Putting This Conversation in Context
PUTTING THIS CONVERSATION IN CONTEXT
Delivered by Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
IGRC Clergy Sexual Ethics Training Events
Mt. Vernon West Salem Trinity UMC
April 17, 2013
It’s that time again. For the next four days, required Clergy Sexual Ethics Training Events will be held across the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference. Michelle Foster will engage us in conversation on topics such as pornography and obscenity, social media and sexualized behavior, clergy boundaries and sexual misconduct to name a few. They are extant in the body of Christ. As importantly, Michelle will help us to strengthen gifts and skills that may not be fully habitual, namely self-care, internalized healthy practices for ministry and unobstructed self-awareness. As our seminary education equips us to serve as servant leaders, so Training on Clergy Ethics teaches us that our positions of power carry with them inherent problems, difficulties and challenges if misused and/or abused. On the other hand, embracing Clergy Sexual Ethics enables us to be the best that we can be.
Sex, sexuality, sexual orientation, sexual discrimination, sexual harassment and sexual abuse are familiar and pervasive issues in church and society. Ask Pope Francis. In his first meeting with the press, the Pope informs them of his interest in helping the poor. St. Francis of Assisi is his religious namesake and paradigm ministry. At the same time, the news media inform Pope Francis that they want to know what he is going to do about the crisis over child sexual abuse by priests in the Roman Catholic Church.
Similarly, United Methodists pose the same question not confined to child abuse. To avoid the pitfalls of sexual discrimination, harassment or abuse, the church tries to equip its leadership. If sexual misconduct is alleged or identified, our denomination has Disciplinary steps that can be taken to discern the truth and/or bring just resolution where victim and victimizer exist. Much of what we learn in our mandatory Quadrennial Sexual Ethics Training Event is more than the mantra “it’s better to be safe than sorry.” Simply put, we desire to do the right thing. We want to do God’s will.
In an article published in the January – March 2007 article UM Men magazine, M. Garlinda Burton, former General Secretary of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, talked about sexual harassment in the local church. She delineated a variety of situations gleaned from a survey of United Methodist attitudes. Men crossed the line more than women. For example, a) A man on PPR told his female pastor that she was “too pretty” and so he felt “distracted in worship.” a) The wife of a pastor lamented the ordination of women. “It might tempt her husband to stray,” she said. c) Men were cautioned to watch sexual comments, avoid flirting, gestures of anger, physical and verbal. d) All leaders and pastors were warned about hugs. Some hugs are harmless; other hugs are harmful. For others, hugs are never alright. They prefer that others “keep their hands to themselves.” A handshake or greeting will do for them.
An excerpt of paragraph 161 (l) in the 2012 Book of Discipline offers this perspective. “We believe human sexuality is God’s good gift. One abuse (not two, three or four) of this good gift is sexual harassment. We define sexual harassment as any unwanted sexual comment, advance, or demand, either verbal or physical, that is reasonably (interpretation difficult) perceived by the recipient as demeaning, intimidating or coercive. Sexual harassment must be understood as an exploitation of a power relationship (e.g. pastoral and Episcopal) rather than an exclusively sexual issue. 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.”
Worse and more damaging to the pastoral role are contemporary expressions of Paul’s directions concerning marriage in First Corinthians seven, verse nine. Paul alleges that some of his first century partners, men and women, ought “to marry rather than burn.” Rightly or wrongly, the Apostle suggests that some co-workers” do not have self-control.” (I Cor. 7:9) Lack of self-control and leading the church on behalf of Christ are incompatible with good leadership. One could see his writing and the resultant discussion as a Pauline attempt at Clergy Sexual Ethics. Quite frankly, Paul wants to grow the church, to connect men and women to the “life, death and resurrected salvific power of Jesus Christ.” If any of his leaders lacked self-control, the best efforts to grow the church would suffer mightily.
Second, contemporary expressions of David and Bathsheba still exist. Persons in power can take a man’s wife or wife’s husband. In David’s case, the tragedy does not end there. Bathsheba’s husband Uriah dies needlessly on the battlefield. Bathsheba marries the king unexpectedly coerced by his power as much as she is with child. Their baby dies after childbirth. Consequently, Bathsheba is heartbroken and David is devastated. Furthermore, David experiences loss so deep that the pain, illness, stress and depression brought on by crossing boundaries plus the illness and death of his baby nearly take him under. Yet, God sustains David in the long journey of confession and restoration.
Third, e-mails, blogs, texts, Facebook, Twitter, cell phones, cameras, computers, radio, television, video, magazines, cards and letters plus new forms of media connecting church leaders with people in our congregations offer a multitude of avenues to cross boundaries and victimize those we serve. And yet, many clergy never open that door.
Genesis 39 speaks of a man with a good understanding of sexual ethics. Joseph lives in Potiphar’s house. He is a slave, handsome and good looking. Potiphar’s wife notices. Daily, she tries to seduce him. Joseph politely refuses. His rationale, to do so would be sinning against Potiphar and God. One day, Potiphar’s wife catches hold of his garments with the same request. Joseph runs out of the house but not before a piece of his garment is left in her hand. Angered, Potiphar’s wife uses that piece of his garment to frame Joseph. Accused of sexual abuse, Joseph ends up in prison.
Clergy Sexual Ethics Training educates, encourages, requires propels and helps those who take it seriously to keep making the right choices regardless of the cost. Joseph does that. Doing the right thing is something that numerous men and women of the cloth can and do accomplish daily but not without respecting boundaries, prayer, self-awareness, constant training, learning and staying faithful to the One who called us out to serve in the first place, Almighty God. One songwriter says it well in Hymn 413, verses 1, 2 & 4:
“A charge to keep I have, a God to glorify, a never dying soul to save, and fit it for the sky.
To serve the present age, my calling to fulfill. O may it all my powers engage to do my Master’s will.
Help me to watch and pray, and on thyself rely, assured if I my trust betray. I shall forever die.”