Div School revises sexuality curriculum

Recent efforts to redesign the Divinity School’s curriculum have earned it a place on the Religious Institute’s list of sexually healthy and responsible seminaries.

In response to its failure to make the previous list in 2009, the school began requiring students to take at least one sexuality-related course prior to graduation and used a $10,000 grant from the Religious Institute — which promotes sexual health, education and justice in religious communities — to revamp a workshop that addresses issues of sexuality in students’ ministerial careers. The list, which was released last month, evaluated seminaries nationwide on the prevalence of themes of sexuality in their coursework and on institutional policies addressing sexuality. Despite the Divinity School’s placement on the list, professors and administrators said sexuality-related topics could be more effectively integrated into the Divinity School curriculum.
”[Students] need to be aware of the issues in the contemporary world that are going to trouble their congregations,” Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge said.

Lucinda Huffaker, director of supervised ministries at the Divinity School who co-teaches the 16-hour “Negotiating Boundaries” workshop that is required for Divinity School students who hope to intern in ministries, said the revised workshop places a greater emphasis on sexuality and on creating safe spaces in churches for victims of sexual assault through case studies and other group activities.

She added that the previous version of the workshop was ineffective and overly simplistic — so much so that students frequently joked that its main message was “not to sleep with your parishioners.”

Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Emilie Townes said the school also worked to make its community more inclusive by adding a formal “inclusivity statement” to its mission statement in 2010, welcoming all races, religions and sexual orientations to the school.

As the school bolsters its sexuality curriculum, it is building on a collection of courses where professors have already incorporated themes of sexuality into their syllabi. Carolyn Sharp DIV ’94 GRD ’00, who teaches courses on the Hebrew Bible, said she felt the Bible contains many references to gender and sexuality that are important to study.

“The Bible presents us with wonderful and troubling stories and poems about the body, relationships in community and sexualized dynamics of power,” Sharp said. “It’s crucial for students to learn to deal wisely with sacred texts about the body and sexuality.”

Still, Huffaker said the school will need to work to integrate sexuality more effectively into its standard coursework, an effort she described as “an ongoing struggle.” She added that discussion about the concept of “building sexually healthy congregations” should be more widespread at seminaries nationwide.

“The whole thing about preparing for religious leadership is protecting the vulnerable,” Huffaker said. “So often those things have to do with sexuality and interpersonal relationships, and those are things that we tend to shy away from talking about.”

Kate Ott DIV ’00, who worked for the Religious Institute and designed its initial 2009 study, said it is often difficult to implement strong sexuality-themed coursework in seminaries. Students have the challenge of addressing a wide range of differing opinions on sexuality while adhering to their religious traditions, she said.

Nineteen other seminaries made it onto the Religious Institute’s list this year.

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