Seminaries and Sex


BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: Now a special report on teaching about sex and gender issues in theological seminaries—or really not teaching about them: sexual problems in marriage; gay, lesbian and transgender questions; kids having sex at ever younger ages. Some religious leaders are concerned that many seminarians are not being taught what they need to know to become good counselors to their future parishioners. Judy Valente reports.

Professor LAUREL SCHNEIDER (Chicago Theological Seminary, teaching class): Sex and sexuality is of course a very significant part of our experience.  And I put the question up here, “Is sex divine?”

JUDY VALENTE: Professor Laurel Schneider of Chicago Theological Seminary teaches an evening course in systematic theology. Most of the time, it’s hardly sexy stuff. But this evening the topic is sex. This seminary is one of the few where human sexuality, in all its facets, is openly discussed.

UNIDENTIFIED TRANGENDERED STUDENT:  My oldest son right now won’t even talk to me, won’t have anything to do with me. His comment to me was, “God created you as a man and God does not make mistakes.”

UNIDENTIED FEMALE STUDENT: The male who has become a female, that part of you inside that wants — that feels female — that wants to be female, that’s still a part of you. That’s still — God made that too.

VALENTE: Sexual mores have been changing. But how well are seminaries preparing future pastors and rabbis to address these changes? The Religious Institute on Sexual Morality is a nonprofit group that helps promote sexual health in faith communities. The Institute recently studied 36 seminaries across denominational lines. The study found an “overwhelming need” to better educate and prepare future religious leaders in the area of human sexuality.

Dr. KATE OTT (Associate Director, Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice and Healing): We see these issues every day and the harm that can be done around sexuality issues — either a kid who’s questioning their orientation, a couple whose marriage is failing. I think when those folks are coming to us in faith communities for real information and for real help, we need to make sure we have the training to be able to address that.

Dr. Kate OttVALENTE: Many pastors say issues such as teen sexual activity and marital infidelity are among the most common topics about which congregation members seek guidance. Yet few seminaries offer courses in sexuality, and fewer still require these courses.

Dr. ALICE HUNT (President, Chicago Theological Seminary): It’s a challenge. It’s controversial. It makes people feel uncomfortable. It makes people feel insecure. So it’s just taking time for schools to come on board with addressing these issues.

Dr. OTT: When seminaries don’t offer the courses, they’re still talking about the issue. They’re just talking about it from silence and from a negative perspective, and seminary students understand that. They hear both messages loud and clear, and we would just prefer that they get a positive, open message rather than a silenced or dismissive message.

VALENTE: Some clergy have criticized the Religious Institute’s report saying seminaries can’t teach everything, that students aren’t there primarily to obtain “how to” skills, but to study biblical texts, to reflect and pray. Dr. Hunt says it’s a legitimate point.

Dr. Alice HuntDr. HUNT: You have to, then, change your whole curriculum. If you want to incorporate issues of human sexuality and race and gender, you have to examine everything you’re teaching in your educational context, and that’s a lot of hard work.

VALENTE: As a result, graduating seminarians are often expected to “learn on the job.” Reverend Lillian Daniel is the senior pastor of First Congregational United Church of Christ in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. She recalls one of the few classes at her divinity school where sex was discussed.

Reverend LILLIAN DANIEL (Senior Pastor, First Congregational United Church of Christ, Glen Ellyn, IL): The teacher goes “Never, ever, ever — with anyone in your congregation.” We all thought, “Did we miss the verb? What is it? Go skiing? Go dancing?”  I mean, he couldn’t even bring himself to say the word, and that was the extent of the conversation.

VALENTE: And the word would have been?

Rev. DANIEL: Don’t sleep with.

VALENTE: Daniel says seminaries often discuss gender rights, sexual harassment, and how pastors should maintain proper boundaries with their congregation members. But, she says, they rarely train students to deal with the complex, intimate questions congregation members are likely to bring to them.

JENNY GRESKO (Therapist, Central DuPage Pastoral Counseling Center, speaking to group): “We don’t have as much sex as he wants and we have more sex than I want and we’ll never fix this.” That’s a very, very common issue between couples.

VALENTE: As part of a Sunday afternoon series on sexuality, Daniel’s congregation has been examining a variety of issues connected with marriage.

JOE FORTUNATO (Congregant): Sexuality isn’t bad. It’s something that’s a good thing. It’s a gift from God, which is the cliché, but it is a gift from God, and to deal with it honestly and openly is very, very important, I think, to a lot of people here.

Rev. Lillian DanielRev. DANIEL: I’m all in favor referring people on to folks with more expertise if they’ve got sort of issues that are ongoing. But a lot of times people come in to see a pastor because they want to tell something one time. Or they just want a reality check. Or they just want some kind of comfort or someone to listen to them. Sometimes it’s almost in the area of a confession. So in those cases, we may be their only stop.

VALENTE: Chicago Theological, a United Church of Christ seminary, received a high rating in the Religious Institute study. But even this school doesn’t require students to study human sexuality. It does, however, offer several sexuality courses. Alice Hunt says the seminary wants its graduates to be able to minister to the “whole person.”

Dr. HUNT: Understanding what your tradition says about human sexuality, being sexually healthy yourself, understanding what religious texts say, being aware of counseling issues, knowing how human development happens with sexuality, being aware of societal constraints and the fear that people face for not being able to fully express who they are — all of those are crucial in becoming a mature minister.

Mark WintersRev. DANIEL: The problem is it really falls upon the pastor to seek out that knowledge, and if you were somebody who wanted to shut yourself away from this, you really could, and your church could become a place where none of this is able to be talked about.

VALENTE: But there does seem to be a shift in generational attitudes. Today’s young seminarians, who grew up in a more sexually liberal culture, seem eager to address these matters openly.

MARK WINTERS (Student, Chicago Theological Seminary): I think that, generally speaking, younger folks tend to see, for instance, homosexuality as basically a non-issue, whereas older folks come from a different time and a different place where you weren’t as open about sex and sexuality, and I think I would include heterosexuality in that as well as homosexuality, as you alluded to in the question, in terms of cohabitation for heterosexual couples. I think, generally speaking, we are in a more nonjudgmental time, and I consider that a very good thing.

VALENTE: Many pastors would disagree. Nonetheless, questions of gay marriage and whether to ordain gay clergy have moved sexuality issues to the forefront in many churches. Alice Hunt says there is a far more fundamental reason for making sex a topic of discussion.

Dr. HUNT: I hope another imperative is the imperative of God’s love, a kind of radical inclusivity of everything that promotes human flourishing. I hope we’ll take it — a good look at what we need to do to get to the space where we can fully minister to our congregation.

Dr. OTT: Our sexuality is part of our spirituality. We’re embodied beings, and most of our faith traditions believe that God gave us the gift of sexuality, so it has deep theological meaning for us.  So I don’t think we can say sexuality isn’t a religious issue. It deeply is a religious issue.

VALENTE: The Religious Institute recently received a grant to help seminaries introduce sexuality courses and provide continuing education classes for those already in ministry. One young seminarian described this as a “coming out time” for sexuality discussions in faith communities. “If sex is a common topic in the Bible,” he asked, “then why shouldn’t it be talked about in churches and seminaries?”

For Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly, I’m Judy Valente in Chicago.

  • Channah

    My mother felt that any sex was a sin (outside of marriage and unmentionable in marriage). If it had to be mentioned (in or out of marriage) it was called ”living together”—–saying having sex or going to bed together was too filthy to mention. She never talked to me about it (a decent person wouldn’t do that, which encluded my bodyily changes)–I learned from the street.

    There needs to be big changes on the subject.

  • MEL

    If we are talking about Jesus Christ’s teachings about sexuality, and if Jesus Christ is God Incarnate–that is the basic dogma in Christianity, right?–then all that needs to be conveyed is what Jesus Christ taught. Not a letter of the old law passed away, but was fulfilled in Him, and marraige was clearly defined, as well as adultery, lust, etc. The modern views of sexuality are somewhat irrelevent here. Let’s show some respect to your readers who are religious and Christian, and stop trying to turn pastoral care into TV talk show entertainment.

  • Marguerite

    This was an interesting piece, but it leaves out a group of people. There are many who are asexual, that is they have no interest in sex. We have little or no sexual attraction to any person, and some find the act repulsive. Granted, we are a small part of the population, but we do exist.

  • David A. Zinz

    This was a very important report for aside from counseling curriculm, sexual matters were never addressed in my 3 years in seminary, not even in a “covert” way. It was just not discussed in a Baptist context. The issue of homosexuality was quickly dropped when introduced. After a semester or two, one learned not to talk about it. It was a matter of personal discussion, one on one with professors and even that was difficult. Any sexual issues were addressed with direct reference to a scripture that was dogmatic for the demomination and then the issue was dropped.

  • Sam Crees

    Folks, this is easy: I would/will talk about this with anyone. ALL the answers ARE in the Bible but no one wants to address it that way! Sorry, if the Homosexuals get their way and make a liar of God then I should get to have 6 wives since that is what I want, pretty cut and dried. WE all have boundaries we have to live within; or we don’t believe in God and His Word.

  • Anne Higbie

    Once more, those with an agenda made their appearance. The Holy Bible has the correct answers concerning sexuality, which seminaries should be teaching, even in a sex-ed class. Anne

  • Stephanie

    Growing up in a very strict, almost cult like church, sex was equated with sin. The amount of sexual abuse of children that went on (however) was astronomical. The toll was high. Those children are now parents and/or grandparents and still suffer greatly. And the church remains silent on all these issues.

  • Rev. David J. Tatum Sr.

    Mel hit the nail on the head! It is indeed Well Defined in Scripture from the creation of male and female of all species. I don’t fell that any should be shunned. Our job is to minister according to scripture without adding to or taking away from his word. Marguerite, anyone who looks down on you would most likely have been the ones that would throw stones at Jesus.

  • Mark Brown

    Sam, I agree that the Bible has answers. You fail to acknowledge, however, that we don’t all interpret the scriptures the same way. As a gay man and Christian, I take offense to your statement about homosexuals. Just because some of us want to be treated the same as you does not mean that we are making God to be some kind of liar. Finally, the loving, monogomous relationships formed by LGBT people are NOT the same as the exploitative, polygamous relationships that you compare to ours.

  • Bav

    The bible was written my men/women. Humans are imperfect. Thus, the Bible likely contains errors.

  • Sean

    It’s funny, Sam, that you mention that all the answers are in the Bible and that if homosexuals “make a liar of God” (somehow I don’t think that’s part of the homosexual agenda) you would be able to have 6 wives, “since that is what [you] want” when the Bible nowhere denounces polygamy and in fact, many of the most prominent and God-fearing people (Abraham… Jacob… Gideon… even the parable of the ten virgins alludes to a polygamous marriage) were polygamous.

    I don’t approve of polygamy. I think it is by nature an exploitative relationship, unlike a loving, monogamous one, regardless of the gender of the participants.

  • M. E. Lane

    Oh, my, goodness! I am so glad many of you are not my pastor! I am so proud to be a member of a church where GLBT are welcomed and an intregal part of our church. I am so glad that my partner and I (21 years together) are celebrated with anniversaries and other significant days in our lives. I know God loves me and accepts us. And when we were being harassed by persons who rented some of our church space, our courageous congregation gave up a hefty monthly monetary amount to stand together and tell them to leave because we have promised to be a SAFE CHURCH FOR ALL. It is so sad to me as a clergy person of almost 35 years to see such hatred in some of your posts. I hope you will find peace. God loves us all!

  • Tom R

    Mel writes: “Let’s show some respect to your readers who are religious and Christian, and stop trying to turn pastoral care into TV talk show entertainment.”

    Hate to break it to you, but religious Christians are hardly unified on matters of sexuality and gender (or anything else, for that matter). Indeed, I agree that things would be a lot easier if just one particular understanding of Christianity were “one size fits all” for all people in all circumstances. However, as evidenced by these very comments (not to mention the whole rest of the world), that is clearly not the case, at least not presently (or ever before). So what can believers do when our theology doesn’t fit with actual human experience? There are at least two paths we can follow: we can indeed embrace legalism via biblical fundamentalism, as some here seem to advocate. However, we could also look for revelation in our personal experiences with God (see Peter in Acts 10), and in so doing, allow God to lead us into new ideas and practices that are appropriate — not irrelevant — to our changing times.


  • Ethan J

    As an incoming seminarian and a person with a significant LGBT ministry, the practical and theological questions of how we should be in relationship with other people and how we should live out our sexual identities come up extremely often. Most of the time, we just punt and answer questions the best we can, but thoughtful theological education on this topic is critical for us to adequately respond to the hopes and hurts of people who walk through our doors, whether they are gay or straight. As such a powerful dimension of human existence, it seems downright irresponsible for us as pastors not to seek professional education in this area, particularly as sexuality can lead, because of its potency and power, to either great health and vitality or great dysfunction and brokenness. And regrettably, this is the area that the church has most neglected and helped people the least. Fear and silence, as Dr. Ott noted, breeds a negative and shameful view of sexuality that causes great damage to the human soul. I encounter it all the time in people who come to my church, and in people in encounter in the wider world, and the church needs to do a 180 degree turn and offer a healthier approach to the spiritual dimensions of sexual development.

  • Rebecca Campbell

    Sam Crees, before you make such statements, I might suggest you actually read The Bible, you may find you can have 6 wives. Solomon had over 700. “I should get to have 6 wives since that is what I want, pretty cut and dried. WE all have boundaries we have to live within; or we don’t believe in God and His Word.” You may have your wife’s servant also if she is barren. If you are a soldier you may take the young virgins of the defeated country as your wives. If your brother dies with out an heir then you must take his wife as your own to provide him an heir.
    I have one question for you, do you worship a living God who is always revealing more of himself to us? Or do you worship dead pulp and leather?

  • Carlos M

    Take away everyone’s “personal” view of what they think is right and wrong and look explicitly at what the Bible teaches with regards to sexuality and it is more than plain to see that God does not permit homosexuality, sex outside of marriage. Marriage is explicitly described as the union of a man and woman. Sexuality should only be between a married man and a woman. If you could find me any scripture verse that speaks that homosexuality is OK, or that marriage is between anything but a man or a woman, I’d love for you to please let me know and I’m pretty sure that the rest of the Christian world would love that revelation as well.

  • Rick Olson

    Scripture is not that convoluted around gender issues. You can either conduct your life as God has called us to do or you can do your own thing. But I suggest that it is more honest (and healthy) to admit which you are doing rather than trying to bend God’s word and modify the world’s understanding of His desires to fit your agenda. Shaw was honest when he said he was an atheist because it afforded him freedom to pursue his desires. God has called me to love you regardless of your behaviour or orientation, and if yours is anti-scriptural, your sin is no greater than those sins of we who are heterosexual. You don’t see heterosexuals in the church trying to create acceptance for adultery do you? We are all sinners so let us not view any as superior. At the same time, let’s not deny sin when we see it.

  • Steven Mitchell

    Way to speak out M.E. Lane! Sexual education coupled with the Theological experience is very important. I wish we would have been doing that back when I was in seminary. I was able to show the film, “Call Me Malcolm” last week in a study group and it was a great help in allowing those viewers to learn a little more about the journey of a transgendered person. There were both gay and straights watching and both groups were greatful for that exposure as a way to be a more compassionate, care and open congregation to those looking for answers and the support of Christians. We have come a long way, just being able to have a forum such as this!

  • ALCutillas

    Im a faithful Christian Catholic from the Philippines and i found some views that are faithful to the word of God. Despite of different sexual orientations every person is having, i guess what is important if we really try to do God’s will is to have a clear conscience, in everything we do, and to whoever we can relate sexually (whatever sexual orientation) we shopud treat every person with equal dignity as we are all created by God to be like Him…To live peacefully (happily and to have a clear and claen conscience) is the key in order to inherit eternl life…God bless us all!!!

  • Fred

    If there is anything we should care most in our life is our human emotion, yet as Stephanie implies in her comment, the Church besides equating sex with sin has been silent about sex. It is obvious that our human sexuality is a fundamental constituent in our human emotion. Also, it is observable that what we express as our pleasures/ joy, or fears/ sorrow, is related to how we feel and express ourselves sexually.
    Since the situations we encounter day after day relate to our sexuality, in our theological study, we need to consider theologically how we respond to our sexual reactions just as we consider theologically how we react to other challenging situations. In any given situation, what follows our joy or sorrow is our emotion, yet we theologically focus more on our joy or sorrow than our sexuality. We often laugh and celebrate if we are in joy, and thank God for the gift of laughing. We cry if in sorrow- and in our prayers ask God for his surpassing peace and joy, yet we do not freely celebrate the gift of sexuality and openly and comfortably thank God for our responsible and creative sexuality. It is obvious that we do not only celebrate the gift secretly, but also behave bashful and somehow weak whilst preaching/ teaching about responsible and creative sexuality. Also, it is observable that we do not celebrate openly and at ease the joy(feelings) which responsively and creatively comes out of the gift, as we celebrate thoughts and ideas which come from our reflections, yet our day- today situations trigger not only our conscious/subconscious faculties for ideas, but also our bodies chemically (hormones related to our sexuality) for the emotional feeling. Even, it is observable that our chemically set off bodies further activate our conscious/subconscious abilities to the point of envisioning and maneuvering sexually in response to our challenging situation and chemically set off bodies(e.g. think of how stress relates to heart beat, blood flow, and sexual feeling)
    However, according to my observation of various people in their day-today situations, not all joy and sorrow phenomena leave people without a challenge. Since joy/sorrow phenomenon arouses our human emotion which is an expression of human body, our sexual feelings and expressions must be one of our emotional expressions. Our situations (what we see, hear or feel/smell) trigger not only our conscious/subconscious faculties, but also our bodies chemically (think of hormones related to our sexuality). If in our theological study we only care about theological concepts and approaches in response to our challenging situations without in the same vein caring about how our bodies react sexually, we may not be holistically preparing for an effective response.