(Photo: AP/Chris Gardner)
While debates about same-sex marriage, homosexuality, and other sexual issues loom over schools, churches, and political discussions, religious leaders are sorely unprepared to deal with these issues on the job, according to new research.
In fact, two-thirds of the seminaries and pastoral education programs studied for the new report do not offer courses in sexuality issues for religious professionals and three-quarters do not offer courses in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) studies.
The Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, Healing, and Union Theological Seminary in New York decided to take a fresh look at how seminaries are preparing religious leaders for the outside world.
They discovered that the majority of them do a poor job of preparing students of religion to deal with human sexuality, gender, sexual identity and other sexual-related issues from religious and theological perspectives.
“The study concludes that at a time when religious denominations are embroiled in numerous conflicts over sexuality, homosexuality, same-sex marriage and other sexual issues our generation of pastors and other religious professionals today remain unprepared to deal with these issues,” the report says.
Other findings include more than 90 percent of the seminaries surveyed for the studydo not require a full-semester on sexuality-based courses for graduation.
Moreover, seminaries offer three times as many courses in women’s and feminist studies as they do in the studies dealing with sexuality.
Roy Hargrave, senior pastor of Riverbend Church in Ormond Beach, Fla. and a member of several national Christian leader organizations, says “one of the primary things at stake in the church of America” is what it has to say about homosexuality.
“There is backbiting within churches and denominations about the way we are supposed to treat homosexuality,” he said. “Southern Baptists just the other day were accused of being hateful people and pastors were hateful toward homosexuals," he told leaders at a recent Southern Baptist Convention forum.
“Sin is not biological,” Hargrave said. “It is spiritual.”
Hargrave said American society promotes homosexuality, and the church is not immune.
“The churches of God are beginning to capitulate to this,” he said. “They are even writing articles saying that if we don’t grow up we are going to lose our young people because they have a different view about sexuality.”
“You can have a different view all you want to, friends,” he said. “There’s only one view that God has, and we know that is a sin.”
Since religious leaders first faced homosexuality in the early 1970s, mainline Protestant churches have been thinking, talking, and quite often arguing about the subject.
These debates have increased in intensity over the past decade as they have been broadcasted on the front pages of newspapers across the country and discussed openly in today's political discourse.
Popular topics highlighted recently in the news include headlines along the lines of religious leaders facing schism on homosexuality, issues of sexuality splitting the Presbyterians again, life at a gay wedding, and Methodists vowing to take a stand against the church ban.
Hargrave and others say God can redeem gays just like anyone else, but “when it becomes rampant” homosexuality, it is “far worse than other sin.”
“Homosexuality is the giving over to debasement,” he said. “This is why you see cultures crumbling under the load of this debasement. Who would have ever thought the Roman Empire would be completely wiped out?”
“These sins bring down a nation,” Hargrave said.
Gary Gates is a demographer-in-residence at the Williams Institute on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy, a think-tank based at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Gates' best estimate, derived from five studies that have asked subjects about their sexual orientation, is that the nation has about 4 million adults who identify as being gay or lesbian, representing 1.7 percent of the 18-and-over population.
He also estimated that 19 million people, or 8.2 percent of the population, have engaged in sex with a partner of the same sex. That includes all groups, such as gays, bisexuals and heterosexuals who have experimented with same-sex behavior.
The Southern Baptist Convention says religious leaders are not talking to their congregations enough about homosexuality.
Research show they are not involved in the national debate in a strong enough manner.
However, older religious leaders and ministers opposed to same-sex marriage have started to campaign more vigorously and are mobilizing to oppose new legislation favoring same-sex unions.
After being overshadowed by same-sex marriage proponents, religious leaders who back the concept of fighting legislation that legalizes the issue are speaking out.
Evangelical, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Jewish leaders are intensifying efforts to block legalization of gay marriage this year. Religious leaders say gay marriage may be harder to defeat in 2011 than it was in 2009.
Opponents of same-sex marriage say they will need to ramp up to catch up. Dennis Poust is the spokesman of the New York State Catholic Conference.
"I think that it's undeniable that the other side has done a better job of getting their message out," said Poust, "and they've also done a really good job of portraying us as bigots and homophobes, which we absolutely, categorically reject."
Poust says they simply believe marriage is between a man and a woman.
In the meantime, family experts say they are pushing for sexuality counseling and education from trained religious leaders saying it is vital for the preservation of today’s society.
In short, the debate about homosexuality in and among local churches must take on a stronger voice with prepared leaders at the helm.
The study recommends that the Association of Theological Schools, the accrediting body for U.S. seminaries, and other pastoral education programs 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.
Preparing religious leaders to discuss and debate the issues of homosexuality and other sexual lifestyle issues is imperative or Christians as a whole will be ill-equipped to minister, family experts argue.
The Sex and the Seminary study 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.
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