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Seminaries not providing students with skills they need: report

Sexuality courses largely absent from most seminary programs

United States seminaries and rabbinical schools are failing to prepare the next generation of clergy to address sexuality issues in ministry, says a study released in January.

The study, titled Sex and the Seminary: Preparing Ministers for Sexual Health and Justice, reports that sexuality courses are largely absent from most seminary programs.

And, it notes, three-quarters do not offer any instruction in lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender studies.

Further, it adds, there is an apparent “stained glass ceiling” in seminaries and a lack of policies on full inclusion both of women and gay, lesbian and transgender people.

Indeed, notes the study, at most institutions, students can graduate without studying sexual ethics or taking a single sexuality-based course.

“Seminaries are not providing future religious leaders with sufficient opportunities for study, self-assessment, and ministerial formation in sexuality,” the report says. “They are also not providing seminarians with the skills they will need to minister to their congregants and communities, or to become effective advocates where sexuality issues are concerned.”

While the study does not specifically address Canada, it does reference the article “Trends in Seminary Education” in 1995’s Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches edited by KB Bedell.

The study was done jointly by the Westport, Connecticut-based Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and the Healing and New York’s Union Theological Seminary.

“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 Religious Institute director Rev Debra Haffner.

Haffner says seminaries need to better prepare students to minister to their congregants and be effective advocates for sexual health and justice.

The new study was based on a survey of 36 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 and advocacy and support for sexuality-related issues.

Two-thirds of the seminaries surveyed have fewer than 40 percent women in faculty, senior administrative and trustee positions, in contrast to student populations that are frequently more than 50 percent female.

“Religious leaders have a unique opportunity, and moral obligation, to help congregations and communities wrestle with the complexities of sexual health and justice,” said Union Theological Seminary president Rev Dr Serene Jones.

“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,” Jones says.

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 notes.

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

Additionally, it calls on seminaries to strengthen their course offerings and inclusion policies, invest in faculty development and continuing education.

Collaboration with other institutions and advocacy groups to expand educational opportunities for seminarians regarding sexuality issues is also called for.