Turnaround priest

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 to his alma mater as its leader, 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 said. “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 myriad challenges.

“Those UF skills have served me well,” Dunkle said. The hard part “was getting used to uncertainty.”

Those experiences, and Dunkle’s path after UF Law, set the stage for his new role. After graduating from UF Law, he spent several years working in commercial litigation. Beginning at Holland & Knight
in Lakeland, he moved on to spend 13 years at Rogers Towers in Jacksonville, 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.

His outlook began to change. He felt called to become an Episcopal priest. The idea was unwelcome, he said, and he tried to fight it.

But steadied by 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 attend seminary at the General Theological

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 an exception.

On the day after Easter in 2006, Grace Epsicopal — sitting on seven acres with 21 buildings — lost almost all of its 1,200 members. They deserted en masse over the same issues that separated the greater church in 2004. When Dunkle was named priest immediately after, he said the church 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.”

Dunkle attributed much of his success in re-establishing the congregation to his UF Law training. Using critical and creative methods he built the church into about a 500-strong congregation with money in the bank and a debt 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.”