Guide to Becoming a More Sexually Healthy and Responsible Seminary

Seminaries and other schools entrusted with preparing future religious leaders need to integrate sexuality education and sexual justice in their curricula and institutional cultures. If clergy and religious professionals are to become sexually healthy and responsible leaders, the institutions that train them have a vital role to play.

Why does our institution need to be more sexually healthy?

  • Most religious leaders can complete their studies without having taken a course in human sexuality.[i]
  • Congregants and others expect clergy and religious leaders to be knowledgeable about sexuality.[ii]
  • Clergy sexual misconduct can be reduced with appropriate coursework in sexuality, boundaries, and attractions.[iii]
  • Sexuality is a sacred and integral part of human life. Religious leaders need to be equipped to address sexuality issues.
  • Religious leaders have the potential to change society’s understanding of sexuality.[iv]

How can our institution build a commitment to becoming more sexually healthy?

Our experience in working with the institutions which have received the Religious Institute’s designation as a Sexually Healthy and Responsible Seminary shows that…

  • One really committed faculty or staff person CAN make a difference at an institution. Raising these issues will reveal others who are also committed.
  • One of those really committed people can contact the Religious Institute to help determine what this program means for THEIR institution. Each institution will have different ways of meeting the standards.
  • It is effective to use what is already in place to raise awareness. Does your institution have an LGBT student group? Do you have worship services on sexuality topics? Could you create an educational opportunity around one area of sexual health?

How Can My Seminary Earn this Designation from the Religious Institute?

The Religious Institute has compiled a wealth of resources and best practices for seminaries, divinity and rabbinical schools. Begin with the initial evaluation form below to see if your institution already qualifies for designation as a “Sexually Healthy and Responsible Seminary.” Sexually Healthy and Responsible Seminary Initial Evaluation.

Click on the topics below the form for more information. The Religious Institute offers technical assistance to provide institutions with individualized aid: contact us to request more information.


A Sexually Healthy and Responsible institution, addresses sexuality issues in all introductory and core courses, such as Hebrew Bible/Old Testament/Tanakh, New Testament, theology/systematics, ethics, history, midrash/rabbinics/codes, pastoral counseling, worship and preaching, and denomination-specific/polity classes.

“Sexuality issues” include the role of women, reproduction and family, sexuality and spirituality, human sexuality, gender, LGBT issues, and sexual violence.

Ideas for Covering Sexuality Issues in Core Classes

Preparation of all students for ministry should also include regularly scheduled course offerings on specific sexuality issues, including courses on sexual ethics, LGBTQ theology, women in religious traditions and faith communities, and sexual abuse and domestic violence. Preparation should include required coursework on human sexuality and healthy professional boundaries, such as a sexuality issues for religious professionals course. The Religious Institute offers several online courses to meet this need. Click here for more information.

Denominational Policies on Sexual Ethics

Inclusion Policies/Statements

A sexually healthy seminary has … full inclusion policies addressing sex, race, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, and marital status that are widely included in catalogs, admission materials, faculty and student orientations, websites, and periodic postings in newsletters and announcements.

What is an inclusion policy?

Components of a Sexuality-Related Inclusion Policy:

  • An inclusion statement calls for a welcoming, open, affirming community. It is about the culture of an institution, not the legal mandates. It is pro-active, not re-active or restrictive (anti-discrimination). It doesn’t just say we won’t do x; it says we will seek to do y.
  • Policies should include sex, gender or gender identity and expression, and sexual orientation as separate categories rather than a statement such as “all are welcome…”
  • Inclusion statements are most often situated within the foundation of a mission statement, guiding beliefs of an organization, or the theology/religious tenets of a particular institution.Adapted from Trans Inclusion Policy Manual for Women’s Organizations

Here are several examples of inclusion policies from Sexually Healthy and Responsible institutions.

Inclusive Language Policies

A sexually healthy and responsible seminary has … a commitment to inclusive language in worship and in the classroom. Inclusive language policies call for language that encompasses diverse genders and sexes in order to affirm the diversity of people. At Seminaries, policies may require inclusive references to God as well.

Examples from Sexually Healthy and Responsible seminaries:

The United Church of Christ has a long history of promoting awareness about gender-inclusive language and official policy for their publications. See notes on expansive language here.
The Inclusive Language Covenant  of the United Church of Christ may be used as a model for creating a similar covenant in local churches, associations, or conference settings.
Also, Words Matter – Episcopal Women’s Caucus notes on inclusive language.

Sexual Harassment Prevention Policies

A sexually healthy and responsible seminary has … a commitment to being safe from sexual harassment and abuse, including professional ethics and healthy boundaries policies for students, faculty, and staff and periodic required training opportunities.” Since sexual harassment is illegal, the wording of sexual harassment policies is fairly standard. Note, however, that the institution should also have a clear procedure for resolving complaints of sexual harassment.

Sexual Harassment – Sexual harassment constitutes discrimination and is illegal under federal, state, and local laws. It may be described as unwelcome sexual behavior by individuals or by a group, such as physical or verbal comments or suggestions, which unreasonably interferes with the working or learning environment of an individual.

It is sexual harassment when, for example:

a)    submission to such conduct is made either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment or education;

b)    submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual is used as the basis for employment or educational decisions; and

c)     such conduct has the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work or educational performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working or educational environment.

Sexual harassment may include a range of subtle and not-so-subtle behaviors and may involve individuals of the same or different genders. Depending on the circumstances, these behaviors may include, but are not limited to: unwanted sexual advances or requests for sexual favors; sexual jokes and innuendo; verbal abuse of a sexual nature; commentary about an individual’s body, sexual prowess or sexual deficiencies; leering, catcalls or touching; insulting or obscene comments or gestures; display or circulation of sexually suggestive objects or pictures (including through e-mail); and other physical, verbal or visual conduct of a sexual nature. [v]

The institution may wish to include a note about academic freedom similar to this:

____________ adheres to the principles and traditions of academic freedom, and recognizes that these freedoms must be in balance with the rights of others, including the right of individuals not to be sexually harassed. It is understood that the principles of academic freedom permit topics of all types, including those with sexual content, to be part of courses, lectures, and other academic pursuits. Materials with sexual content that are used or displayed in an educational setting should be related to educational purposes.

Professional Boundaries and Relationships Between Faculty/Staff and Students

Consensual relationships between faculty and students carry great potential to undermine relationships of trust between faculty and students, disrupt the seminary community and its learning environment. Consensual relationships  may also give rise to claims of sexual harassment, discrimination, conflicts of interest, favoritism, and unprofessional and/or unethical conduct. [vi]

Union Theological Seminary in New York has a policy on consensual relationships between faculty/staff and students developed with technical assistance from the Religious Institute. It can be found on page 40 of the student handbook, linked here.

Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion also has a policy on consensual relationships – reprinted with permission below.

Consensual Relations (*romantic relationships)

The integrity of the student-teacher relationship is the foundation of the educational mission of the College-Institute. This relationship vests considerable trust in the teacher, who, in turn, bears authority and accountability as a mentor, educator and evaluator. The unequal institutional power inherent in this relationship heightens the vulnerability of the student, as well as the potential for coercion. The same holds true for the relationship between senior faculty and junior faculty, mentors and mentees, and supervisors and employees. Therefore, the College-Institute strongly advises against such relationships.

While romantic and sexual relationships among administrators, faculty members and students, and between supervisors and employees may not involve sexual harassment, those who enter into a sexual relationship with a student or employee, where professional power differentials exist, must realize several things:

a)    Such relationships can be detrimental to the educational process due to the creation of dual roles and may undermine the integrity of the supervision and evaluation provided. Such sexual relationships are often perceived by fellow students and coworkers as opportunities for favoritism and biased treatment when evaluations are carried out.

b)    The College-Institute is committed to protecting the academic freedom and freedom of expression of all members of its community. However, that expression is subject to regulation when it causes injury and pain to others, or creates a hostile learning and/or work environment.

c)     If a charge of sexual harassment is subsequently lodged, it may be exceedingly difficult to prove mutual consent. 

[i] Ott, K.  Sex and the Seminary: Preparing Ministers for Sexual Health and Justice. Westport, CT: Religious Institute, 2009, p. 4.

[ii] Conklin, S. “Six Billion and Counting Compel Sexuality Study in Churches.” The Clergy Journal , 76 (2000) (6), 3-5.

[iii] Meek, Katheryn Rhoads, et al. (2004). “Sexual Ethics Training in Seminary: Preparing Students to Manage Feelings of Sexual Attraction,” Pastoral Psychology, 53 (1) 63-79.

[iv] Ott, K. Sex and the Seminary: Preparing Ministers for Sexual Health and Justice. Westport, CT: Religious Institute, 2009, p. 4.

[v] Adapted from EEOC guidelines.

[vi] Adapted from Union Theological Seminary’s Policy on Consensual Relationships Between Faculty and Students