Do No Harm
by KRISTIN KNUDSON HARRIS
"I can talk about sex in church."
"I can talk about SEX IN CHURCH!"
"I CAN TALK ABOUT SEX IN CHURCH!"
The chant grew louder as the speaker encouraged the audience to chant and look each other in the eye.
The Rev. Karen McClintock, an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and author of Preventing Sexual Abuse in Congregations: A Resource for Leaders, asked those gathered for the August 2006 denomination-wide training event, "Do No Harm - Do All the Good You Can," to think about what they had learned about sex in church. Her list was amusing - and sorely lacking. Included were:
• Boys will be boys.
• The pastor is shapeless.
• Never wear patent leather shoes.
• Girls should be virgins like Mary.
• Church camp is a good place to "neck."
• The choir sits behind a privacy panel.
• Girls can't wear sexy clothes to church.
• Communion takes place at a modesty rail.
• Even though the greeter gives you the creeps, you have to hug him to be polite.
Ms. McClintock said the church can't keep silent about sex.
"Talking about sex is the first step in abuse prevention," she said.
The "Do No Harm" training focused on prevention, intervention and just resolution in cases of sexual misconduct in congregations, agencies and seminaries. Sponsored by five United Methodist agencies - General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, General Board of Global Ministries, General Board of Discipleship, General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, General Council on Finance and Administration - the four-day event brought together Safe Sanctuary groups, conference response teams, bishops, district superintendents, chancellors, and seminary students and faculty with scholars and theologians who have studied and developed guidelines and policies for annual conferences and local churches.
Garlinda Burton, chief executive of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, explained:
"We are working together to make our church a safer place, a more comfortable place, a holy place. In the church, we haven't had real clear and positive adult conversation about what is appropriate and inappropriate sexual behavior between clergy and parishioners, clergy and staff, and clergy and clergy. We are dedicated to helping the church continue to talk about these things because the cost of not having these conversations is too great."
The cost has already been large. The commission has fielded more than 65 calls related to allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct within United Methodist churches, and a 2005 survey by the commission found that 67 percent of respondents said they had experienced or observed sexual harassment within the church. Of clergy respondents, 72 percent said they had personally experienced sexual harassment, usually in the form of unsolicited sexual comments. The most common response to the harassment was to ignore it.
"We need to say what needs to be said," Ms. McClintock said. She recounted hearing United Methodist Bishop Leontine T.C. Kelly remind a congregation that God created all people to be sexual beings, and if God made us, it has to be good.
Ms. McClintock recalled using the word menstruation in a sermon. Following the service, an 80-year-old woman came to her in tears and told her it was the first time she felt her body was welcome in church. She had heard pastors talk about mind and spirit, but she said she'd felt she had to check her physical self at the door.
The Rev. Monica Coleman, author of The Dinah Project: A Handbook for Congregational Response to Sexual Violence, agreed with Ms. McClintock. An ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Ms. Coleman is director of womanist and religious studies at Bennett College in Greensboro, N.C., a school that receives support from United Methodist Women's Mission Giving.
"Sexual violence occurs in public and private places - homes, workplaces, schools, religious communities - yet sexual violence is not often discussed in religious settings," Ms. Coleman said. "The silence contributes to misunderstandings and myths that blame the victims."
The Dinah Project is named for Jacob's daughter, Dinah, mentioned in Genesis 34. In this Hebrew Bible story, Dinah is raped by Shechem. Her brothers revenge the rape by killing the rapist. The biblical account mentions Dinah only in passing. We never read her account of the event or get a glimpse of her feelings.
Following her own rape by an ex-boyfriend, Ms. Coleman eventually came to understand that sexual violence is a problem of the entire community, whether that be a secular community or worship community.
"The church didn't know what to do," she said. "They thought of rape as a legal issue or a women's issue. Sexual activity makes churches uncomfortable. They forget it's a crime against the body and the soul."
Believing the church should be a safe place to talk about rape and other sexual abuse, Ms. Coleman helped found the Dinah Project at Metropolitan Interdenominational Church in Nashville, Tenn. That church welcomes those who have experienced sexual violence. Worship services focused on forgiveness and healing are integral to the church's ministry. In its first three years, the Dinah Project reached approximately 3,000 people, plus radio and television audiences.
Ms. Coleman's book recounts her experiences in founding the program and gives congregations insight into how to respond to those who have been abused.
Faith communities' responseThe FaithTrust Institute in Seattle, Wash., is a leader in providing resources and information for the faith community as it deals with the issues of abuse and misconduct. Founded by the Rev. Marie Fortune, the institute is an international, multi-faith organization working to end sexual and domestic violence.
When it began in 1977, the institute focused on education, clergy training and pastoral care of sexual-assault survivors. FaithTrust entered the national arena in 1979, when its focus on advocacy and education expanded to include child abuse and domestic violence.
In 1983, the institute received its first call from a woman who had experienced sexual abuse by her pastor. This call became the catalyst for developing its clergy-ethics program. It became clear that for most clergy, their theological education and religious upbringing had not prepared them to adequately respond to violence against women in a religious context.
Candace Winslow of Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas, is part of a program addressing that concern.
"The church needs to be a safe place to talk about domestic violence," said Ms. Winslow, lay chair of the steering committee of the Dallas church's Violence Intervention and Prevention (VIP) program, through which the church proactively addresses the needs of family-violence victims. "We have to be a catalyst to reduce incidences of domestic violence."
With statistics stating that one in four women will be a victim of family violence in her lifetime, one in three teens will experience violence in a dating relationship, and 50 percent of men who abuse their wives also abuse their children, a member of the congregation, who is described as an "historical victim" of domestic violence, spearheaded the program. Based on the statistics, she said it is almost a given that victims are part of the congregation. The program has two goals:
• Raise congregational awareness of domestic violence, and
• Serve as a model to other churches.
The 3-year-old ministry provides legal services, referrals to counseling and other services. The focus is internal to the congregation.
On average, the ministry receives four to six calls a month.
"We ask ourselves, shouldn't our phone be ringing more?" Ms. Winslow said. "But it's not like Habitat for Humanity or Carpenters for Christ where you can see tangible results. This ministry is not a numbers ministry. It's a marathon, not a sprint."
Located on the Southern Methodist University Campus, Highland Park United Methodist Church has an average Sunday worship attendance of more than 2,000. During October - Domestic Violence Awareness Month - the program is highlighted with a speaker during worship. Goods are collected for local shelters during April - Child Abuse Prevention Month.
The ministry's staff person answers the resource line. Resource cards the size of business cards are placed in stalls of women's restrooms at the church. The cards are small enough a woman who is in a domestic violence situation, or who has a friend who is, can tuck one in a purse, pocket or shoe. Ms. Winslow said she always carries a few because with such high statistical rates, the chance of encountering someone with domestic violence in their background or present life is likely.
"Our job is to promote healthy family relationships," Ms. Winslow said. "Our church is bold enough to let everyone who comes into our building know we have a position on domestic violence. We've dedicated time, staff and finances. Amazing good comes out of what we do."
* Kristin Knudson Harris is communications coordinator for the United Methodist General Commission on the Status and Role of Women. She lives in Des Moines, Iowa.