US Clergy Not Trained on Sexual Issues, Report Says

February 13, 2009

A UMNS Report

By Linda Green*

Feb. 11, 2009

 

Seminaries in the United States are not adequately preparing future clergy to deal with sexuality issues, according to a new study, despite ongoing debates about sexuality within their denominations.


The study, titled "Sex and the Seminary: Preparing Ministers for Sexual Health and Justice," reported that sexuality courses are largely absent from most seminary curricula and degree requirements.

 

At most institutions, students can graduate without studying sexual ethics or taking a single sexuality-based course, said the Jan. 8 composite released from the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing of Westport, Conn., and Union Theological Seminary in New York.


The study said that U.S. theological education schools must do more to prepare their graduates so they can better minister to their congregants about sexual issues.


"Sexuality has to do with the way in which our bodies, our spirit and our mind respond to other people and to the way we understand our bodies as sensual," said the Rev. Traci West (photo on the left), professor of Christian Ethics and African American Studies at United Methodist-related Drew Theological School, Madison, N.J. West, who leads sexual ethics seminars, participated in the sexuality study.


Sexuality is about more than homosexuality, which has been debated within The United Methodist Church for decades, she noted. "The range of issues is so broad in the ways in which sexuality touches our lives," West explained.


Such issues include but are not limited to sexual reproduction, sexual relations in marriage, breast cancer, abuse and violence, marital counseling, sexual dysfunction, teen sexual development, family planning issues and pornography.


"The nature of sexuality is vulnerability and is a tremendous part of who we are," West said.


The United Methodist Church recognizes sexuality as "God's gift to all persons" and calls everyone "to responsible stewardship of this sacred gift." The church affirms that all people are "individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God."


'Urgent need' for training


Church and community members rely on clergy for guidance and counseling when questions about sexuality arise and they perceive clergy, regardless of training, as capable of responding, the study said. However, the reality of seminary education does not square with people's perceptions, it added.


"Sex and the Seminary" was based on surveys from 36 seminaries and rabbinical schools representing a range of Christian, Jewish and Unitarian Universalist traditions. Each institution was evaluated on criteria for a sexually healthy and responsible seminary.


Five United Methodist-related theological schools - Candler, Claremont, Drew, Garrett and United - participated in the in-depth study. Candler, Claremont and Drew were cited among the 10 leading institutions on sexuality issues and are considered sexually healthy and responsible by the study. These seminaries have a freestanding center, program, or institute that deals directly with sexuality-related issues. (Candler School of Theology in Atlanta, one of the five United Methodist-related seminaries that participated in the study, is pictured left. A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.)


In general, seminaries are not providing future clergy and religious leaders with sufficient opportunities for study, self-assessment, and ministerial formation in sexuality, the report said.


"With so many congregations embroiled in controversy over sexual-orientation issues, or struggling to address teenage sexuality, or concerned about sexual abuse, there is an urgent need for ordained clergy who understand the connections between religion and sexuality," said the Rev. Debra Haffner, lead conductor of the study and director of the Religious Institute.


"Seminaries must do more to prepare students to minister to their congregants and be effective advocates for sexual health and justice," she said.


Debates prompted study


The timing of the report is right because of the ongoing discussions in many Protestant denominations about homosexuality, which prompted the study, West said.


"A lot of those conversations have been extremely destructive, and there is a broader awareness that there are a lot of myths and misinformation about sexuality and sexual identity," she explained. "There are a lot of fears, insecurities, and there needs to be places where pastors who are expected to respond to questions from the members of congregation can have opportunity to think about 'What is my theology as it relates to sexuality?'"


Sexuality is a sacred part of life, the study noted. Clergy and other religious professionals have a unique opportunity and responsibility to guide congregations and communities through any number of sexuality-related concerns.


"Clergy need to know how to ground their responses in a way that responds to how God is calling us to be," West said. Pastors need to know how to respond to a woman who confides about breast cancer, a girl or boy who discloses his or her sexual identity, or someone who is a victim of domestic violence, she added.


There is a need for people to have a positive and healthy understanding that "sexuality is a gift from God," West said, and noted that many seminaries fail to prepare clergy with the necessary training to address the issue because "there is so much fear about sexuality among Christians."


The fear that sexuality "is innately sinful" leads to the "failure to understand that sexuality is part of who we are as human persons and that God created sexuality as something good," she pointed out.


Seminary standards suggested


Seminaries have a responsibility to equip ministers with the theological, biblical and ethical framework to respond to difficult issues that are part of the everyday life of people in the community. "It is almost as if sexuality is being discussed everywhere but in the church," West said.


The survey found that:


  • More than 90 percent of the seminaries surveyed do not require full-semester, sexuality-based courses for graduation.
  • Two-thirds of the seminaries do not offer a course in sexuality issues for religious professionals.
  • Seminaries offer three times as many courses in women's and feminist studies as they do in same-sex studies or other sexuality-related issues.
  • Sexuality-based courses are taught by senior professors or adjunct faculty, not by upcoming faculty seeking tenured positions.

Most U.S. denominations currently do not require ministerial candidates to demonstrate any academic knowledge or competency in sexual health and education issues beyond those pertaining to the prevention of sexual harassment, the study said.


The study recommended that the Association of Theological Schools, the accrediting body for U.S. seminaries, integrate sexuality education into its standards for ministerial formation. It called upon seminaries to strengthen their curricular offerings and inclusion policies, invest in faculty development and continuing education, and pursue collaboration with other institutions and advocacy groups to expand educational opportunities for seminarians regarding sexuality issues.


"This is a fantastic idea," West said. "It would be such a gift to people who are so vulnerable and who rely upon religious resources, counselors and pastors in crises situations related to sexuality."