At a moment that demanded rapt attention from a packed room at the United Lutheran Seminary, the Rev. Theresa F. Latini sensed that few were listening to her.
It was about a week before she would be fired from her new post as president of the 325-student divinity school. The revelation that she once headed an organization that promoted the idea that gay men and women could change their sexuality had jolted the seminary’s dual campuses in Philadelphia and Gettsyburg.
Officials of the LGBT-affirming school sat in meetings at both sites, listening as students, faculty, and staff aired heartbreak and anger. But when Latini’s turn came to share what she viewed as her transformational story — how she had long since abandoned the opinions she held 20-some years earlier — she doubted that her defense of herself mattered, or that she’d be given enough time to explain. The atmosphere was too fraught, the divisions too deep. And not just because of past misjudgments that she admittedly regretted.
In her view, the trouble that swept her out after just eight months at the helm was rooted in the difficult merger in July of the two struggling Lutheran campuses. As the newly formed seminary’s first president, she was expected to calm the roiling waters, right the ship, and sail ahead. Easier prayed for than achieved.
“My interpretation of what happened to me and my presidency is far less about my past and far more about politics,” Latini, 47, said in an interview less than 24 hours after her ouster Wednesday evening. “There were some constituencies that were unhappy with me and used this moment.”
In a speech to the school community Thursday, Bishop James Dunlop, the new acting president, said the board had to make difficult decisions that were bad news for some and good news for others. Although mergers are hard, school officials wrote in an email Friday, the seminary had made “significant strides through our faith in God and each other” and was looking forward to continued progress.
They said they would “pray for Dr. Latini during this difficult time.”
That time had stretched into weeks, as rumors of Latini’s past went from whispers to insistent calls for her ouster.
For five years starting in 1996, Latini was executive director of OneByOne, a New York-based group that called homosexuality a form of “brokenness” that could be healed. She had disclosed that affiliation to a member of the selection committee, the Rev. J. Elise Brown, during the hiring process in early 2017. Consequently, the outrage that finally erupted on the campuses centered not only on Latini but also on school officials who did not publicly address the matter until it had become a full-blown storm. Eight trustees have since stepped down, including Brown.
As the dissension intensified, student Carla Christopher began sharing her personal experiences with what is called conversion therapy, also known as reparative therapy, a discredited form of treatment that purports to turn gay men and women straight. Major mental-health organizations say the treatment is ineffective and can inflict psychological harm. Christopher, 39, who identifies as lesbian, said she was tricked into attending a session about 20 years ago that left her depressed and suicidal.
Latini said publicly that she never supported that “horrific” treatment, and recounted her transformation from director of OnebyOne to a widely recognized advocate for LGBTQIA issues who became an associate dean of diversity and cultural competency at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Mich.
Still, the chasm between Latini and the seminary community would never be closed, said Seth Roseman, 25, of Gettysburg, a second-year student. He described the school as “bleeding.”
Latini was raised in the small Hudson Valley town of Port Jervis, N.Y., the oldest of four children born to a school superintendent and a homemaker. She grew up Roman Catholic, but her family switched to a conservative Pentecostal congregation when Latini was a teenager.
At 10, she told her mother she wanted to be a preacher. A family friend, a female minister of the AME Zion Church, took Latini under her wing. She enrolled in Elim Bible Institute and College in Lima, N.Y., and earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and contemporary ministry. During her time there, she began attending a conservative Presbyterian church. And she became director of OneByOne.
“I was young. I’ve grown past that belief, and I regret that I was a part of that,” said Latini, who went on to earn a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from Princeton Theological Seminary. “The church should be helping people accept and celebrate their diversity.”
OneByOne was never a proponent or provider of conversion therapy, said the Rev. Jeff Winter, the group’s current president and a native of Cherry Hill. He described Latini as a gifted leader and communicator who has changed her views, and been unfairly maligned.
When Latini started at United Lutheran Seminary, school leadership had to cope with two campuses — formerly Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg and Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadephia — at which faculty members had lost tenure and housing in the merger. Curricula had been revamped, classes canceled, staff let go, and the alumni connection to two individual schools now subsumed under one flagship had been frayed, Latini said.
However, there were complaints that Latini exhibited an “authoritarian management style” with students and had “rebuffed faculty” with a “locked-door policy,” according to a statement that Latini read to the board at the March 14 meeting where the group decided to terminate her.
The revelation of her past connections to OneByOne exacerbated the turmoil already in motion at the seminary, Latini said. She has not decided whether she will pursue legal action,
“We are concerned about protecting her rights, are evaluating her next steps and are deeply concerned about the vicious, unwarranted and untrue statements that have been made about her,” said Kevin Toth, her lawyer.
To help the school recover, the board has approved funding for improvements in pastoral care and behavioral health services, the hiring of a trauma specialist, and an audit that will focus on “diversity, equity and inclusion” at the seminary. Meanwhile, a search is on for a new president and trustees to fill out the board.
“I feel no joy about President Latini being fired,” said Christopher, a student leader of the United Lutheran Seminary Action Group, which formed during the controversy. “I feel like she was a woman in ministry, in a difficult situation. She was dancing a very difficult dance for her entire career. She has her own healing journey she has to go on right now, and she can’t heal at the same time that she’s helping the seminary to heal.”
The Rev. John M. Longworth, an adviser to the action group and a graduate of the former Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, said he is pleased with the proposed changes, and is coping with feelings of relief and grief.
“I know how much rebuilding will have to be done after this change,” he said. “And I’m grieving for some of the students who perhaps have had some of the shine and excitement of their entry into ministry taken away.”
Latini said she wishes them all well on their healing journey.
For herself, she plans to continue “being an advocate for people who are marginalized,” she said. “None of us does it perfectly — including me. But that’s what I want to be a part of.”
Staff writer Michael Boren contributed to this article.