Commission Names Sexual Ethics Coordinator

February 13, 2009

A UMNS Report

By Linda Bloom*

Feb. 11, 2009


In the eyes of the United Methodist agency charged with promoting its female membership, institutional sexism and sexual misconduct are not just "women's issues."

That is one reason why the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women has hired a clergyman to coordinate efforts on sexual ethics. The position is a new one, both for the commission and the denomination, according to M. Garlinda Burton, the commission's chief executive.

The Rev. Darryl Stephens, currently a visiting assistant professor of Christian social ethics and Methodist studies at United Methodist-related Candler School of Theology, will begin working part time in March for the commission and start on a full-time basis on April 27. He is an ordained deacon in the denomination's Texas Annual Conference.

The plan, Burton explained, is to create a "strategic, coordinated and theologically solid program" for sexual ethics, focusing on prevention, intervention and education.

Stephens' duties will include the creation of training resources specific to The United Methodist Church and its clergy and lay leadership; development and evaluation of policies and procedures within annual conferences and church-related entities regarding sexual misconduct complaints; and coordination of intra-agency resources on the prevention and just resolution of such complaints.

Burton believes Stephens will bring "a fresh perspective" on how to understand, prevent and address sexual misconduct by church leaders. "His grounding in Christian ethics and gender issues brings a needed dimension to our notion of what it means to honor all people as sacred and reduce the exploitation of the vulnerable," she said.

In an interview with United Methodist News Service, Stephens explained that Christian ethics can be compartmentalized into personal, professional or social ethics and sexual ethics crosses into all three of those areas. "Sexual ethics is deeply personal; is, of course, very relevant to professional boundaries and behavior...and sexual ethics is also a social issue. Our society is constructed with gender roles," he said.

He pointed to the "Safe Sanctuaries" program for children and youth as a positive step the church has taken to address sexual ethics concerns. The program establishes appropriate boundaries and protocols "that will really help ensure the safety of children and youth," he added.

"What we are an equivalent degree of awareness and recognition of appropriate sexual boundaries and rules for adult relationships involving clergy," Stephens said. "At the heart of this is the essential power and balance between a professional and someone seeking that professional's help."

The role of the clergyperson is to recognize the degree of trust involved in that relationship. "When sex enters a pastoral relationship, it's a violation of trust, it's a violation of power and boundaries," he noted. "It's not an issue of two consenting adults."

Stephens, 40, grew up in Atlanta and lived in Texas for 15 years, where he earned a bachelor's degree at Rice University, taught physics and chemistry, and graduated with a master of divinity degree from United Methodist-related Perkins School of Theology in 2001. He returned to the Atlanta area that year to teach and study at Candler School of Theology, where he received his doctorate in 2006.

His wife, Myka Kennedy Stephens, is a deaconess candidate with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and will be commissioned in April. They have two children, Zeke, 3, and Cecily, 11 months old.

Stephens, who calls himself a "committed" ethicist, has devoted considerable time to the examination of the denomination's Social Principles and co-founded a Wesleyan/Methodist Ethics Group in 2008 through the Society of Christian Ethics. His doctoral dissertation was entitled "A Witness of Words: The United Methodist Social Principles as Moral Discourse and Institutional Practice."

He believes his new position with the commission will allow him "to continue much of that work in a way that will make a huge difference in the lives of people in the pews and in the pulpit."