1. Health
Cory Silverberg

Sex and the Seminary

By January 12, 2009

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A groundbreaking report called Sex and the Seminary: Preparing Ministers for Sexual Health and Justice was released last week and it reveals just how poorly seminaries and religious schools are preparing the next generation of religious leaders to deal with issues of gender and sexuality in their communities and congregations.

The report was a joint project of the The Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing and the Union Theological Seminary and was based on a survey of 36 leading seminaries and rabbinical schools of diverse size and geographic location, representing a range of Christian, Jewish and Unitarian Universalist traditions.

Here are some of the findings of the report:

  • More than 90% of the seminaries surveyed do not require students to complete a sexuality-based course for graduation.
  • Two-thirds of the seminaries do not offer a course in sexuality issues for religious professionals.
  • Three-quarters do not offer a course in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) studies.
  • Seminaries offer three times as many courses in women’s and feminist studies as they do in LGBT studies or other sexuality-related issues.
  • Where they exist, sexuality-based courses are being taught by senior professors or adjunct faculty, not by upcoming faculty seeking tenured positions.

The survey wasn’t all bad news. Many schools, and more particularly students at the schools, are finding ways to introduce the topic of sexuality into their studies. For example:

  • 80% of the institutions surveyed offer classes or workshops in sexual harassment prevention And most schools have sexual harassment policies for faculty, staff, and student relationships.
  • Twenty-five percent of seminaries have free standing centers or programs dedicated to a sexuality-related issue.
  • Students are creating their own opportunities for sexuality-related non-curricular experiences.
  • Many of the seminaries offer sexuality-related worship and student advocacy or support groups.
  • When sexuality is addressed it’s often addressed within a frame work of intersecting social justice issues, such as economics, environmental issues, racial/ethnic diversity, and disability issues.

In a prepared release Rev. Debra Haffner, director of the Religious Institute and a lifelong sexuality education activist points out the irony that sexuality issues are not being dealt with in seminaries:

“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. Seminaries must do more to prepare students to minister to their congregants and be effective advocates for sexual health and justice.”

Rev. Dr. Serene Jones of the Union Theological Seminary which partnered on the study adds:

“Religious leaders have a unique opportunity, and moral obligation, to help congregations and communities wrestle with the complexities of sexual health and justice. Is there any subject more important and more on-the-ground crucial than sexual health and human flourishing? This study challenges all of us who are charged with ministerial formation to look closely at the institutional environment we create to prepare our students to be active and informed – and hence to effect people from the pulpit and in the public square.”

Of course is the blanket understanding is that if you’re a religious leader, particularly one who has taken a vow of chastity, sexuality is not within your scope of practice, it makes sense that seminaries would see no reason to train their students. But as both women point out, and anyone who reads a newspaper or is a member of a religious congregation already knows, sex and sexuality are part of life, for clergy as much as for laypeople.

This study is important both in that it begins to shed light on what’s actually happening in the training of religious leaders, but also for drawing the public’s attention to the issue. With an entertainment media saturated in sex talk it’s easy for us to forget that we do need more open and honest conversations about sexuality; that in most cases more talk is better than less. This study will have many of us talking for months and years to come.

Read the Report – The Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing: Sex and the Seminary

Previously – The Moral Compass: Online Sex and Religion Project

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