My name is Zak Wear, and I attended a seminary called Starr King School for the Ministry (SKSM) between 2012 and 2014. I made the choice of going to seminary because like a lot of other young people out of college, I was seeking opportunities to grow and center myself as a person.
Instead, I experienced SKSM as a step on the path of waking up to how our culture and institutions support narcissistic behavior. This isn't the educational experience I paid almost $40K for. Looking back, after extensive therapy and reading about Narcissistic Personality Disorder, I think I experienced instances of psychological manipulation and abuse that coincide with typical patterns found in narcissistic abuse. Because of this experience I developed a daily addiction to cannabis as a way to get myself to sleep and disconnect from the self-doubt instilled by gaslighting. Now after 4 years, I feel recovered enough from the trauma (and clean of cannabis since April ‘18,) I’m back to speak to this issue.
The Unitarian Universalist (UU) system is blind to the realities of how Narcissistic Personality Disorder, sociopathy and psychopathy (Cluster B) impacts our ministry and communities. Based on how the UU system is designed, it is possible the ministry disproportionately favors personalities on this spectrum, just like any other corporate system. This problem may contribute to the stagnation of UU congregations.
Thus, a protest of Starr King School for the Ministry.
I hope you choose to participate in a rational dialogue about the realities of how NPD, sociopathy and psychopathy impact our daily lives. I realize a lot of people feel a lot of pain reading this. I had to feel my way through a lot of pain before writing it. This may even feel unreal to you, and I don’t fault you for that at all. Becoming ever more self-aware in this crazy, Trumpian world is painful and confusing. I only hope to be the best community organizer I can be in starting this difficult and wide-reaching conversation. In my view, there’s no way to start it without being completely honest.
By protesting my former seminary, I have the following goals:
Offer an opportunity for seminarians and UUs to learn about narcissistic abuse and codependency. If what I'm doing wakes up a few seminarians or lay people to how they are manipulated by narc behaviors in their family, workplaces, at school or places of worship, then great. Other seminaries, like Pacific School of Religion, offer significantly more professional ministerial education at a lower cost.
Offering an opportunity for meditation. Meditation makes one resilient to the often subtle nature of psychological abuse and manipulation.
Organize socially-conscious people to test the possibilities of teaching meditation while practicing counter-narcissistic community organizing. Anyone is welcome to talk with me or meditate with me as I protest outside the school.
Get a refund. I’m tired of paying $473/mo (a gradutated repayment that goes up soon) to service the student loan debt I accrued at SKSM.
It’s possible that I’ll never get a refund, but based on this experience, I think one is owed. Even if you totally disagree with the views I express here, you can help myself and a lot of other people by doing your own research about narcissistic/sociopathic abuse.
By protesting my former seminary, these are NOT my goals:
To convince anyone that Rev. Rosemary Bray McNatt, Rebecca Parker or Fred Garcia have NPD. In my view they demonstrated deeply narcissistic behaviors, and I’m going to talk frankly about my experience of those behaviors. I trust that reasonable people who learn about NPD will be able to see the unmasking process for themselves and rely on their own awareness, which is the point of this whole exercise.
To be right. I didn’t become a community organizer, I didn’t manage the campaign to make Richmond the first rent control city in 33 years to be right. I do this because our culture is corrupt and this is the best idea I got to push for our culture to change in this respect. If I’m wrong about what I say or do, I want people to be real with me about what they think and feel. Only through open dialogue can we wake each other up.
To make anyone feel threatened in any way. This is a peaceful protest action. While I acknowledge stream of consciousness emails and social media posts can be a shocking thing to read, they are not threats and never were. I think stream of consciousness writing has potential in functioning as a method of protest. It’s possible that stream of consciousness functions to trigger narcissists into exposing their lack of empathic capacity, while empowering the codependent to learn how to reject gaslighting and build real trust in their interpretation of reality. In my experience, people who have empathy and self-awareness are able to reach back without feeling threatened by an honest dialogue about feelings and trauma.
To make narcissists self-aware. I’m not here to play, “logical” debates in the hopes of defeating a narcissist, that never works. That said, I am willing to participate in rational, restorative dialogue about what happened at SKSM.
Why Narcissistic Abuse? Where’s the Evidence?
When normal people have conflicts, they feel free to share their feelings and resolve to do better next time. But the core of narcissistic abuse is centered around the need for the narcissist to covertly or overtly dominate others in order to get supply and power. As healthy people realize how the narcissist is being manipulative or underhanded, the narcissist will find ways to devalue and then discard those people. To dominate them. We see this in workplaces all the time— a narcissistic manager tests you to see if you’ll be a crony for them, but if you hold your boundaries, or speak out against their underhanded behavior, they will start playing games. Eventually the narcissistic manager will pin a mistake on you and hit you like a truck. You almost lose your job, and the games continue. “You’re fired” as Trump grins with glee.
This is not the kind of thing that normal people do, but in my view it happened at SKSM.
In my experience, someone reached out to me with concerns that the Presidential search process was being manipulated by the outgoing President. As a board member I felt a fiduciary responsibility to listen. I chose later to not disclose the source to the school. Hours before Rosemary Bray McNatt’s appointment was announced, I discussed her appointment with the President of the student body at the time and the incoming student board trustee. I felt it was important to have those meetings so we could manage the student body’s emotional state at the time.
For those actions, I received a traumatic storm of threats from people who call themselves ministers. Expulsion, civil litigation, felony charges. The school spent over $50K of our tuition on a management consultant so they could call this violence, “restorative justice.” This is not the kind of thing normal people do.
Rather, I think we saw a distinct pattern of behavior in this situation. That pattern is a complete lack of empathy, a drive for domination over individuals, and a pathological attachment to an alternative reality where one party is completely right, and one party interpretation is completely wrong (gaslighting.) This pattern is often what Cluster B manifests. We fail, culturally-speaking, at the assumption that this pattern of behavior is human nature— it’s not, normal people without Cluster B disorders are trained to think and feel it is just normal conflict, to have blindness to narcissism.
There is no specific evidence that I have about the leaders I’m calling out in this protest. That’s why I, admittedly in a provocative way, challenged them to taking full paper and pencil psychological evaluations by a county healthcare facility. My statements are simply opinions about their patterns of behavior, and I share instances of what that behavior is. I found their behaviors at times callous, calculating and manipulative in ways that normal people, just don’t.
Fred Garcia, our former Board Chair, is an international crisis management consultant who works for major corporations, including major companies in China. Based on reading his books and his behavior at Starr King, in my view his work gaslights the public with false narratives of corporate responsibility. I think he used those talents on UU seminarians, and it directly and needlessly harmed dozens of people.
Because there is already so much content about this story, here is a list of articles reporting events at SKSM. They include source statements from students, faculty and staff. To help control length, I’m going to focus on sharing statements I wrote at the time (never released) with analysis.
2015 Draft Statement On SKSM
In February 2015 I drafted this statement in consultation with a minister. I never released it, I was too traumatized to continue doing anything about SKSM. Around that time I applied and was accepted to Union Theological Seminary with an average scholarship offer, but didn’t have it in me to continue pursuing ministry.
The day Fred Garcia instructed Miakota Taylor to threaten me with expulsion, I went to the shoreline in Richmond and seriously contemplated suicide for the first time in years. Luckily I never felt suicidal since that day, cannabis addiction took over instead. But the fact that Fred Garcia lied to UU World reporter Elaine McArdle about whether an expulsion threat occurred made me feel a deeper level of trauma, silencing depression and anger than I could have anticipated. I regret only speaking with McArdle off the record at the time. I felt that coming out about what happened would diminish my ability to eventually become a minister. I tried drafting a statement with the help of a retired minister, but never recovered enough to properly edit the statement, let alone continue pursuing ministry.
Which Reality? Susan Ritchie and Rebecca Parker
In UU ministry we are taught organizational development theory by an Edmund Friedman. Specifically, Friedman discusses a theory of organizational toxicity he calls, “triangulation.” Triangulation is a technical way of describing when you talk about someone behind their back. Ministers are taught to never triangulate and speak directly with whom you have an issue.
The problem is, if you’re dealing with a narcissistic leader, you’re only exposing yourself to more abusive behavior by confronting them. You’re exposed to gaslighting, losing your job, your career prospects, a complaint to the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, any manner of retaliation. The stakes are high and defensive, dominance-centered leaders will say the correct things but ultimately, are incapable of earning real trust. They groom for loyalty, for people who will give narcissistic supply without a lot of problems, and call it trust.
SKSM’s faculty and staff were divided and exhausted by Rebecca Parker’s administration before she abruptly announced retirement in the 2012-13 academic year (an announcement that came shortly after an open letter was being developed for faculty and staff to sign.) Parker, ostensibly with the advice of Fred Garcia at the time, chose to run away from losing face.
Rev. Susan Ritchie was pushing the bandwagon against Parker’s admin and operated as a thought leader on Parker’s exit. Parker in turn recruited Garcia and her tribe to fight for their reality— that there’s an insurrection, and it’s delusional and toxic. These tribes were absolute in fighting for their two separate realities. You could choose one yourself— a black and white where one was opportunistically triangulating against their superior or the other, a President who lacked vulnerability in leadership and fostered a hostile working environment.
Both realities had enough truth to recruit followers. Without an analysis about narcissistic behavior however, the community lacked the intellectual and emotional insight to acknowledge the wider dynamic of lies and manipulation.
Sadhia Arabi reports, “According to Dr. Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, covert manipulators rely on our empathic nature to get us to fall for them. They prey on our sympathy and our compassion, our willingness to give toxic people the benefit of the doubt. That is why wolves in sheep’s clothing get away with their behavior, time and time again.”
I think I was empathy trapped by Ritchie. My biggest mistake was allowing myself to operate as a codependent. With toxic school leadership and further toxic leadership from Ritchie, there were no healthy models for students to learn from. The education I paid for just wasn’t available at the school, so I’m asking for my money back.
These women have decades of experience as ministers under their belts. Instead of putting that experience to good use for the benefit of the community, both covertly triangulated for personal gain and used their respective moralisms to justify themselves and rally support. So students, faculty and staff were put in a divisive bind over which reality, was reality— Ritchie’s or Parker’s. Someone had to get the benefit of the doubt, and both had their own appeals for compassion.
Triangulation theory leads one to assume that choosing neither reality in this situation would somehow diminish the scope or intensity of conflict. By not being involved, one makes themselves an, “Apath” or apathetic to narcissistic/sociopathic transactions as they occur and traumatize other people. You can consider the possibility that both leaders demonstrated narcissistic delusion and formed what Dr. Jane McGregor aptly calls, Sociopathic-Empath-Apath Triads (SEAT) to pull the strings on their respective tribes of codependents in the seminary. For me personally, this theory eliminates the cognitive dissonance created by these two realities and opens one up to realize on a concrete basis how narcissistic abuse can operate on a high level in organized religion.
My involvement in the Presidential search crisis began with Rev. Susan Ritchie’s appeal. Below you’ll see the email chain she and I shared back in 2014. Considering this exchange, we’re left with the question, who is gaslighting in this situation? Is Ritchie gaslighting students, or Parker? Someone lied in such a way to alter my and other’s perception of reality, and in either case, I want my money back.
Thank you for your time and attention.
I want a free mind and heart for you because I didn’t have the opportunity to put the word to the thing I always found puzzling, infuriating, and strange about some people in positions of power and authority.
We live in a culture where covert narcissistic delusion and abuse is not only unseen but supported, and it is important for us as a society to expand our awareness of this issue. 1 in 10 are on spectrum for being narcissistic, sociopathic, or psychopathic, and individuals with such personality disorders covertly and overtly psychologically abuse others for power and domination. Your race, class, religion and education attainment bear no impact on one's odds of living without an empathic conscience. In my view, this problem is a core reason why organized religion continues to decay.
In my view, a number of SKSM faculty and staff demonstrated spectrum of covert and overt narcissistic and co-dependent behaviors before, during and after my attendance at the school.
As was the case with Shambhala International, even the largest, most prestigious buddhist organization in the US is now being exposed by sexual assault survivors for being a complex cult. Narcissists by virtue of their disorder try to engineer the same codependent behaviors involved in cults.
Deprogramming narcissistic abuse is very similar to deprogramming someone from a cult, like Dr. Jeckyll finally letting Hyde out— it’s not pretty, I’ve been there. You could say I’m still on that path. Keeping it real is necessary to letting both sides vanish.
Rather, at this point I feel like the morning plague mortician just rolling through to see who else is keeling over from narcissistic abuse. Thanks again and hope to see you on the path.