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.