Sex and the seminaries

A group called The Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing issued a report along with the Union Theological Seminary of New York calling on North American Theological Seminaries to offer more courses and programs to help prepare ministers, rabbis, priests, and other religious professionals to address issues of sexuality better than they now do.

Among their findings:

Future clergy and other religious professionals can graduate without taking a sexuality course. More than nine in ten of the seminaries surveyed do not require full-semester sexuality and LGBT courses for graduation. Only one seminary requires a course in sexuality issues for religious professionals, and only two require an LGBT/queer studies course.

Courses focusing on sexuality-related issues are often absent from the curriculum. Most of the seminaries in the survey do not offer full-semester sexuality-related courses. Two-thirds do not have a course in sexuality issues for religious professionals. Three-quarters do not have an LGBT/queer studies course. Where courses exist, fewer than one in ten of the seminaries offer them every semester or every year. Only one in six seminaries requires a sexual ethics course.

Women and feminist studies courses are covered much more often than any other sexuality area. The seminaries surveyed are teaching three times as many full-semester courses in women/feminist studies as they are in sexuality issues for religious professionals or LGBT/queer studies. They offer almost three times as many majors, minors, and certificates in women and feminist studies as in sexuality or LGBT/queer studies. Introductory courses cover gender and women in religion two to four times more often than sexuality or LGBT/queer topics.

The coming generation of scholars is not teaching sexuality-related courses. Curricular offerings in sexuality are faculty driven—that is, the availability of courses depends on faculty members being willing to offer them. Most (94%) full-semester sexuality-related courses are being taught either by faculty at the senior professor level or by adjunct professors and lecturers. Junior-level professors seeking tenure-track positions are generally not teaching sexuality-related courses.

There is a stained glass ceiling in seminaries. Two-thirds of the seminaries surveyed have fewer than 40% women faculty, administrative leaders, or board of trustees positions.

There is a need for full inclusion policies. More than half of the seminaries (66%) do not have policies for full inclusion of women. Half do not have policies for full inclusion of gay and lesbian persons (50%). Almost two-thirds do not have full inclusion policies for transgender persons (61%).

According to the study, there are signs of progress:

*Eight in ten of the institutions surveyed offer learning opportunities (such as classes or workshops) in sexual harassment prevention.

*Twenty-five percent of seminaries have free-standing centers or programs dedicated to a sexuality-related issue.

*Three out of four schools report that members of faculty or senior administrative staff have published on or been featured in the media addressing a sexual justice issue. LGBT issues were the most likely concerns addressed.

*Students are creating their own opportunities for sexuality-related non-curricular experiences.

*Sexuality issues are often addressed within a framework of intersecting social justice issues, such as economics, environmental issues, racial/ethnic diversity, and disability issues.

Martin Marty writes in his weekly e-newsletter, “Sightings”:

Through the years I have met with leaders and constituents of the Association of Theological Schools; I have some awareness of how many pressures are on them to add teaching personnel, field-work opportunities, and courses to deal with every kind of ethical and cultural issue of the day: pop culture, science-and-theology, war and peace, dealing with technology, and many more. All this at a time when the schools are under serious budgetary constraints. Seasoned leaders are cautioned against curricular faddism and are conscientious about sustaining integrity in biblical, theological, historical, and practical basics. So they tend to wince or groan when asked to do more and offer more for and with future ministers

But the Institute people do make a good case to be taken seriously in this report. Their two-year study finds that more than ninety percent of the thirty-six leading seminaries surveyed do not require full-semester, sexuality-based courses for graduation, and two-thirds do not offer a course in sexuality issues for religious professionals. A generational issue is involved. Mention, for example, the churches’ controversy over same-sex marriage, and in most denominations seniors will observe that it’s not much of an issue for the younger generations. They’ve generally approved it and want to move on to issues they consider more urgent. But for the next thirty years ministers will be dealing with church and synagogue issues where it is still the hottest-button kind of issue, and they need to understand the pros and cons.

As I picture it, the Institute’s concern that more seminaries deal with lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender studies in a major way will not get a hearing in denominations where there are strictures against positive dealings with church and synagogue members in LGBT camps. Yet it is hard to get around the observation that, overall, sexual issues — be they biological, theological, or moral – are the most controversial subjects in religion today. For a discussion group on the Trinity or Pelagianism (if you could get one together), you would rent a classroom. For sex and gender debates, you would crowd the field house, because everyone knows that the subject will quicken passions, lead to walk-outs, and give the press much to disseminate.

In this half-century, like it or not, understandings of human sexuality combined with issues of authority – who decides about practices? – concern every body from Mennonites to Greek Orthodox. Clerical abuse scandals have undercut trust relations in parishes and denominations. The press, understandably, “eats this up,” knowing how little anyone knows about how to handle sexual themes and incidents and how hungry elements in the public are for stories about ethical lapses in matters sexual. The Institute’s report may not please everyone, but it is an important wake-up call.

The website of The Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing is here.

Here is the executive summary of the report and here is where you may download a complete copy.

Sightings of the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion is found here.

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