Church grapples with sexual ethicsLatest News Wednesday, August 11th, 2010
A UMNS Report
By Barbara Dunlap-Berg*
It began three decades ago with anxious phone calls and letters.
Women dealing with sexual misconduct started to contact the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women in Chicago and say, “I see that you are a women’s support organization, and I’ve had this experience in the church. Nobody in my local church knows how to help me. I don’t know what to do. Can you help me?”
Rather than trying to provide a one-size-fits-all answer to questions about sexual ethics, the commission went to work — studying trends, developing training modules and providing information for the church. And in the years that followed, other United Methodist general agencies got on board.
“We have grown into an interagency movement,” said Garlinda Burton, top staff executive for the commission. “We are branching out and embracing the different aspects of the denomination that also have a stake in this discussion.”
To that end, the commission has scheduled a churchwide training opportunity on sexual ethics on Jan. 26-29, 2011, in Houston. The event, titled “Do No Harm,” is for anyone in The United Methodist Church who has a leadership role in sexual-ethics training or in intervening when sexual misconduct occurs.
Burton said the gathering will focus on prevention of sexual misconduct in churches or by church professionals or anyone in a ministerial role, intervention techniques for adjudicating cases and information on how to arrive at just resolutions.
It is geared primarily toward bishops, district superintendents, and response and safe-sanctuary teams in annual (regional) conferences. Planners hope for 150 to 200 participants.
Today, United Methodists will find paragraphs in the church’s Social Principles and Book of Resolutions about human sexuality, sexual abuse and sexual harassment.
Burton credited the commission with “getting policies in the Book of Discipline that require training, name sexual misconduct as a chargeable offense, and require policies and procedures to be published.”
And while many aspects of the issue have changed, much remains the same.
‘We see this as a pastoral role’
The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, defines sexual harassment as “any unwanted sexual comment, advance, or demand, either verbal or physical, that is reasonably perceived by the recipient as demeaning, intimidating, or coercive.”
Sexual harassment should be understood as an exploitation of power, according to the Discipline. “Sexual harassment includes, but is not limited to, the creation of a hostile or abusive working environment resulting from discrimination on the basis of gender,” the book says.
Women continue to be “disproportionately targeted” for sexual abuse and sexual harassment in the church, Burton said. The majority of complaints the commission receives come from laywomen where the perpetrators or alleged perpetrators are clergymen.
Often, Burton said, the women “have no idea how to file a complaint. They have no idea whether anyone will listen. They don’t know that sexual misconduct is a chargeable offense in The United Methodist Church, and that there are remedies, that there is a place for them to go. They don’t know whom to contact. So most of our work is helping to point victim survivors to the correct person through which they can file a complaint.”
The commission’s goal, she explained, is not to investigate or to resolve complaints, “but to make sure our church leaders are equipped to deal with complaints in a way that not only has legal integrity, but also has pastoral integrity.”
“If the church cannot adequately address sexual misconduct and make people feel safe,” Burton declared, “we are not being a credible witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. We see this as a pastoral role.”
Ninety percent of the calls to the commission are laity complaining about clergy. However, as more women enter ordained ministry and congregations are unsure how to relate to women as pastors, clergywomen are reporting harassment.
A handful of clergymen, Burton said, have reported harassment as well. “Men are becoming more comfortable in drawing boundaries with their congregants and — when a congregant crosses the boundary — in seeking help for that.”
The commission also hears from men who feel that clergywomen have harassed or sexually abused them. “We get clergy-on-clergy misconduct and harassment calls,” Burton added.
Safe and sacred spaces
She is encouraged that the church is “getting more serious about education and prevention. I think most of our annual conferences in the United States require some sort of boundary and sexual ethics training for their clergy,” she said. Some conferences require something every year, others every quadrennium.
Safe-sanctuary training focuses on congregants, parents, adult workers with youth and adult workers with developmentally delayed adults. “Safe sanctuary” is a term used to indicate that churches are providing a safe place for children and adults, one free from abuse, harassment or misconduct.
Kansas East was the first annual (regional) conference to require background checks and certification of anyone working with children and youth on any level in the church. The conference has certified 11,000 people, according to Safe and Sacred Space coordinator Nancy Brown.
“Now,” Burton said, “the commission is in conversation with them about replicating that training as an offering for the entire denomination because they’re doing such an excellent job.”
‘Insecurity about talking about the issue’
Burton believes sex is a hot-button topic because the church doesn’t know how to talk about it.
“Whenever there is a complaint about sexual misconduct,” she asserted, “we focus on the sexuality instead of the sacred-trust part of it. It’s not the sex that is important. It is the fact that personal boundaries have been crossed, the church has not been a safe place for persons who are children of God and abuse has taken the form of sexual abuse.
“When you add the misconduct part, it just deepens our level of insecurity about talking about the issue.”
Burton believes her agency’s work is vital to United Methodism’s future.
“We don’t want anything to keep (anyone) from feeling they have a safe and welcoming place in the church.”
Barbara Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications, Nashville, TN. For more information call (615) 742-5489 or email: email@example.com.
Registration open for ‘Do No Harm 2011’
“Do No Harm 2011” is a sexual ethics summit addressing the prevention of and response to abuse, misconduct and harassment of a sexual nature, particularly by people in ministerial roles (both lay and clergy) within The United Methodist Church. The United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women has scheduled the event for Jan. 26-29, 2011, in Houston.
Early registration is now available online at a discounted rate of $350 per person. Pre-meeting workshops will be offered at an additional cost of $35. Regular registration, between Aug. 15 and Oct. 31, is $425. Late registration, between Nov. 1 and Jan. 15, is $450. Annual (regional) conferences can change participants, if necessary, after registration and pre-payment. People can register at www.gcsrw.org.