Sex and the Seminary

Theological education can no longer neglect training religious professionals in sexuality issues. Too many count on them to be the pastors for sexual health and justice that the world needs.
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I became a minister after a 25-year career in sexuality education. I took courses at three different seminaries and was stunned to discover that none of them had a full-time course on sexuality issues for ministers; that sexuality, ever-present in the Scriptures, was barely mentioned in my classes on the Hebrew Bible or New Testament; and that my pastoral counseling courses included no preparation for ministering to the parents of a pregnant teenager, or the couple coping with infertility, or the lesbian and gay families who felt unwelcome in the congregation.

My seminary education began more than 10 years ago. And not much has changed since then. The organization I co-founded, the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, has just published a study demonstrating that 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, titled 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. The study is based on a survey of 36 leading seminaries and rabbinical schools, representing a range of Christian, Jewish and Unitarian Universalist traditions.

With so many congregations embroiled in controversy over sexual orientation issues, 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. Yet, at most institutions, students can graduate without studying sexual ethics or taking a single sexuality-related course.

The study reveals that:
- More than 90% 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.
- 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 next generation of scholars is not addressing sexuality issues. Sexuality-based courses are taught by senior professors or adjunct faculty, not by upcoming faculty seeking tenured positions.

The Religious Institute survey also found a "stained glass ceiling" in seminaries. Two-thirds of the seminaries surveyed have fewer than 40% women serving in faculty, senior administrative and trustee positions, in contrast to student populations that are frequently more than half women. Most of the institutions also lack policies promoting the full inclusion of women and LGBT persons.

Religious leaders have a unique opportunity, and a moral obligation, to help congregations and communities wrestle with the complexities of sexual health and justice. The Religious Institute is calling on seminaries and religious denominations to develop and require competencies in sexuality for ordination to ministry. Seminaries must 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.

In an age when sexuality permeates popular culture, and reproductive choice, sex education and marriage equality headline the national's political discourse, seminaries are failing our future clergy's ability to respond to the sexuality needs of their congregations. Theological education can no longer neglect training religious professionals in sexuality issues. Too many are counting on them to be the pastors for sexual health, and prophets for sexual justice, that the world so urgently needs.