Preparing Religious Leaders to Support Women and Choice

28 Jun

Whether “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” religious leaders and clergy should be prepared to support women who are deciding whether to bear a child in accordance with their own faith and beliefs, and then support whatever choice they make.  You are probably thinking, “Well, of course!”, but as someone who just graduated from a divinity school, I can attest to the fact that too few U.S. seminaries and divinity schools are preparing future clergy to move beyond politics and support women who are faced with difficult reproductive choices (even though the decision to support women and conduct all-options pastoral counseling is inherently political).

When the Common Ground Abortion Bill was introduced by Representatives Ryan and DeLauro in the summer of 2009 and endorsed by hundreds of “pro-life” and “pro-choice” clergy, I couldn’t help but think, how many of these clergy, especially those in the “pro-life” camp, are supporting women in their respective congregations?  How many are giving women and couples the resources and referrals they need to explore all of their options as they discern whether to have a child; are faced with an unintended pregnancy; are grappling with infertility; and/or are grieving after a miscarriage?  How many are helping to educate their congregations about sexual health and safer sex as a preventive measure?  I would say too few.  I am also positive there are a significant number of pro-choice clergy and even laypeople who are ardent advocates for reproductive justice, but fail to see and meet the needs of women in their congregations.

Now more than ever, the next generation of religious leaders are uniquely positioned and morally obligated to work with and help their congregations and larger faith communities understand all the dimensions and complexities of sexuality, sexual health and justice. This project includes the growth and formation of congregations and communities that not only can advocate for reproductive justice, but support community members who are grappling theologically and spiritually with and/or pursuing all reproductive choices from parenting to abortion to adoption.  It turns out very few future clergy are being prepared to take on this critical project.

According to the Religious Institute’s 2009 Sex and the Seminary study (which surveyed 36 U.S. institutions), seminaries and Divinity schools throughout the country are not adequately providing future religious leaders sufficient opportunities for “study, self-assessment, and ministerial formation in sexuality.”  They are not equipping seminarians with the skills they will need to minister to congregations and wider communities about sexuality-related issues or even to become outspoken advocates for sexual justice.  At most institutions (90%, according to the report), students can graduate without a foundation in sexual ethics or taking a sexuality-based course.  The sexuality-related issues the report refers to include, but are not limited to reproductive health, sexual health, sexual orientation, gender identity, adolescent sexual development, family planning, and sexual abuse prevention.

To fill these curricular and programmatic gaps, students are creating their own sexuality-related, non-curricular initiatives.  On the reproductive health and justice front, students at several seminaries and divinity schools in the northeast have made great strides to develop and offer faith-based, all-options and reproductive loss counseling services and volunteer support for clinic escort programs in collaboration with local Planned Parenthoods and other clinics.  Over a dozen Seminarians for Choice and Seminarians for Reproductive Justice groups (initiatives overseen by the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice) have been established throughout the country to further expand these efforts and also create spaces for future religious leaders to envision their pursuit of reproductive justice in their prophetic lives and realign faith with social justice through direct service, outreach and advocacy. According to the study, of the 36 seminaries surveyed, two-thirds regularly host events on sexual and reproductive justice, and many offer sexuality-related worship and student advocacy or support groups (like Seminarians for Choice).  The work that is being done nationally to redirect seminaries’ attention to sexuality issues should be honored.  For years now, the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice has been training soon-to-be and already ordained clergy on seminary campuses throughout the country to be a pastoral presence to women and couples grappling with their reproductive choices theologically and spiritually.  The Religious Institute (who conducted this study), through research and local, national programming, has worked to help seminarians and clergy develop a healthy and justice-oriented understanding of sexuality through the lens of faith.  One of the founding directors of the Institute offers semester-long, sexual ethics courses at seminaries and divinity schools that don’t offer such opportunities.  Only a few seminaries have actually picked up where this work has left off and have made significant changes to their curricular and non-curricular programs.

Seminaries are not the only institutions responsible for equipping their students with the skills they need to take leadership in sexual justice movements and provide pastoral care/counseling in areas of reproductive health.  Faith communities and denominations themselves need to ensure that their clergy and laypeople are prepared.  It’s important to note that many seminaries’ curricula are shaped in accordance with denominational stances on sexuality issues, limiting sexuality-related course options for some and expanding those options for others.  In April of this year, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) made it a requirement for ALL Unitarian Universalist seminarians to “demonstrate competency in issues related to human sexuality as part of their preparation for the ministry.”  Effective in December of this year, the new requirement will “familiarize seminarians with issues related to reproductive health, gender identity, sexual orientation, domestic violence, sexual assault, and sexual ethics and safety within congregations.”  All candidates for ordination will have to demonstrate knowledge and pastoral competency in all of these areas when they go before the denomination’s committee that oversees the credentialing and formation of UU ministers.  Other denominations still have a ways to go in requiring their aspiring clergy to undergo some form of sexuality training that does not strictly address ministerial misconduct and abuse.

The truth is, women and their families who are dealing with unwelcome, unplanned, or unintended pregnancies often have religious, spiritual, and theological questions and look for supportive, non-judgmental pastoral help to pursue and answer these questions.  Seminaries and divinity schools not only need to ask themselves what they are doing for their seminarians, but what they are doing to support women and families in their midst and throughout the world.

3 Responses to “Preparing Religious Leaders to Support Women and Choice”

  1. Amanda June 28, 2010 at 12:49 pm #

    I’d just like to share taht I agree with you, education is needed for clergy. I can only speak of what I know, which is the United Methodist Church. The overall church stance is that while the church certainly does not see abortion as “good,” it is a decision left to the woman, and a woman who decides to abort should not be condemend. I highly doubt, however, that many clergy know this. I specifically went to look it up, out of curiosity. Also, all clergy and lay leaders have to be up-to-date on a course that, as you mentioned, addresses sexual harrassment, misconduct, etc. My grandfather has taken it several times and essentially said all it is, is someone saying “don’t hug young female members of the congregation,” etc.

    The other problem is that there’s an “alternate route” to ordination. Most people get a B.A. and then go to seminary for either an Master’s or a Doctorate in ministry.

    However, if someone feels “called” later in life (like someone in their 40s who spent years in another profession), they take fewer classes on a part-time basis. In the Midwest, this is used a lot, and I think it’s because there is a shortage of clergy (so the faster they’re out, the better). If they are already taking fewer classes than those who go the regular route, how can we expect them to have a fair and adequate education in issues of sexuality, let alone the state of a person’s soul?

    This is a bit of a sore spot for me, so I apologize for the rant, but thank you for covering everything so well.

  2. Becca June 29, 2010 at 10:28 am #

    Amanda, thanks for your response. My denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is in a similar boat with the UMC in that its statements on abortion have far outnumbered its efforts to prepare clergy to help their congregations understand sexuality-related issues. The PCUSA has made several explicit statements about abortion and unwanted pregnancies since the publication of the 1967 PCUSA-commissioned report, “Sexuality and Human Community”. In 1970, the national governing body of the denomination, on the basis of this report, declared that the termination of a pregnancy is a matter of ethical and moral consideration of the patient and should therefore not be restricted by law. According to the 1992 report entitled, “Problem Pregnancies and Abortion”, approved by the 204th General Assembly, parenting “is a process of covenant initiation that calls for courage, love, patience and strength.” A woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy can be an affirmation of one’s covenantal responsibility to understand and gauge the present and projected resources for care-giving in a specific situation. Therefore, electing abortion responsibly can be seen as an intervention that takes seriously the covenantal responsibility of parenting. The denomination continues to hold to this view, but has withdrawn its support for the termination of late-term pregnancies even when the life/health of the mother is at stake in a pregnancy. I affirm the church’s overall affirmation of women’s moral agency for the reasons above, but I question the validity of the moral position on late-term abortions and the denomination’s overall commitment to ensuring the education and counseling training of clergy and laypersons in areas of unplanned pregnancies and reproductive loss. The General Assembly’s 2006 statement discouraging late-term abortions is inconsistent with its full affirmation of women’s moral agency in all areas of reproduction for the last forty years. A woman’s moral agency is just as important/critical in the first-trimester of the pregnancy as it is in the second and third in discerning her own ability to care for the child under all circumstances. As for my second concern, nowhere in the reports cited above does it require or even encourage clergy or seminarians on the ordination-track to prepare for all-options and reproductive loss counseling. There is a well-enforced requirement for future clergy to undergo “ministerial misconduct” courses at their respective seminaries, but no talk of preparing them to oversee/implement comp. sex ed programming and offer all-options/reproductive loss counseling. A strong vision of building communities of support and care is endorsed, particularly for women faced with difficult reproductive decisions, however, concrete directives and programs for presbyteries and congregations to adopt are not ample.

    At Yale Divinity School (YDS), my alma mater, ministerial misconduct training is the only “sexuality-related” course/workshop that is required of ordination-track seminarians and this curriculum is still in need of serious reform since it is largely focused on how to hug others appropriately and how not to get into a relationship with one of your congregants. Serious changes need to be made to reform/update this curriculum, that’s for sure, but the larger issue is that this is all seminarians at YDS are required to have (on the sexuality front) to graduate. That is certainly problematic. I think we need to continue pressing seminaries/divinity schools and our respective denominations to take the necessary steps in creating sexually healthy and well-informed clergy and congregations. The Religious Institute has compiled a large database containing most, if not all, denominational statements on sexuality-related issues. I encourage everyone to check it out ( and write our churches/denominations about the possibility of expanding requirements and providing already-ordained clergy the resources/tools they need to pursue sexual justice.

  3. delfin bautista June 30, 2010 at 4:06 pm #

    hi rebecca … many thanks for having the courage to write this … as a lay religious professional working in the field of reproductive rights (specifically for women in prison), i have noticed a desire for “secular” organizations to reach out to faith communities but scared to at the same time. i believe that this is due to the stigma that faith communities have attached to prochoice movements and stereotypes that people apply to religious communities.

    i believe we are at a point in the reproductive justice movement that prochoice and prolife labels are no longer the right ones. i consider myself prolife in that i am in support of practices that are lifegiving and affirming while respecting and honoring the right to choose what is best for one’s life (knowing that it is is multilayered and complicated). however, because i am in support of the right of choice, i am relabeled or cast out.

    its time for religious professionals to be trained and educated on issues of sexuality, in order to be better present to those they work with but also to them selves and their families. it is also time for reproductive rights organizations to learn about religion and how to partner with faith communities.

    a bridge is starting to be built, thank you for laying down some of the planks.

    paz en la lucha!!!

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