Proposed Synod action would confess #ChurchToo inequality, abuse

The 2021 General Synod of the United Church of Christ, meeting July 11-18, will consider 11 resolutions and several bylaw changes. This is one in a series of articles about them. Readers can view an initial summary here and find full texts at the Synod website.

The #MeToo movement, focused on abuse and harassment of women in society, has a church equivalent.

“From a sloppy kiss on the cheek and a squeeze low around the waist during coffee hour to a sexual ‘joke’ in a meeting, sexual harassment is more common than we want to believe,” said the Rev. Elizabeth Durant of Portland, Ore. She is part of a team that developed a resolution on the subject that will be considered by this summer’s General Synod.

“Women and nonbinary clergy are uniquely vulnerable as they stand in the pulpit,” says the introduction to the resolution, which the UCC’s Central Pacific Conference first adopted in 2019 and is now forwarding to Synod. More and more, its says, ministers “have begun to share their #MeToo #ChurchToo stories of discrimination, sexual harassment and abuse in the congregations where they serve.”

Screenshot of Synod webpage containing resolutions, 3/18/21
Visitors to this web page can find texts of the resolutions that the 2021 General Synod will consider.

A Commitment to Gender Safety and Equity in Ministry Settings” will go to a committee of delegates for review starting July 15. To be approved, the resolution will require a two-thirds vote of delegates in a plenary session.

“This resolution confesses our complicity with systems of sexist oppression, and asks the Church to explore ways to promote gender safety,” said the Conference in submitting the resolution. “It asks the Church to empower women and non-binary persons, both lay and ordained, to raise issues regarding sexism and discrimination, free of censure or threat of retaliation.”

‘You’re too attractive’

Durant, who chairs Central Pacific’s Justice and Witness Ministry Team, said the drafters of the resolution heard some of those #ChurchToo stories. She shared these examples of things that church members have actually said to clergywomen and non-binary ministers:

  • “I don’t have a problem with a female pastor, but my husband really appreciates a strong, intellectual voice in the pulpit.”
  • “You can’t preach in those shoes. No one will take you seriously.”
  • “I can guess the dimensions under that robe.”
  • “I just think you’re too attractive to consider a call to ministry.”
  • “Maybe you have trouble with the microphone because women’s voices are higher.”

“Some of the comments above were made by women to women,” Durant said. “Sexist microaggressions and sexual harassment are a problem for everyone in the church. Most congregations have a Safe Church policy to prevent abuse of children, but few have a code of conduct for members.”

Fear of reporting

“In many cases, we’ve done the Safe Church policy, but there continues to be that underlying continuation of marginalization,” said the Rev. Linda Jaramillo, also of Portland. A retired UCC national officer, she was Central Pacific’s moderator when the Conference adopted the resolution. Equal pay for women is certainly one issue, she said. “But it’s more than salary. It’s around mutuality of women in actual leadership. Sometimes congregations call a woman and then don’t make the shift to create an environment of safety for her spirit and body; to be conscientious about how she’s supported.”

“There are barriers to being able to talk openly about what we experience.”

The Rev. Elizabeth Durant, Chair, Justice and Witness Ministry Team, Central Pacific Conference, UCC

She said the Conference was careful to name similar issues experienced by non-binary clergy: “We didn’t want it to be focused just on the female gender as we’ve known it.”

Creating a culture where it’s OK to report harassment and abuse is one of the resolution’s goals. “There are barriers to being able to talk openly about what we experience: fear of sanction, scrutiny, no clear process but fitness review, worry about reputation, and more,” Durant said.

The resolution also cites #ChurchToo research by the Faith Trust Institute. And it includes U.S. statistics on sexual violence from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

‘Right not to be touched or abused’

If the Synod adopts the resolution as proposed, it would affirm “the physical and sexual autonomy of women and non-binary persons.” It would name their rights:

  • “not to have any other person invade her/their personal space without permission”
  • “not to be touched, or abused, either emotionally or physically”
  • “to express gender in the ways she/they choose”
  • “to communicate autonomously, without reproach or censure based in sexism and misogyny”
  • “to expect that any such action will in no way be held against her/them for any reason in the workplace, including ministry settings, or in any social situation.”

The resolution would call on the whole UCC to reinforce “covenants and standards of behavior.”

It would also confess its own “complicity with systems of sexist oppression that inhibit and limit leadership.” It would ask the whole church to:

  • “Promote gender safety, to empower women and non-binary persons, both lay and ordained”
  • “Raise issues regarding sexism and discrimination”
  • Reinforce “the covenants and standards of behavior” that bind Conferences, clergy members and lay leaders together
  • “Commit to gender equity in staff compensation”

And it would proclaim the need to, at the same time, “address the threats and realities of violence that racism, transphobia, heterosexism, classism and ableism impose on the daily life and leadership of women and non-binary persons in church.”

A ‘necessary task’

Central Pacific has begun to model what can happen when such a resolution is passed. Its Justice and Witness Team urged the Conference “to start speaking openly about the ways that ministry is, at times, a hostile work environment for female and non-binary clergy,” Durant said. “Small, confidential groups met in 2020.” And this month, on June 5, a Conference-wide workshop will address gender safety and equity.

“Changing sexist church culture is a daunting task,” Durant said, “but a necessary one, if we are to live into the fullness of our call as people of faith.”


[This article was updated on June 22, 2021, to indicate that a committee of delegates will begin considering the resolution on July 15. A previous version said July 16.]

Categories: United Church of Christ News

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