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Toward a Vision of Sexually Healthy Faith Communities

Debra W. Haffner

This book is designed to help our congregation’s lay and professional leadership specifically reflect on the issues of safety, health, conflict, comfort, and justice in the context of becoming a safe congregation. These are issues that affect our relationships on all levels of congregational life. It is no secret that some of our congregations, like the congregations of other religious denominations, have been roiled by cases of clergy misconduct, sexual abuse, harassment, and safety issues.

Unitarian Universalism was one of the first denominations in the country to address the issues and challenges of sexual abuse prevention, exploitation, and behavioral and safety issues. We published Creating Safe Congregations in 1997. We are proud of our strides in other areas of sexual health and justice as well. For the past forty years, the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) has been a leader in sexual rights and sexual justice. As early as 1963, we passed a resolution supporting the legalization of abortion. In 1970, we passed a resolution to end discrimination against homosexual and bisexual people. Our Welcoming Congregation program is a model for other denominations. In the late 1960s, we developed the About Your Sexuality program; today’s Our Whole Lives curriculum series is a model for comprehensive lifespan sexuality education in faith communities and in schools. We have been leaders in the marriage equality movement, with Unitarian Universalist (UU) ministers on the front lines; the first same sex marriage in the state of Massachusetts was performed at the headquarters of the UUA.

In the light of these inspiring accomplishments we are also called to ask: What else might our congregations do to address sexual health and justice issues? Can our congregations say that they are both safe and sexually healthy faith communities? Is there more to do than offer Our Whole Lives to middle school youth, become a welcoming congregation, and write and adopt a safe congregation covenant and policy? Let us begin by looking at the “Definition of Sexual Health” issued by U.S. surgeon general David Satcher in 2001:

We must understand that sexuality encompasses more than sexual behavior, that the many aspects of sexuality include not only the physical, but the mental and spiritual as well, and that sexuality is a core component of personality. Sexual health is not limited to the absence of disease or dysfunction, nor is its importance confined to just the reproductive years. It includes the ability to understand and weigh the risks, responsibilities, outcomes, and impacts of sexual action and to practice abstinence when appropriate. It includes freedom from sexual abuse and discrimination and the ability of individuals to integrate their sexuality into their lives, derive pleasure from it, and to reproduce if they so choose.

I coined the term sexually healthy faith community to identify a faith community that is committed to fostering spiritual, sexual, and emotional health among the congregation and providing a safe environment where sexuality issues are addressed with respect, mutuality, and openness. A sexually healthy faith community promotes the integration of sexuality and spirituality in worship, preaching, pastoral care, youth and adult religious education, and social action programs. It makes a commitment to a sexual ethic that is not based on a double standard and understands that dealing with sexuality is an issue of spiritual wholeness. By addressing sexuality openly and holistically within the faith community, we model that sexuality and spirituality are inextricably connected.

A sexually healthy faith community is characterized by:

  • religious leadership that has experience and training in worship, preaching, and counseling about sexuality issues
  • sexuality education for children and youth and a variety of services and programs to support the sexuality needs of the adults in the community
  • a commitment to welcoming and valuing all people and all types of families into the faith community as full participating members
  • explicit policies against sexual exploitation or harassment of any kind within the faith community
  • an active program working for sexual justice in the congregation, community, state, and nation

All faith-based communities are called to address the sexuality needs of their congregants. Every clergy person counsels parishioners who are struggling with sexual issues. Every faith community knows that the sacred gift of sexuality can be abused or exploited; congregants experience domestic violence, adolescent pregnancy, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, homophobia, and sexism. Many denominations have recognized the importance of sexuality education for teenagers; some, including the UUA, have made a commitment to sexuality education, from kindergarten through the elderly years.

Some congregations have developed a steering committee on sexuality issues to conduct an overview assessment and develop a plan to improve the sexual health of the community. Groups of lay and professional staff can be trained in sexuality to become sexuality resource persons or sexuality task forces. These task forces can offer programs on religion and sexuality within their congregations, survey congregation members on their interest in and commitment to becoming a sexually healthy faith community, or choose a specific area, such as working on policies for sexual abuse prevention.

I suggest five building blocks both for a sexually healthy faith community and as part of a larger vision, a vision of a sexually healthy Unitarian Universalist community:

  • sexually healthy religious professionals who can offer sexually healthy worship, preaching, and pastoral care
  • administrative policies that support sexual health and justice
  • lifespan sexuality education
  • welcoming and affirming congregations
  • social action for sexual justice

(For more in-depth discussion, see A Time to Build: Creating Sexually Healthy Faith Communities.)

Religious Professionals

One of the most important building blocks for a sexually healthy congregation is a staff of sexually healthy religious professionals. Sexually healthy religious professionals—clergy, religious educators, pastoral counselors—are comfortable with their own sexuality, have the skills to provide pastoral care and worship on sexuality issues, and are committed to sexual justice in the congregation and the society at large. Ideally, clergy and religious educators have formal graduate level coursework in human sexuality as part of their training, although unfortunately few seminaries offer such courses. At minimum, however, ministers and religious educators should take graduate-level courses that include basic knowledge of human sexuality, an opportunity for students to increase their awareness of their own sexual attitudes, and basic counseling and education skills. Unitarian Universalist religious professionals need at least some familiarity with sacred texts on sexuality, Jewish and Christian teachings and history related to sexuality, the UUA’s positions and policies on sexual issues, and opportunities to examine the impact of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and homophobia in their ministry.

Clergy and other pastoral counselors must also be skilled in handling the sexuality-related needs of their parishioners. This can include a wide range of issues, such as couples struggling with issues of sexual dysfunction, infidelity, or divorce; parishioners seeking support for the decision to come out as gay or lesbian; families dealing with teenage pregnancy or a gay child; and men and women trying to overcome a legacy of childhood physical and sexual abuse. Every clergyperson and chaplain can think of times that congregants have raised sexuality issues in their private offices. Ideally, clergy will have opportunities to take workshops on counseling congregants with sexual concerns. All clergy should have certified sex counselors and therapists in their referral networks (for a state listing of certified sexuality professionals, see www.aasect.org.)

A sexually healthy religious professional also feels comfortable preaching and leading worship about sexuality issues. Talking about these issues from the pulpit can help congregants understand that sexuality is a sacred gift; that it can be talked about in a respectful and serious manner; that the clergy person is comfortable talking about sexuality issues (and therefore open to discussing these issues in pastoral counseling); and that there is a prophetic progressive voice on sexual justice.

Sexuality issues can be integrated into the worship life of the community. Congregations might offer candlelight services of remembrance for people with HIV/AIDS, people who have lost pregnancies, and survivors of abuse. Sexuality issues can be addressed in newsletter columns, bulletins, and announcements. The congregation can offer celebrations of puberty; ceremonies for divorce, remarriage, and adoption; and services honoring those in middle age (some congregations have had “crone” services for women in menopause) or elders. Infant baptisms, namings, or dedications can provide an opportunity to celebrate new life, diverse families, and the commitment to all children in the congregation.

To begin the process of making your faith community sexually healthy, ask the following questions to help determine where changes might be made:

  • Have the minister(s) and the religious educator(s) taken a graduate level course or intensive workshop on sexuality issues?
  • Is there at least an annual worship service that focuses on a sexuality issue?
  • Does the congregation take notice of opportunities to address a sexuality issue, such as Women’s History Month (March), Child Abuse Awareness Month (April), National Teenage Pregnancy Prevention Month (May), Gay Pride Day/National Coming Out Day (June), and World AIDS Day (December)? Does the minister have certified sex counselors or therapists in their referral network, including someone to call on for consultation and supervision when needed?

Administrative Policies

There are a variety of policies and procedures in every congregation that give subtle messages about the community’s commitment to sexual health. Most of our congregations have by-laws that state that they do not discriminate on the basis of sex, marital status, and sexual orientation. But many have not yet amended that list to include a commitment not to discriminate against people who are transgender. New member packets may mention that the church is a Welcoming Congregation without mentioning a commitment to serving and welcoming all families, including those without children, single adults, single parents, grandparents raising children, same-sex couples, and those in alternative living arrangements. A review of the congregation’s bylaws, newsletters, Sunday order of service, new member packet, and bulletin boards may give clues to the congregation’s commitment to sexual health issues. Having pamphlets available from local Planned Parenthood, Bisexual/Gay/Lesbian/Transgender (BGLT) organizations, AIDS organizations, the domestic crisis center, and sexuality counseling services, as well as books about sexuality and religion in the library both provides resources for congregants and signals openness to engaging sexuality issues.

Informal sexuality education takes place in every congregation, and it is conveyed by the gender, age, family formation, and sexual orientation of the clergy person, religious educator, president of the board, members of the board of trustees, and religious education teachers. Is there gender diversity? Age diversity? Family diversity? Whether one gender, age, or marital status predominates in certain types of positions or there is diversity displays a subtle message about sexuality. Consider if there is a way the leadership of the congregation can become more inclusive and diverse. Assess your congregation’s unofficial message about sexuality in light of the following questions

  • Do by-laws, hiring practices, and personnel policies address
    • nondiscrimination on sexual orientation?
    • nondiscrimination on gender identity?
    • gender equity?
    • sexual harassment?
    • inclusive language?
    • family diversity?
  • Do the bulletin and membership packet include information about
    • nondiscrimination on sexual orientation?
    • nondiscrimination on gender identity?
    • gender equity?
    • sexual harassment?
    • inclusive language?
    • family diversity?
  • Does the congregation’s library include books on sexuality issues?
  • Is there information about community referral sources on sexuality issues posted on the bulletin board?
  • Are pamphlets on sexuality issues available in the social hall or vestibule?

Lifespan Sexuality Education

Since the late 1960s, UU congregations have been committed to sexuality education for our middle school youth. In the 1990s, we expanded that commitment to develop the sexuality education series Our Whole Lives (OWL), which includes curricula from kindergarten through adulthood. Indeed, our curricula (developed jointly with the United Church of Christ Board of Homeland Ministries) are a model not only for other denominations but also for many public and private schools across the country. And we provide short-term intensive training programs for the volunteers and educators who teach the program.

At the time of this writing, a majority of our congregations teach Our Whole Lives at either the middle school or high school level. However, fewer are teaching the elementary school curricula or the adult program. Many congregations have a long history of teen sexuality programs but few such programs for adults. Sexuality education is a lifelong process. Our needs for education and information about sexuality change throughout our lives. A single twenty-five-year-old has different sexuality needs than a fifty-year-old who is recently divorced and dating again. A couple who has been married or partnered for twenty-five years has different needs than a new couple considering a commitment ceremony. Seniors have needs for different information than those in midlife or those in young adulthood. People with small children have different sexuality needs than those whose children have returned to live at home after college.

Current life situation is not the only factor affecting our adult sexuality experience. Many adults have experienced brokenness and suffering about their sexuality, often originating decades ago. Survivors of childhood sexual abuse carry issues into their adult lives. For example, 20 percent of women who have been forced to have sex report that they are depressed compared to 12 percent of women who have not. Many adults struggle with issues related to their sexual orientation or the orientation of their children and spouses. Many of our congregants experience sexual difficulty in their marriages; studies estimate that as many as four in ten couples experience sexual dysfunction and 4 percent of married couples are no longer having sexual relations. Unfortunately, most congregations are silent about these issues while people in the pews struggle alone without the support of their faith communities. Congregations can offer formalized sexuality education for adults as part of their adult education programs and host expert sexuality speakers, discussion groups around current movies or books with sexual themes, and courses for parents on how to provide sexuality education for their children.

Hosting support groups for adults on a variety of topics can be a helpful way to address the particular sexuality needs of congregants. A minister, social worker, or psychologist in the congregation can facilitate such a group. Lay groups, also known as self-help groups, can also be effective. These groups are co-facilitated by people in the group who share a particular issue in their lives. In the case of such a group, the minister or congregation coordinator identifies one or two people who are interested, helps to find a place and time, and announces the meeting in the newsletter or bulletin. The group then runs on its own. Small group ministry groups or covenant groups may also want to periodically select a sexuality topic as a theme for the group to discuss.

Support groups can include single adults or one representative from each age group (singles 25–35, 35–55, over 55); divorced people; widows and widowers; survivors of sexual abuse; couples preparing for marriage; couples who want to enrich their marriage or relationship; people who are HIV positive; parents of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and/or transgender children; and BGLT groups, to name some examples.

Consider what new programs your congregation might offer after answering the following questions:

  • Is Our Whole Lives offered for
    • parents?
    • grades K–1?
    • grades 4–6?
    • middle school?
    • high school?
    • young adults?
    • adults?
    • elders?
  • Are the Our Whole Lives instructors observed at least annually by a professional sexuality educator, and do they have access to a professional sexuality educator for supervision and consultation?
  • Does the youth group develop guidelines for teen sexual and romantic interactions in the congregation each year and display them prominently?
  • Do you offer support groups for adults with specific sexuality issues?

Welcoming Congregations

The UUA has been one of the leaders in the movement to welcome people of all sexual and gender orientations. We passed our first policy barring discrimination against gays and lesbians in 1970 and have led the religious community in ordaining BGLT clergy and performing same-sex unions and marriage ceremonies.

A sexually healthy faith community welcomes and includes the concerns of BGLT persons in worship, education, programming, social justice, and social events—indeed at every level of congregational life

Many congregations consider themselves open and affirming of people of all sexual orientations and ask why they need to go through the eighteen-month process of formally becoming a Welcoming Congregation. There are at least three reasons. One is that it allows the congregation to be listed as a Welcoming Congregation on both its own and the UUA’s web sites, directories, and other lists, thereby signaling to the community a commitment to these issues. The process also gives people a chance to examine their own homophobia and heterosexism in small safe groups, an opportunity rarely provided elsewhere, and encourages dialogue between BGLT persons and heterosexual members of the community in a way that may not have occurred previously. And finally, it is an opportunity for community building and renewed commitment to hospitality and inclusivity.

Many of our congregations that are committed to sexual orientation issues are less familiar with how to welcome people who are transgender. Indeed, many of us have not been educated about issues of gender identity and confuse it with sexual orientation. Gender identity is not the same as sexual orientation or biological sex. Sexual orientation refers to who we are physically, emotionally, and romantically attracted to, whether we are homosexual, heterosexual, or bisexual. Gender identity refers to our internal sense and external expression of our gender role, whether we are masculine, feminine, androgynous, or transgender. Biological sex refers to our physical anatomy and our chromosomes; we may be male, female, or intersex.

The word transgender covers a wide spectrum of people whose internal sense of their gender identity differs from the gender role society expects from someone of their biological sex. Transgender people include those who are intersex (formerly known as hermaphrodites), cross dressers (people who prefer to present in the clothes of the other gender, often as a way to express their internal sense of gender, to reduce anxiety, or for erotic reasons), transsexuals (including people who have had hormone treatment and/or surgery to change their bodies into the other biological sex), and people who express their gender as a third gender, not identifiable as male or female. There may be transgender people in the congregation who have completed their transition and whose histories are unknown to the minister and congregants; other people may be beginning or in the midst of a transition or may vary their gender presentation from week to week.

Just as our congregations needed to educate themselves on sexual orientation, so we need to educate ourselves on gender identity and transgender issues. An adult education program or a sermon on this topic might be an important first step. A panel of transgender people telling their stories can be a very powerful education tool. Adding transgender people to congregational policies against discrimination and welcoming congregation policies is an important signal. Providing at least one bathroom on the premises that is unisex provides a comfortable way for a transgender person to use the facilities. Congregations can reach out to community organizations that serve transgender people to let them know the community is open and welcoming. (For more information, contact the UUA Office of Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Concerns.)

There are many ways to demonstrate a commitment to being a sexually inclusive congregation. Use the assessment questions that follow to think about what your faith community can do toward this goal:

  • Does worship include diverse family forms and orientations in its language and content? For example, are the words spouses and life partners used in place of husbands and wives? Do you say ”marriages” or “marriages and committed relationships”?
  • Do you provide commitment celebrations, same-sex union ceremonies or marriages, and memorial services for BGLT persons and their partners and families?
  • Are same-sex couples welcomed to share their lives and stories during worship or programs for adults?
  • Are BGLT persons welcomed and a commitment to sexual inclusivity explicitly mentioned in brochure and newsletters?
  • Does the congregation have relationships with local BGLT organizations for referrals and member support?
  • Does the congregation seek new members from the BGLT community through outreach, including notices in targeted media?

Social Action

Unitarian Universalist congregations have strong traditions of community service and involvement in social action. We are called to offer prophetic witness for sexual justice in the society as a whole, which can include advocating for sexuality education in schools and community agencies, access to sexual and reproductive health services, and an end to discrimination and violence against sexual minorities.

Involvement in social action on sexual justice issues can help the congregation

  • demonstrate support for all people in the community, not just the people in the congregation
  • make visible the congregation’s commitment to sexual justice
  • increase the congregation’s visibility and influence in the community
  • provide an opportunity to work with other faith communities
  • engage individual member involvement in the community
  • provide a forum for community-wide partnerships

Perhaps most importantly, involvement in social action on behalf of sexual justice provides a visible demonstration that there are many religious points of view on sexuality issues. Too often, only the viewpoints of the religious right are present in community controversies on sexuality issues. The media often only includes this point of view in discussions of such issues as the morality of abortion, gay rights, and sexuality education, pitting a religious voice from the religious right against a secular voice from the mainstream. Active involvement by clergy who support sexual justice is essential to assure that all religious voices are heard and considered. So is the involvement of the laity in these issues. Many conservative faith communities have visible public roles when such issues as sexuality education, sexual rights for sexual minorities, and reproductive choice are debated, but mainstream and progressive congregation members are often not present in equal numbers.

UU congregations that have experience with teaching Our Whole Lives can play an important role in supporting comprehensive sexuality education in the community’s public schools. Our experience in providing comprehensive sexuality education to the children and youth in our faith communities allows us to articulate the importance of such education and address the myths that arise. We can ask our individual members to support sexuality education for all of the community’s children. We can hold school board forums during elections, post information about a local pro-sexuality education coalition in our newsletters and on our bulletin boards, and write letters to the editor. We can encourage our religious educators and ministers to become involved in community partnerships for comprehensive sexuality education, providing a religious voice at these meetings. In the case of a controversy over the type of sexuality education offered in our community schools, we can encourage our clergy and social action committees to actively support comprehensive sexuality education and resist abstinence-only education, providing a religious voice during school board meetings and community forums. (For more ideas on how a congregation can support sexuality education, see A Time to Speak by Debra Haffner and The Advocacy Manual for Sexuality Education, Health, and Justice: Resources for Communities of Faith, edited by Sarah Gibb. For a theological framework that supports comprehensive sexuality education, see the “Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Sex Education” at www.religiousinstitute.org.)

Some congregations have voted to endorse the Religious Declaration on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing as a sign of their commitment to sexual justice and health. The Religious Declaration is a clarion call to the nation’s religious denominations, congregations, and clergy to support a positive vision of the relationship between sexuality and spirituality. It urges religious leaders and faith communities to provide comprehensive sexuality education, advocate for sexual and reproductive rights, and promote the full inclusion of women and sexual minorities in congregational life, denominations, and society at large. The Religious Declaration has been endorsed by more than 2,300 clergy and theologians from more than 35 faith traditions.

Congregational endorsement of the Religious Declaration becomes the congregation’s value statement on sexuality issues. Copies can be posted on bulletin boards, inserted into congregational handbooks, periodically run in the bulletin or newsletter, and given to new members. Posters of the Religious Declaration suitable for framing can be ordered from the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing (www.religiousinstitute.org).

The Social Action Committee can conduct a variety of activities in support of sexual justice. They can

  • conduct letter writing campaigns on behalf of legislation that is pending at the local, state, or national level on these issues
  • hold community forums on emerging sexual justice issues
  • participate in school board meetings, state legislative hearings, community rallies, and other events on issues like comprehensive sexuality education, reproductive choice, and marriage equality.
  • display a bulletin board on sexual justice issues in the foyer or meeting room
  • encourage the clergy to appear in the electronic media, speaking on behalf of a progressive religious view on sexuality
  • write opinion pieces for the local newspaper or cable station

Ask the following questions to help determine what changes you can make in your congregation to demonstrate your commitment to social action in support of sexual health:

  • Are you familiar with the UUA’s policies and resources on
    • reproductive choice?
    • sexuality education in schools?
    • HIV/AIDS?
    • sexual orientation?
    • gender identity?
  • Are the congregation’s positions on these issues periodically included in the newsletter or bulletin?
  • Does the minister endorse the Religious Declaration and is a copy of the Religious Declaration prominently posted?
  • Do you hold community forums on sexual justice issues? How often and on what issues?
  • Do members of the congregation participate in school board meetings?
    • state legislative hearings?
    • community rallies?

Becoming a sexually healthy faith community is a process. This program is designed to help us make real our commitment to being a community of right relations. Our faith is created and sustained by our relationships with each other. The authors and editors of this workbook hope that as you read the essays and work through the workshops that follow, your communities and relationships will be strengthened. We look forward to learning about your experiences with this program.

Our first Principle provides the foundation for our dedication to these issues. There is nothing more important than how we treat each other. A sexually healthy faith community respects every person’s dignity and worth, affirms sexuality as a sacred part of life, and commits to fostering spiritual, sexual, and emotional health.

As Unitarian Universalist congregations and members of the Unitarian Universalist Association, we can be proud of our leadership in sexual health and sexual justice issues. Many of our congregations have done the hard work of becoming Welcoming Congregations, implementing life span sexuality education programs, and instituting comprehensive policies to keep congregants safe from sexual abuse and harassment. We have spoken out prophetically for sexual justice. Through our actions, we have demonstrated how to be a Beloved Community. We are a model for other faith communities struggling with sexuality issues.

But we can do more. We are called upon as people of faith to acknowledge the inherent goodness of sexuality as part of creation and to respond with diligence to abuses of this sacred gift. We can commit ourselves to creating not just a congregation but a world where every person can embrace their sexuality with holiness and integrity.

Ultimately a commitment to developing a sexually healthy faith community needs to permeate every aspect of the community. The clergy, religious educators, board members, key committee members, parents, and youth must all share the commitment to sexual and spiritual wholeness. Sexual health is not limited to the adult or youth education program or the clergyperson’s willingness and ability to discuss sexuality issues. These are important, but they are not enough. We are called in community to promote sexual morality, justice, and healing.

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For more information contact safecongregations @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Friday, April 22, 2011.

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