Sex and seminarians: Are clergy prepared for debates on sexuality?

Each new academic year a new crop of seminarians enters the buildings and institutes that will eventually make them into the next generation of clergymen. But will they be trained to deal with the hot-button topics of sexuality that roil American denominations in good times and bad?

Background

In January 2009, Union Theological Seminary in New York and the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing published the findings of a study titled “Sex and the Seminary: Preparing Ministers for Sexual Health and Justice.” The 52-page study examined the readiness of seminarians and future pastors to deal with sexuality issues on the job – and found them sorely unprepared.

The survey examined 36 schools, predominantly in the mainline Protestant or interdenominational and nondenominational traditions. Four rabbinical schools and one Catholic institution were also among the 36.

The study found that the majority of U.S. seminaries do a poor to middling job of preparing students for dealing with human sexuality, gender, sexual identity and other sexual-related issues from religious and theological perspectives.

The survey revealed that:

  • More than 90 percent of the surveyed seminaries do not require full-semester, sexuality-based courses for graduation.
  • Two-thirds 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.
  • The next generation of scholars is not addressing sexuality issues.

The report commended several institutions for their sexuality training but called on other seminaries to beef up their sexuality courses and other training.

A follow-up look  at the institutions in 2012 found that 20 seminaries, instead of the ten in 2009, met the criteria set forth by the Religious Institute in regards to courses and resources on sexuality and gender. As of June 2013, 28 institutions met the criteria. The Religious Institute has cited this as great progress, but they will also continue to work towards religious teaching institutions that incorporate gender and sexuality studies in their curriculums.

“Today’s clergy are faced with ever-complex sexuality issues, ranging from congregant online affairs to welcoming transgender people,” said Rev. Debra Haffner, executive director of the Religious Institute, wrote for the Huffington Post. “The sexuality issues that clergy must sort out over the course of ministry aren’t going to go away. As more sexually healthy and responsible clergy successfully meet these challenges, it is my heartfelt desire that we continue building on this progress, moving toward a time when all seminaries meet these criteria.”

Why it matters

The study concludes that at a time when religious denominations are embroiled in numerous conflicts over sexuality (homosexuality, marriage, abortion, etc.), the next generations of pastors and other religious professionals will remain unprepared to deal with these issues.

Schools commended in the report

Additional schools with sexuality-related centers listed in the report

News articles and research

National sources

  • The Center for the Study of Religion and Sexuality

    The Center for the Study of Religion and Sexuality is a part of Columbia University’s Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality; the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life; and the Barnard Center for Research on Women. It is in place to provide forums and resources in a world where intersections of sexuality and religion are often troubled.

  • Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

    The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is based in Louisville, Ky., and defines itself as an evangelical Christian organization formed in response to the perceived threat of feminism. Its mission statement reads, in part, “men and women are equal in the image of God, but maintain complementary differences in role and function. In the home, men lovingly are to lead their wives and family as women intelligently are to submit to the leadership of their husbands. In the church, while men and women share equally in the blessings of salvation, some governing and teaching roles are restricted to men.”

  • Faith Trust Institute

    Faith Trust Institute works to educate different types of faith communities about domestic and sexual violence. Marie Fortune is its founder and senior analyst. It is sponsoring the National Declaration by Religious and Spiritual Leaders to Address Violence Against Women, a petition that has attracted almost 2,000 signatories from the spectrum of religious faiths. Contact executive director Jane Fredericksen.

  • Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice

    The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice in Washington, D.C., pushes for more health care options for women, not fewer. It sponsors a National Black Religious Summit on Sexuality each year. Michael Mitchell is director of communications.

  • Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics

    The Religious Consultation on Population, Reproductive Health and Ethics is a multifaith organization of religious scholars interested in reproductive health and other issues. Daniel Maguire, professor of moral and theological ethics at Marquette University, is president.

  • Daniel Aleshire

    Daniel Aleshire directs the Association of Theological Schools, which is based in Pittsburgh, Pa. The association has 251 member schools with 80,140 students total, of whom 64 percent are men and 36 percent are women. The ATS posts a number of tables on seminary enrollment.

  • Ellen T. Armour

    Ellen T. Armour is director of the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender and Sexuality at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and a professor in the Divinity School. Her research interests include feminist theology; theories of sexuality, race, gender, disability and embodiment; and contemporary continental philosophy.

  • Dorothy C. Bass

    Dorothy C. Bass is director of the Valparaiso Project on the Education and Formation of People in Faith. This project, funded by the Lilly Endowment and based at Valparaiso University in Indiana, works to develop resources to help people live out the practices of Christian faith with integrity. Bass can speak about teaching children to resist the pressure to always buy more and do more – how families can learn to slow down, take Sabbath time and rest. Bass is co-editor of Way to Live: Christian Practices for Teens and of Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be, published in 2006.

  • Ann Braude

    Ann Braude is director of the women’s studies in religion program at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass. She teaches a course titled “Religion, Gender and Politics: A Transnational Perspective.” Her books include Sisters and Saints: Women and American Religion.

  • Miguel A. De La Torre

    Miguel A. De La Torre teaches social ethics at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, where he directs the school’s Justice and Peace Institute. Issues he can discuss include religion’s effects on class/race/gender oppression, Santeria, Cuba and liberation theology. His numerous books include, as co-editor, Rethinking Latino(a) Religion and Identity (Pilgrim Press, 2006) and Handbook of Latina/o Theologies (Chalice Press, 2006).

  • Annmarie Early

    Annmarie Early is an associate professor of counseling at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va. In 2008, she spoke at a leadership conference for Mennonite pastors on the subject of sexual wholeness.

  • Marie M. Fortune

    The Rev. Marie M. Fortune is founder and senior analyst at the Faith Trust Institute in Seattle, which works to end sexual and domestic violence, particularly in faith communities. She co-edited Forgiveness and Abuse: Jewish and Christian Reflections and is a United Church of Christ minister.

  • Mary Hunt

    Mary Hunt is co-founder and co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual in Silver Spring, Md. She is a Roman Catholic who describes herself as a feminist theologian.

  • Joel L. Kushner

    Joel L. Kushner is director of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion’s Institute for Judaism and Sexual Orientation, which is in Los Angeles.

  • Lori Hope Lefkovitz

    Lori Hope Lefkovitz is a professor of gender and Judaism at Northeastern University and former director of Kolot: The Center for Jewish Women’s and Gender Studies. She can discuss general questions about gender and Judaism and the place of sexuality in the RRC’s curriculum on sexuality. Contact 215-576-0800 ext. 147, lefkovitz@rrc.edu.

  • Anne Lapidus Lerner

    Anne Lapidus Lerner is director and founder of the Jewish Women’s Studies Program, director of the Jewish Feminist Research Group and assistant professor of Jewish literature at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. She is also faculty adviser to its Isha El Akhota: The Women’s Center.

  • R. Albert Mohler Jr.

    R. Albert Mohler Jr. is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., and hosts a weekday call-in radio program. In 2001, he chaired the executive committee of the Greater Louisville Billy Graham Crusade. Mohler’s blog often mentions Graham.

  • Emily North

    Emily North is pastor of Shalom Mennonite Congregation in Harrisonburg, Va. She taught a class with Duane Beck, pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church in Raleigh, N.C., Together, called “Sex and the Pulpit” during a leadership training seminar for Mennonite clergy at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg.

    Contact: 540-432-1659.
  • Lallene Rector

    Lallene Rector is president of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill. She is also director of its WomenIMAGES center.

  • Benjamin Reynolds

    Benjamin Reynolds is director of the LGBTQ Religious Studies Center at Chicago Theological Seminary.

  • Bernard Schlager

    Bernard Schlager is executive director of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry, described as “the only Center for LBGTQ issues and religion established by a seminary or school of religion in the world.” Affiliated with the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif., it has held conferences for LGBT religious leaders.

  • Wendy Cadge

    Wendy Cadge is an associate professor of sociology at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. She has written widely about homosexuality and Christianity, especially as it pertains to mainline Protestantism.

    She has also taught a class about sexuality issues at a Lutheran seminary and said she found the students hungry for information, but struggling with how to put it in context.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Lisa Sowle Cahill

    Lisa Sowle Cahill is the J. Donald Monan Professor of Theology at Boston College and a veteran writer and commentator on issues of sex and gender in Catholicism. She is the author of Benedict XVI and the U.S. Bishops: Political Differences and the Difference They Make.

  • Marvin M. Ellison

    Marvin M. Ellison is Willard S. Bass Professor of Christian Ethics at Bangor Theological Seminary in Maine, author of Same-Sex Marriage? A Christian Ethical Analysis and an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

  • Sharon Miller

    Sharon Miller is the principal of Ben Gamla Charter School in Hollywood, Fla., the first publicly funded Hebrew-language school in the U.S.

    In 2008, she spoke at a leadership conference for Mennonite pastors titled “Embodying Sexual Wholeness in a Broken World” held at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. She told how she had to lead her congregants through a crisis involving a convicted sexual offender who wanted to attend their church.

    Contact: 954-342-4064.
  • Ann Pellegrini

    Ann Pellegrini is an associate professor of religious studies at New York University in New York City. Among her areas of interest is religion and sexuality and gender.

    She notes that the study’s recommendation for sexuality training within a given seminary’s faith tradition places it within the spirit of religious pluralism and moral complexity.

  • Traci West

    The Rev. Traci West is professor of ethics and African-American studies at Drew University in Madison, N.J. Among her specialties are welfare policy and justice issues in church and society. She wrote the entry “Agenda for the Churches: Uprooting a National Policy of Morally Stigmatizing Poor Single Black Moms” for the book Welfare Policy: (Feminist Critiques).

    She participated in the 2009 study.

In the South

  • Elizabeth Bounds

    Elizabeth Bounds is associate director of the Graduate Division of Religion at Emory University in Atlanta. She co-wrote the book Welfare Policy: (Feminist Critiques) (Pilgrim Press, 1999).

  • Theodore Brelsford

    Theodore Brelsford is a former assistant professor of theology at Emory University in Atlanta and is now a pastor at Orchard Park Community Church in New York. He is co-editor of Contextualizing Theological Education.

  • Laura Olson

    Laura Olson is a professor of political science at Clemson University in Clemson, S.C., and is also an expert on women and gender in religion. Her books include, as author, Filled With Spirit and Power: Protestant Clergy in Politics and, as co-author, Women With a Mission: Religion, Gender and the Politics of Women Clergy. She is also co-author of a paper on mainline Protestant congregations and homosexuality.

  • Robert Prichard

    The Rev. Robert Prichard is a professor of Christianity in America at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. He is the author of A Wholesome Example: Sexual Morality and the Episcopal Church.

  • Amy-Jill Levine

    Amy-Jill Levine of Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School is a professor of New Testament studies and of Jewish studies and director of the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender and Sexuality. She can comment on Christian-Jewish dynamics and representations of Jews by Christians throughout the centuries. She was co-editor of A Feminist Companion to Mariology. She is an expert on sexuality and the bible, religion and gender, Jewish-Christian relations and the historical Jesus.

  • Elizabeth Johnson Walker

    Elizabeth Johnson Walker is an associate professor of pastoral care and counseling at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. She teaches a course in spirituality and sexuality.

    Contact: 502-895-3411 ext. 433.
  • C. Gary Barnes

    C. Gary Barnes is an associate professor of biblical counseling at Dallas Theological Seminary in Dallas. He is also an ordained minister and a licensed psychologist who specializes in marriage and family research, counseling and training.

    In October 2009, he will lead a workshop for Christian leaders on “sacred sexuality” at Dallas Theological Seminary.

In the Midwest

  • Sarah C. Conklin

    Sarah C. Conklin is an associate professor of nursing and health studies at Northern Illinois University. She wrote a paper examining the relationship between spiritual formation and sexuality formation in seminaries.

  • Barbara Darling-Smith

    Barbara Darling-Smith is an assistant professor of religion at Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill. She teaches a course on religion and sexuality and is interested in sexuality and gender within Judaism and Christianity.

  • Patricia Beattie Jung

    Patricia Beattie Jung is chair and professor of theology at St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City. She is an expert on Catholic feminism and sexuality.

  • Keith Graber Miller

    Keith Graber Miller is a professor of Bible and religion at Goshen College in Goshen, Ind. He spoke at a leadership conference for Mennonite pastors titled “Embodying Sexual Wholeness in a Broken World” held at Eastern Mennonite Seminary.

  • Douglas Mohrmann

    Douglas Mohrmann is an associate professor of religion at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Mich. He contributed a chapter titled “Is Anyone Listening? The Waning Voice of the Bible in Sexual Ethics” to the book Religion and Sexuality: Passionate Debates.

    Contact: 616-949-5300.

In the West

  • Steven Tracy

    Steven Tracy is a professor of theology and ethics at Phoenix Seminary in Phoenix, Ariz. Gender and sexuality issues are among his specialties. He and his wife are the founders of Mending the Soul Ministries, which focuses on Christian married couples.

    Contact: 866-535-5044.
  • Julie Hayden

    Julie Hayden teaches a course at Southern California Seminary, an evangelical school in El Cajon, titled “Ethics of Sexual Care and Human Sexuality.”

  • Naomi Sheindel Seidman

    Naomi Sheindel Seidman is a professor of Jewish culture at Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif. She has written about Judaism and gender and Judaism and sexuality and is an expert in queer studies.

  • Laura Simmons

    Laura Simmons is an associate professor of Christian ministries at George Fox Evangelical Seminary in Newburg, Ore. One of her areas of expertise is seminary education.