|US clergy not trained on sexual issues, report says|
Students at Union Theological Seminary in New York chat during a break in classes.
A recent study has found that seminaries are not preparing future clergy to deal
with sexuality issues. A UMNS photo courtesy of Union Theological Seminary.
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.
The Rev. Traci West
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, 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
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,”
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?’”
Candler School of Theology in Atlanta is
one of five United Methodist-related seminaries that participated in the study.
A UMNS file photo by Mike DuBose.
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
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.
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.”
*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn.
News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Sex and Seminary Report
Drew Theological Seminary
Candler School of Theology
Claremont School of Theology
Garrett-Evangelical Theological School
United Theological School
Association of Theological Schools
United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry
Union Theological Seminary