Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Blogging from GA: Clergy Sexual Ethics

At the UUMA Annual Meeting this year we voted in a new code of conduct.  It reads:
I will not engage in sexual contact or sexualized behavior with any minor child or unwilling adult.

I will not engage in sexual contact or sexualized behavior in potentially exploitive relationships, including with any person I am counseling, with interns, and with any staff person I supervise directly or indirectly except my spouse or partner.

I will respect the relationships of those to whom I minister, and not engage in sexual contact or sexualized behavior with any married or partnered client or member of the congregation, agency or enterprise I serve, or with the spouse or partner of a client or member of the institution.

If I am married or in a committed partnership I will not engage in sexual contact or sexualized behavior with any person whom I serve professionally except my spouse or partner.

In pursuing any special personal relationship of friendship or romance with a client or member of the congregation, agency or enterprise I serve, I will recognize the potential negative consequences for my ministry and/or the institutional system and I will consider the advice of colleagues.
This is pretty controversial, because there are a lot of compelling reasons why it should be more strict, less ambiguous, about sexual relationships between ministers and members of their congregations.  We all know of ministers who have behaved unethically and people who have been very badly hurt by those unethical actions.  We all know of congregations which have struggled in the wake of clergy ethical misconduct, as well.  The damage that has been done should not be underestimated.

But there are also compelling reasons why the UUMA body did not vote in stronger language.  We also all know of situations where single ministers did date someone in their congregations, and did so with great precautions and attention to the ethics, and those relationships led to healthy, happy marriages with no seeming damage to individuals or congregations.  Those relationships which were entered into with the knowledge and advice of colleagues, with a relationship that was not a secret hidden from the congregation, and where neither party was married at the time the relationships were entered into, well, it's a hard thing to ban two consenting adults from entering into this type of relationship.

Personal relationships wouldn't be allowed if we were doctors, or therapists, but clergy are neither of those things.  We are involved in being leaders of religious communities, and as such we can't be entirely separate from the community in the way that a doctor or therapist can be from his or her clients.  And for those clergy in isolated locations, it may be that just about anyone with whom they would be compatible are members of the congregation.  And for ministers of large congregations, there are members with whom they have very little relationship with at all, honestly.  There are just too many members to think that the minister can be counseling all of them, and some members hang on the edges of congregations, only coming to worship and not being involved in the other programs or committee work of the church.

In the end, this is a good code of conduct which is much more specific on this issue than previous editions.  We need to keep talking about this, of course, and the last point of the code calls us to be in communication with our colleagues about our relationships.  And of course, the flip side of this is that, as ministers, we must all be willing to confront colleagues acting unethically, as well.  And any code that encourages ministers to talk to their colleagues about their thorny ethical situations rather than encouraging them to keep those relationships secret because they know they're violating the code, is ultimately going to produce more healthy behavior. 

5 comments:

Chalicechick said...

This is an awesome example of what happens when a group of professionals is left to regulate themselves. It is also a predictable result given that the lawyer version is similar, with the strong implication "Sleeping with clients is usually unethical, but hey, stuff happens..."

TheCSO wants to know if "adultery" was defined or if we're using some wacky Bill Clinton definition. (Specifically, is it adultery to sleep with a congregant's unmarried gay partner.)

CC

Steve Caldwell said...

Rev. Cyn,

It sounds like the new ethics guidelines say it's OK for a single minister to date a congregant.

But these guidelines prohibit a polyamorous minister from having a relationship with a congregant ("If I am married or in a committed partnership I will not engage in sexual contact or sexualized behavior with any person whom I serve professionally except my spouse or partner").

Of course, the married/partnered poly minister can still look for secondary partners outside the congregation (and given the newness of the concept of polyamory for most Unitarian Universalists, that may be a smart decision for now).

Cynthia Landrum said...

@CC - Nothing is really defined, truly. What you see there is the extent of the sexual ethics portion. That's to be worked out in the next document, as I understand it, which is before the chapters for study and feedback. I find it problematic to vote in something that's not yet defined, but preferable to not passing it and reverting back to the previous document. If a minister slept with a congregant's unmarried partner, that's covered under "the spouse or partner of a client or member of the institution" - but when does someone become a "partner"? I guess it's when they're using the term "partner," since in many places it's not a legal definition.

@Steve - I would say that polyamory is an issue we're still wresting with as a faith. But it's a good point that this doesn't allow for an openly polyamorous married minister to date within the congregation, which may be something of a double-standard if a single minister can. I guess if you're polyamorous and not married, you could...

Desmond Ravenstone said...

Polyamory may be relatively new for Unitarian Universalism, but there's been a marked growth in (a) the number of openly poly folks in UU congregations, (b) the degree of awareness within the UUA of what polyamory actually is and is not, and (c) the number of poly-friendly and openly poly UUs going through seminary and ordination.

With all that said, it's only a matter of time when this current wording raises the question of a double standard. I would not be surprised if that question is already being raised among some folks in private -- and, as a poly UU, I certainly hope so.

Chalicechick said...

IMHO, the simplest way to get rid of the double standard is to have a "Wanna date the minister? Switch churches" rule a la doctors.

While I have trouble getting worked up about current cases of CSM where everyone was a consenting adult since there are no well-articulated rules to have been broken, I think "Don't get laid where you get paid" is good advice for the entire world and I have no problem with it being the official rule for ministers.