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Skills for Educators

All Skills for Educators

Partnering with Communities of Faith to Discuss Sexuality Issues

by Maggi Ruth Boyer

This article is divided into the following sections:


Why Work with Communities of Faith

For many people, there is a strong and profound connection between faith beliefs and beliefs about sexuality. Many people yearn to talk about these connections in a faith context. Yet, all too often, discussions about sexuality do not take place in faith communities because the conversations are viewed as too controversial, no one on the clergy team feels qualified to facilitate, and/or there is concern that such discussions will be divisive or embarrassing.

Many congregation members and leaders would welcome the opportunity to explore the connections between faith and sexuality in a way that allows people of good will, good heart, and good faith to:

  • differ and raise questions,

  • recognize confusion and internal conflict,

  • learn accurate information together, and

  • celebrate the profound connection of "body and soul."

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Why Form Partnerships with Communities of Faith

It is helpful to examine your own motivations as a sexuality educator for working with communities of faith. For some, it is a natural extension of personal beliefs about the connections between sexuality and faith. For others, it is a way of developing credibility with a powerful group of people who can generate community support for comprehensive sexuality education, or prevention of adolescent pregnancy, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections (STIs). And for others, it is a way to reach a group of people with medically accurate information who might not be reached in other venues.

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Where to Start

Obviously, not all faith communities welcome conversations about sexuality. Some congregations are aligned with a fundamental viewpoint about sexuality which is antithetical to open discussion.

To find communities of faith that may be open to sexuality education efforts:

  • Look for congregations that have denominational statements supportive of a positive link between sexuality and faith. You can find denominational statements on the internet; use a search engine to locate the denomination's site and search on the site.

  • Look for clergy who participate on boards of non-profit organizations allied with women's rights, or other social justice issues, such as affordable housing, peace and justice activities, etc.

  • If there are associations of clergy of different faiths and denominations that meet regularly in your area, ask to be invited to those meetings to discuss what programs you could offer. Sometimes these associations are called "interfaith alliances" or "ministerial forums."

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How to Build a Partnership

Once you have identified a congregation with which you'd like to work, recognize how important it is to build a partnership with the clergy leadership, governing board, and/or significant adults in that community. Below is a list of suggested steps that can help to build that partnership:

  • Set up an appointment to speak with clergy/leaders.

  • Clarify what kinds of sexuality education assistance the clergy/leader would like to have (i.e., educational sessions, written materials, guest speakers at services, article for weekly bulletin, etc.) and with what populations (i.e., youth, parents, clergy). This information might be obtained through a preliminary phone call or short written questionnaire.
  • Clarify what outcomes clergy/leaders are hoping for and what the success measures should be.

  • Clarify roles and responsibilities. Who will handle logistics? Who will recruit participants? Does the clergy/leader want to review educational materials and/or lesson plans before each session?

  • Identify potential "land mines" that concern you and the clergy/leader. What topics will likely stir controversy? How can you handle the typically controversial issues in a respectful and truthful way? Discuss what you will do to handle controversy should it become intense or counterproductive. What guidelines for discussion can you establish so people feel safe during the sessions?

  • Invite the clergy/leader to participate in the session. Stress that you are not the "subject matter expert" on theology or matters of faith. Even if you are ordained, or a seminary graduate, the clergy/leader is still the "expert" on this particular congregation. Will s/he offer an opening meditation or prayer? Can s/he speak for a few moments about the reasons for developing these sessions? Might s/he be willing to present the denominational statements on sexuality?

  • Establish a time for a discussion following each session so you and the clergy/leader can discuss concerns and share your responses to the process.

  • Know ahead of time what compromises you will and will not be willing to make in order to work with a congregation. For instance, would you be willing not to talk about abortion during the session if you could speak individually with people after the session? Would you be willing to deliver information about sexual health to a youth group if you were asked not to talk about issues of sexual orientation?

  • Do not hesitate to gracefully decline to work together if the clergy/leader insists on approaches that you believe are unhelpful, untruthful, inaccurate, hurtful, or biased.

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A Few More Tips

  • It is always wise to speak with the senior leader of the congregation, even if you will not be working directly with that person. You will want to know your efforts have his/her support. You will also want to be sure that s/he understands exactly what is being proposed.

  • Working with parents of young children is often a successful entrée to working with a congregation. Assisting parents to become more confident in their role as primary sexuality educators for their children can be a simple and positive "first encounter" for you with a congregation.

  • If you are asked to work with a youth group, it may serve you well to ask to meet with parents first — to help them understand what you will be doing and to give them a chance to ask questions. This will also give you a chance to build credibility with them. See the Learning Activity Talking with Your Child About Sexuality for a workshop idea to use with parents.

  • Often, you will be invited to give a presentation during "adult school" usually scheduled between or before worship services. These sessions are typically quite brief — 45 minutes to an hour. Be sure that you clarify what can realistically be accomplished during this time. Recognize the session as an opportunity to begin building a connection with the adults of the congregation.

  • Learn about what referrals to make should the discussion of sexuality issues raise concerns for participants about what they have been taught to believe and what their life experience is, or has, taught them. Is the clergy person of the congregation qualified to handle such concerns? How do you know? What other referrals might you want to have ready for issues related to sexually transmitted infections, adoption, family planning, pre-natal care, family counseling, sexual abuse, etc.

  • As you gain experience conducting sexuality sessions with faith communities, build a set of references to clergy that you can share with new contacts or congregations.

  • Remember, although the setting for this type of sexuality education may be different, or even a bit foreign, all the groundrules and guidelines about providing a safe and productive learning environment still apply. In your efforts to make these sessions helpful and safe learning experiences, remember that accurate information is important.

  • And finally, in faith communities, where value and meaning are intrinsic to the conversation, it may be especially helpful to notice the patterns of communication (i.e., who is talking, who is not), the tone of voice people use, the non-verbal cues, etc. In other words, pay attention to process!

About the Author
Maggi Boyer has been working in the field of sexuality education for more than 30 years and has frequently worked with faith communities. For ten years she taught in the Graduate Training Program for Clergy at the Penn Council for Relationships, Univ. of PA. In October, 2001, Maggi was honored with the Mary Lee Tatum award, presented annually by the Association of Planned Parenthood Leaders in Education. Maggi is a member of the the Board of Directors of Planned Parenthood of Bucks County, co-chairs the affiliate's Global Partners Committee and volunteers in the affiliate's medical office and as a professional trainer. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS). She can be reached at: mrpb@prodigy.net