Sex and the Seminary: Wake Up and Smell the Incense

It sounds like a TV miniseries hit—and may well become one—but for now “Sex and the Seminary: Preparing Ministers for Sexual Health and Justice” is an important new report on sex education in theological studies. The Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing teamed with Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York to investigate how religious professionals in selected Jewish, Christian, and nondenominational seminaries are being trained to handle the increasingly complex needs of their congregants on issues of sex and gender. Kate Ott is the study’s capable director who has produced a must-read report.

The results are mixed. To put it politely, among the schools studied there is lots of room for improvement. Take-home message: don’t rely on most religious professionals to help you handle your sexual issues, at least not until the recommendations of the study are implemented. Think twice about confiding in your religious professional about sexual matters since she or he may not have the slightest idea what you are talking about. That is the problem that this study was conceived to investigate and help to solve.

When I was in seminary a few decades ago (but apparently things have not changed much), I took a course at a Catholic seminary on Confessional Counseling. Yes, there was/is such a course teaching young men (I was the only women in the class and I did not receive the warmest welcome on record) how to handle confessions. The priest professor role-played a variety of penitents while the students took turns acting the part of the priest. One young man decomposed in the chair when the penitent confessed her alleged sin of oral sex. (Note the priest could not bring himself to act out a man who engaged in oral sex.) When pressed for a response, the young student, who was ordained a few weeks later, said, “Father, I have not had Human Sexuality yet.” I quipped that this seemed obvious. Of course he meant a class. Now with LGBTQ people seeking religious guidance, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, and erectile dysfunction part of regular television advertising, such abysmal ignorance would be pitiful if it were not so dangerous.

The seminaries that chose to be part of the research tend to be the progressive ones that are working on these matters already, schools like Chicago Theological Seminary, Jewish Theological Seminary, Pacific School of Religion, Harvard, Yale, Union, and the like. The ones I really worry about are the rest—including most Catholic seminaries—that have yet to admit the need for sex education. They simply don’t offer Birds and Bees 101, much less theological reflection on how to think about sex religiously and certainly not how to teach, preach, counsel, and encourage people to live healthy, integrated sexual lives. It is no wonder that religious reasons are so often cited to oppose justice for same-sex-loving people, or to prevent women’s access to reproductive health services. Some of the loudest voices don’t have a clue about what they are discussing.

The study includes thirty-six US seminaries whose progress is measured according to “Criteria for a Sexually Healthy and Responsible Seminary” which were created by seminary colleagues and sex-ed professionals from a variety of religious and cultural backgrounds. The criteria include having required courses in human sexuality and professional boundaries; courses in sexual ethics, LGBTQ issues, women’s issues, as well as sexual and domestic violence; integration of sexuality topics into the introductory and basic courses such as Scripture, History Pastoral Studies, etc.; and required training for faculty and staff on integrating sexuality issues into their teaching and advising, as well as attention to appropriate professional boundaries.

None of the seminaries studied met all of these goals. In fact, only ten of thirty-six even met most of them. The study sets a relatively modest but crucial threshold, providing seminaries with concrete, measurable criteria for upgrading their offerings and improving the quality of their graduates’ ministry. I applaud this study as it prods into motion a new movement for sexual literacy among religious professionals. There will be a variety of interpretations of what sex means, how it fits in with the rest of life, but there should be no opposition to teaching the basic biological facts. I know that the history of sex-ed struggles in public schools is replete with reasons not to teach “the facts,” or even what they are. But hope springs eternal.

The best news in the study is that eight of ten schools now offer some education in the prevention of sexual harassment. This is due to the distinguished and diligent work of Marie M. Fortune and the Faith Trust Institute, which has been dealing with clergy sexual abuse and professional boundary issues for decades. Seminaries are discovering it is far more cost-effective to provide training than to deal with problems. The downside to this excellent work is that if all a seminary offers about sexuality is the prevention of abuse, they risk conveying a negative view of sex. What the study points out is that sex-positive, culturally diverse approaches to human sexuality are conspicuously missing from most curricula.

It was not surprising to learn that most seminary grads do not take a course in human sexuality. But it is rather like discovering that your lawyer never studied torts or your doctor decided to skip biology. Pastors are the poor person’s shrink, though the study makes clear how ill-prepared most of them are for the task at hand.

The stained-glass ceiling rules. It is not surprising to learn that seminaries are still woefully behind in hiring and appointing women to their faculties and boards. Two thirds of the seminaries involved had fewer than 40% women in leadership and teaching positions. According to this study, when women constitute more than 40% the schools are more likely to offer full-semester sources on LGBT, feminist/womanist work, sexual violence, and the like.

In short, hiring women is good for the academic and professional life of a theological school. Deans take a note! I expect that this study will not gather dust. I hope many theological schools will wake up and smell the incense on this one, realizing that in the 21st century, when religion is increasingly a player in the public forum—for better or for worse—curricular offerings must include the basics on real people’s lives. Sex is as basic as it gets.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *