Unpacking the Religious Institute’s Panel at AAR

Kentina Washington, Director of Programs for Reproductive Justice and Sexuality Education, shared the following reflection in the December Edition of “Sexuality: From the Seminary to the Sanctuary,” the Religious Institute’s newsletter on gender, sexuality, and graduate theological education. Click here to subscribe to Sexuality.

Dear readers,

I can hardly believe 2016 is coming to a close! Undoubtedly, many of you are winding down academic semesters that were full and intense, particularly over the last couple of post-election weeks. None of us know quite yet what this new administration will mean to those engaged in justice-focused, faith-based work. What we know for sure is this: continuing to educate and prepare current and future religious professionals to think critically and act boldly as leaders for sexual health and justice will be essential. We must not back down!

It is in the same vein that I find myself pondering the wisdom that came forth at our AAR panel in November, “From the Seminary to the Sanctuary: A Conversation About Sexuality in Theological Education.” The Religious Institute is so grateful to our panelists: the Rev. Pamela Lightsey, PhD; Dr. Ellen Armour; the Rev. Trina Armstrong, PhD; Pastor Naomi Christine Leapheart; and Dr. Robyn Henderson-Espinoza. The conversation was rich, compelling, and challenging as these scholar-practitioners shared insight from their various educational and ministerial contexts. There were several key points that I think are worth thinking about and carrying into this new year and new academic semester:

  1. Seminaries need to move beyond the welcome. Pastor Naomi Leapheart, a recent seminary graduate and Faith Work Director for the National LGBTQ Task Force, reminded us that it is not enough for graduate institutions to say that they are welcoming or even to be designated as Sexually Healthy and Responsible. It is incumbent on seminaries to be engaged in ongoing conversation about what she calls “the so-what?” Self-identifying oneself as welcoming is one thing. Ensuring that welcome is always intersectional and radically inclusive is another. As Dr. Pamela Lightsey reminded us, schools need to be who they say they are, and leadership and students alike need to keep each other accountable to those stated ideals.
  2. Theological institutions must operate proactively rather than reactively. Dr. Lightsey suggested that seminaries most often do the opposite, navigating in what she called “partly cloudy” spaces, responding to deficiencies in inclusion rather than making an effort on the front-end in policies and practices
  3. Put real and tangible resources (read: money) where your mouth is. Dr. Ellen Armour shared the impact of hiring an Assistant Director of the Carpenter Program who brought with her experience in sexuality education and social justice advocacy from her previous employment with Planned Parenthood. Dr. Armour also described how Vanderbilt has begun paying special attention to helping field education students think about how sexual health and justice issues emerge in their field education placements.
  4. Push for sexuality courses to become a part of the curriculum offerings, even if it has been some time since they were offered (or if they’ve never been offered!). Dr. Trina Armstrong shared that, in the spring semester, she will teach a course on human sexuality at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, the first time that a course of this type has been offered at Garrett in over 10 years. Dr. Armstrong brings to this course her background in pastoral care and counseling, marriage and family therapy, and parish ministry. Additionally, Drs. Armstrong and Armour both described incorporating sex and sexuality into courses not explicitly organized around sexuality.
  5. Have real conversations about what it means to be a “sexual being identified in the most erotic way in the pulpit.” If graduate theological institutions are going to get real about preparing religious leaders to address sex and sexuality in religious spaces, they must teach “concrete dynamics.” This includes teaching about how religious leaders are faced with attraction, questions of sexual identity, and being explicitly sexualized by congregants.
  6. Be transparent about the fact that academic spaces are, for many, predatory, death-dealing spaces. Dr. Henderson-Espinoza challenged us to think about how spaces like AAR and other academic gatherings have been sites for sexual harassment and assault. We should consider how perhaps deficiencies in sexuality education, including seminary misconduct policies, contribute to the perpetuation of harm in academic and conference spaces.

As we continue to collect and analyze the data from our 2016 Seminary Survey, this conversation will undoubtedly expand. As the landscape of our country—and of theological education—morphs and changes in this new year, we look forward journeying together with all of you, our partners, in this work.

Happy New Year!

A special thanks to our panelists for making this a great conversation. Click on their names below to learn more about them.

Posted in News, Updates.