committee and the hiring of a director for dismantling racism, the forming of a Racial Justice Advocacy Group to address incidents of racial insensitivity, and other programs that address issues of race and diversity. I cannot say enough how much I appreciate Bill’s commitment to this important work. Finally, Bill’s office door has always been open. I appreciate the many occasions when I have gone directly to his office for conversations, both on institutional and personal matters. Bill not only listened but offered sound advice and counsel. For all these reasons, I have come to appreciate him not only as my president but also as my friend.
Hubert G. Locke
Former member, board of trustees: Over the course of its almost 150-year history as the premier institution for theological education on the West Coast, Pacific School of Religion has enjoyed the leadership of a number of eminent figures in American Protestantism. Bill McKinney’s record and reputation, however, are unique and unprecedented. He has brought both financial stability and intellectual creativity to PSR while contributing significantly to the development of the Graduate Theological Union as one of the major centers of graduate theological education in the nation. His decade and a half as PSR’s president will be long remembered, with admiration and immense gratitude.
Former trustee and board chair: Many years ago we began to “tell a PSR story” at the beginning of every trustee board or committee meeting. It was a way to share with people who didn’t have the benefit of being on campus every day some of what happened here—and what happened out in the worlds, thanks to PSR. Bill McKinney was unquestionably the best PSR story-teller because he was seemingly everywhere: listening, conversing, watching, thinking, engaging. A good president never stops working, and Bill has been a great president.
So here is my PSR story: In 1996, after much discernment and a good dose of pleading by friends who were trustees and faculty, a wise man, steeped in the ways and ethos of New England, set out for the distant shore of California to lead a proud and old theological school and her people. The community was emerging from a period of disharmony and upset. This leader listened, questioned, and listened some more, brought all together in important dialogue, guided and prodded the community, empowered its members—all the while remaining true to himself, accountable to the community, and focused on serving God. The result? Students learned, faculty inspired, graduates went out to serve God and make a difference, and the community’s affection and respect for each other increased. Bill McKinney is my PSR story.
MA 1957, presiding bishop of the Fellowship, senior pastor of City of Refuge United Church of Christ, and member, board of trustees: When I think of Dr. Bill McKinney I think of a scholar, an administrator, and a brother who has the ability to effectively see the big picture without obscuring from his vision the presence, needs, and concerns of the folks who make the big picture big. The work of the academy is of necessity both bureaucratic and people-oriented, and the ability to find the balance and live authentically in this tension is a true gift. Bill has true respect for the work many of us do on the ground—in the inner-city and among theologically evolving and emerging communities—and he does not discount that work but has allowed this acquired wisdom to influence the degree programs, staffing, and other offerings of PSR. Bill is a bridge builder who travels back and forth between the community, the seminary, the denominations, the funders, and his many other connections. I have been blessed over many years to interact with Bill in the several manifestations of my connections to PSR—as a student, a local pastor, an academic advisor, and a trustee—and each experience has increased my respect for the brother that he is to me, to City of Refuge, and to the Fellowship. Finally, Bill has a heart for God and for people. What a blessing it has been for our paths to have crossed in mutual ministry!