Students at Northern Seminary have begun a letter-writing campaign to communicate with trustees about their displeasure with how the board has handled recent events, including an investigation of former President Bill Shiell.
“As a doctoral student at Northern Seminary, I have been dismayed at recent events that have broken trust between the school’s board of trustees and the student/faculty population,” wrote Kelley Mathews on a Patheos blog. She referenced “allegations of bullying that led to the seminary president’s defiant resignation” and said the board “has proven stubbornly resistant to admitting their culpability in eroding trust, despite student efforts to cooperate with them in reconciliation, healing and improved standards going forward.”
She added: “Students are questioning whether they can remain at a school that allows toxic leadership at the top yet is known for educating both women and men for ministry in a safe, caring environment. Students have begun communicating with board members individually, rather than merely collectively, hoping to press upon them the urgency of the problem.”
As an example of such communication, she published a letter written to trustees by Christine Calareso Bleecker, an executive life coach and litigation attorney who is a master of theology and women student at Northern Seminary.
Bleecker “represents the heart of the students and faculty who are grieved and angered by the hard-hearted behavior of the board,” Mathews said.
In her letter, Bleecker says she transferred to Northern from Gordon-Conwell Seminary specifically to study with New Testament professor and Dean of Academic Affairs Lynn Cohick, who resigned after only two years at Northern.
“Northern appeared to be an oasis in the desert for women — a place that supported, championed and empowered women of faith,” Bleecker wrote. “After many years of being in places that did the opposite, I told everyone that would listen how amazing Northern was and how they were doing the good work of tov. Unlike many churches and schools that had scandals and rampant abuse of all kinds, I felt safe at Northern.
“I was therefore gutted and completely disoriented to find out that there was an ugly underside: a president that harmed women through his words, a board that enabled him, and a system of silence and hiding behind legality to keep from doing the important work of repair and restoration. I could not believe this was happening at my beloved Northern.
“With each tone-deaf communication or complete silence from the board, my grief has only grown. Indeed, in the last two months I have gone through the stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining and depression.”
Recently, one-third of the student body signed a letter expressing no confidence in the board of trustees. The trustee chairman responded days later by saying the school would offer counseling to students who are upset.
“As a Christian and a woman, I am at a loss for words at the lack of board support and response to students’ requests,” Bleecker added. “As a lawyer, I am dumbfounded at the decision to fire Jennie Boysen, and the request for her to sign an NDA, which is illegal as a condition of severance.
“As a lawyer, I am dumbfounded at the decision to fire Jennie Boysen.”
“Your actions have caused hurt and harm. Your actions have broken our hearts. Your actions have questioned our decision whether to stay at Northern,” she said.
Throughout the ordeal over leadership at Northern that became public in February, trustees have made few public comments.
“We prayerfully ask for your continued patience as we move forward,” board Chairman Wyatt Hoch said in a memo to students March 28.
Among student demands is student representation on the board. But Hoch told BNG March 29 there already is a student serving on the board. However, he declined to name that student.
The school’s website lists 15 trustees, although one of those, Fay Quanstrom, recently resigned in protest of the board’s silence. No indication is given there of a student representative on the board.
Hoch, who lives in Wichita, Kan., is a partner in a law firm specializing in the construction industry.
In 2021, Northern Seminary sold its 27-acre campus in Lombard, Ill., to focus more on livestreaming and on-demand educational platforms. The seminary now operates out of an office building in Lisle, Ill., offering both in-person and online classes.