UF Law grad to take over seminary as dean, president

Published: March 25th, 2013

Category: News

photoBy Jenna Box (3JM)
Student writer

He attended UF Law on a whim and ditched his job as a commercial litigator for seminary. The Rev. Kurt Dunkle (JD 87), a lawyer-turned-priest, described his career path as nothing short of “unexpected.”

Dunkle takes over July 1 as dean and president of The General Theological Seminary, the Episcopal Church’s flagship seminary in New York City.

When he returns as leader to his alma mater, the challenges will be monumental. In 2009 the institution faced about $42 million in debt, an almost non-existent endowment and an eroding student population, he wrote in an email.

After selling valuable excess real estate in Manhattan and turning a guest house into a conference center, the seminary brought itself out of the hole but “not out of the proverbial woods,” Dunkle said.

“The rethinking of our particular place in the life of The Episcopal Church and the growth we need as a church and a seminary will be my assignment,” he added. “UF skills and experiences are still at work.”

Dunkle said UF Law’s greatest gift was critical and creative thinking skills. He’s used these not only as a commercial litigator, but to help him face the myriad challenges he’s been presented with at unexpected turns.

“One of the obstacles I have had to overcome on this journey was not relearning how to think — those UF skills have served me well,” Dunkle said. “Rather, it was getting used to uncertainty.”

Those experiences, and Dunkle’s history after UF Law, set the stage for what he will accomplish as dean and president.

When Dunkle graduated from UF Law, he spent several years working in commercial litigation. He began at Holland & Knight in Lakeland and then moved on to Rogers Towers in Jacksonville for 13 years, where he became a partner and co-head of the litigation department.

“I always felt called by God to be a lawyer. Not by some booming voice in the sky, but by that still small voice of peace and calm that comes from being just where you are intended,” he said.

But one day in 2000, things began to change unexpectedly. He felt called to become an Episcopal priest. The idea was unwelcome, he said, and he tried to fight it at every turn.

Eventually, with assurance from fellow lawyer friends and his wife, he retired from practicing law in 2001, uprooted his family and moved to New York City to attended seminary at General.

After his ordination, he said he continued to use the skills he learned in law school to resolve issues in the midst of a changing world and church.

“I keep reading about the changes facing the practice of law and how law schools, like Florida, must adapt,” he said. “The church is not exempt from change, either.”

In 2004, a partnered gay man was elected Bishop of New Hampshire. That issue was enough to tear the almost 500-year-old fabric of The Episcopal Church, and Dunkle’s church, Grace Epsicopal in Orange Park, was not exempt.

On the day after Easter in 2006, Grace Epsicopal — sitting on seven acres with 21 buildings — lost almost all of its 1, 200 members en masse over the same issues that separated the greater church in 2004. When Dunkle became priest immediately after, he said it had $62 in the bank, about $500,000 in debt and 35 people left in its pews.

“I saw that not as a tragedy, but as a challenge,” Dunkle said. “I was called to build something — a new Episcopal Church congregation.”

Again, he attributed much of his success in re-establishing the congregation to UF Law-learned thinking. He used critical and creative methods to build the church to what it is today: Grace has more than 500 people, money in the bank and has reduced its debt to less than $200,000, he reported.

“Kurt is a terrific example of how preparation for the practice of law at UF Law, and in his case some years of experience in the practice, develops leadership skills that make a talented person like Kurt highly sought after and valued for important leadership positions — in this case, serving as the dean and president of a major seminary,” Dean Robert Jerry wrote in an email. “Shouldering the burdens of others and providing support and service to them is the essence of lawyering, so the overlap with service in a ministry is substantial.”