Study: Religious Schools Failing to Prepare Clergy to Address Sexuality Issues

Two religious institutions behind a recent survey of 36 leading seminaries and rabbinical schools claim that most faith-based institutions are failing to prepare the next generation of clergy to address sexuality issues in ministry.

The survey, part of the "Sex and the Seminary" study, found that sexuality courses are largely absent from most seminary curricula and degree requirements. Furthermore, at most institutions, students can graduate without studying sexual ethics or taking a single sexuality-based course.

"This study challenges all of us who are charged with ministerial formation to look closely at the institutional environment we create to prepare our students to be active and informed – and hence to effect people from the pulpit and in the public square," commented the Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, which partnered with the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing for the study.

For the study, a survey was distributed to 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 that measured content in the curriculum; institutional commitment to sexuality and gender equity (e.g., the existence of anti-discrimination, sexual harassment and full inclusion policies); and advocacy and support for sexuality-related issues. The criteria were developed by an advisory group of seminary deans, faculty and clergy with expertise in sexuality.

What the survey found was 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; and three-quarters do not offer a course in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) studies.

And with greater attention being placed today on the increasingly active homosexual community, greater understanding of sexuality issues is essential for today's clergy, some argue.

"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 multi-faith Religious Institute. "Seminaries must do more to prepare students to minister to their congregants and be effective advocates for sexual health and justice."

According to frequently referenced 2007 Barna Group report, young Christians largely criticize church leaders for making homosexuality a "bigger sin" than anything else and for not helping them apply the biblical teaching on homosexuality to their friendships with gays and lesbians. Overall, 80 percent of young churchgoers say present-day Christianity is "anti-homosexual."

"Religious leaders have a unique opportunity, and moral obligation, to help congregations and communities wrestle with the complexities of sexual health and justice," stated Union Seminary's Jones. "Is there any subject more important and more on-the-ground crucial than sexual health and human flourishing?"

Since the recent unveiling of "Sex and the Seminary: Preparing Ministers for Sexual Health and Justice," the team behind the study has been recommending 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, they noted in the study.

The researchers also recommend that the Association of Theological Schools, the accrediting body for U.S. seminaries, integrate sexuality education into its standards for ministerial formation.

"It (the study) 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," they stated.

According to the Religious Institute, copies of the "Sex and the Seminary" report will be sent to every seminary and rabbinical school in the United States. The report has also been made available online at  www.religiousinstitute.org/SeminaryReport.html.