Seminaries struggle to prepare clergy in addressing sexuality

Seminaries struggle to prepare clergy in addressing sexuality

January 31, 2009

Debra Haffner, director of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing.
Thirty-six religious schools surveyed

A study released by the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing and Union Theological Seminary says United States seminaries and rabbinical schools are failing to prepare the next generation of clergy with the training they need to address sexuality issues in ministry.

The study, Sex and the Seminary: Preparing Ministers for Sexual Health and Justice, reports that sexuality courses are largely absent from most seminary curricula and degree requirements. At most institutions, students can graduate without studying sexual ethics or taking a single sexuality-based course.

"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 W. Haffner, 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." 

Sex and the Seminary is 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.

Each institution was evaluated on criteria for a sexually healthy and responsible seminary. These criteria measure sexuality content in the curriculum; institutional commitment to sexuality and gender equity; including the existence of anti-discrimination, sexual harassment and full inclusion policies; and advocacy and support for sexuality-related issues.

The survey revealed 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. Three-quarters do not offer a course in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) studies. Additionally, 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 study also noted a "stained glass ceiling" in seminaries and a lack of policies on full inclusion of women and gay, lesbian and transgender persons. Two-thirds of the seminaries surveyed have fewer than 40 percent women serving in faculty, senior administrative and trustee positions, in contrast to student populations that are frequently more than 50 percent women.

"In order to stop perpetuating the spirituality/sexuality divide, we need to take seriously this study by the Religious Institute," says Ann Hanson, UCC minister for sexuality education and justice. "When I work with adults who want to teach Our Whole Lives and other sexuality education resources to children and youth, they realize that, in order to do this, they must take a good look at their own sexual attitudes, values, feelings and experiences."

Sex and the Seminary recommends that seminaries and religious denominations develop and require competencies in sexuality for ordination to ministry. Most denominations currently do not require ministerial candidates to be competent in sexual health and education beyond sexual harassment prevention, the study noted. 

The study also recommends that the Association of Theological Schools, the accrediting body for U.S. seminaries, integrate sexuality education into its standards for ministerial formation. It calls on 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.

"Sex and the Seminary lifts up information that indicates that seminaries need to do more to provide future religious leaders a place to not only study human sexuality, but to provide opportunities for safe and healthy self-assessment," says Hanson.

The Religious Institute is sending copies of the Sex and the Seminary report to every seminary and rabbinical school in the United States.

Read it online at

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