Do We Talk Openly About Sexuality?

Many congregations that welcome LGBT people don’t talk much about LGBT issues. That’s because many of us are uncomfortable talking about sexuality in general. How can we advocate for sexual justice if we don’t talk about sexuality?

“Sexuality is God’s life-giving and life-fulfilling gift.”

With these opening words, the Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing (2000) set forth a new sexual ethic, focused on personal relationships and social justice. Every faith community – whether progressive or conservative, liberal or evangelical – is called to address the sexuality needs of its congregants. Most communities understand that the sacred gift of sexuality can be celebrated or disparaged, explored or ignored.

Rev. Dr. Traci West, a United Methodist theologian, writes, “It should be a delightful, faith-filled experience when we talk about theology (reflecting on [our] faith in God) together with sexuality (a precious gift of God). Too often, though, it is not a delightful experience.” Most clergy are not sufficiently trained to address sexuality issues, and many clergy and congregations are uncomfortable talking about sexuality at all. For some, the discourse never gets beyond “Thou shalt not …” For others, sexuality remains cloaked in silence.

Yet contemporary issues of sexuality require that clergy and faith communities be both pastoral and prophetic. Religious leaders must be prepared to address a range of sexuality issues in ministry and, when appropriate, refer congregants to qualified professionals in their community. At the same time, progressive religious voices are urgently needed to promote such sexual justice issues as marriage equality, comprehensive sexuality education and reproductive justice.

Sexuality Issues in Ministry

In any community, particularly faith communities, the diverse dimensions of sexuality come vividly to life. Consider:

  • As many as half a million children are sexually abused every year.Haffner, Debra W. A Time to Heal: Protecting Children and Ministering to Sex Offenders (Norwalk, CT: Religious Institute, 2002), . Many adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse continue to suffer from depression, post-traumatic stress and inhibited sexual desire; many have trouble forming intimate physical and emotional relationships. Faith communities must be places where children are safe and where adults can find support and healing.

  • The formation of sexual identity is a key development task for adolescents. Faith communities have a responsibility to help young people develop their capacity for moral discernment and conscientious decision-making. The desire for dialogue is urgent: More than 90% of young adults believe that talking about sexuality is helpful and appropriate in faith communities.Taking a New Look: Why Congregations Need LGBT Members (LifeQuest, 2008), 12.

  • Half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended, and one in three American women has had an abortion. Unintended pregnancies disproportionately affect teenagers and lower-income families. Guttmacher Institute, An Overview of Abortion in the United States (New York, January 2008).An estimated 12% of women of childbearing age in the U.S. have turned to assisted reproductive technologies to address infertility.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, American Society for Reproductive Medicine, Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology, Assisted Reproductive Technology Success Rates: National Summary and Fertility Clinic Reports 2005 (Atlanta: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2007), http://www.cdc.gov/art/ART2005/508PDF/2005ART508Cover_National.pdf. Many families turn to clergy and fellow congregants for compassionate counsel when they are faced with pregnancy decisions.

  • Many lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people have suffered emotional harm in religious communities. Even as they return to worship in affirming congregations, many still struggle with an imposition of shame that prevents them from reconciling their sexual identities with their religious convictions.

For many people of faith, there is also a spiritual dimension to sexuality. In Sexuality and the Sacred (1994), theologians James Nelson and Sandra Longfellow express it this way:

Theologically, we believe that human sexuality, while including God’s gift of the procreative capacity, is most fundamentally the divine invitation to find our destinies not in loneliness but in deep connection. … Sexuality, in sum, is the physiological and emotional grounding of our capacities to love.Nelson, James B. and Sandra P. Longfellow, "Introduction," Sexuality and the Sacred: Sources for Theological Reflection, Nelson and Longfellow, eds. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), xiv.

The integration of sexuality and spirituality raises provocative questions for theological reflection. For instance, how does our sexuality teach us to live in loving communion with others? How do our sexual relationships reflect the values of equality, justice and mutual respect that we wish to create in the world? What does our sexuality reveal about the nature and mystery of the divine?

Many religious traditions long ago segregated body and soul in the belief that our physical selves somehow degraded, rather than enriched, our spiritual selves. Faith communities open to exploring the integration of sexuality and spirituality can help to reclaim sexuality as a positive, elevating force in religious tradition.

Creating a Sexually Healthy Faith Community

In A Time to Build (2002), Rev. Debra W. Haffner writes that a sexually healthy faith community:

  • Has religious leadership with the experience and training to integrate sexuality issues in worship and preaching, as well as in pastoral counseling.

  • Offers sexuality education for children and youth, and a variety of services and programs to support the sexuality needs of adults.

  • Values diversity, welcoming all people and families as full participating members.

  • Has explicit policies against sexual exploitation or harassment of any kind.

  • Works for sexual justice within the denomination and in society at large.

“Becoming a sexually health faith community is a process,” Haffner writes. Some congregations may not be ready to hear their pastor or rabbi addressing sexuality from the pulpit. In many cases, the clergy themselves may not be prepared to effectively engage sexuality issues.

A Time to Build outlines the building blocks for creating a sexually healthy congregation. It provides assessment tools for clergy and congregations, and a wealth of ideas and suggestions congregations can adapt within their own theology and traditions. A Time to Build is an excellent guidebook to accompany congregations in the process of becoming sexually healthy communities.

For congregations at the starting point, here are three fundamental tools:

  • A Self-Assessment for Religious Professionals. “Ideally, clergy and religious educators would have formal, graduate-level training in human sexuality,” Haffner writes. “Unfortunately, few seminaries prepare their clergy to handle sexuality issues, and many clergy provide sexuality counseling without the benefit of formal training.” This self-assessment tool is essential for all religious leaders interested in moving their congregations toward greater engagement and a more productive dialogue around sexuality and religion.

  • A Safety Checklist. At a minimum, every congregation should have written policies to prevent sexual harassment, abusive relationships between religious leaders and their parishioners, and sexual abuse of children and youth. This checklist will help you assess whether you can improve the safety of your congregation.

  • 10 Ideas for Breaking the Silence Around Sexuality. If your congregation doesn’t openly address sexuality issues, how do you begin? Here are some possible first steps.