By Rev. Emily Nelms Chastain
The month of April marks the commemoration of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women acknowledges the difficulty of this work and commits itself to the eradication of sexual misconduct within the United Methodist Church. As GCSRW continues to celebrate its 50 years of ministry within the UMC, it is necessary to give pause and also honor the tremendous work done by the agency in the area of sexual ethics during its years of service.
Within a decade of the establishment of GCSRW, the commission worked confidently out of an advocacy stance for women throughout the denomination. While working on eradicating discriminatory language, GCSRW advocated awareness of the issues facing racial and ethnic women in the church, focused on increasing women in leadership at all levels, and educated as many as possible on the gender dynamics within the church. By the 1980s, GCSRW shifted many of its trainings on sexism and eliminating oppression of people based on gender. However, the agency had to give attention to individual situations developing within the church that were diminishing opportunities for women to have equal access. (1)
In 1982, GCSRW began an investigation into allegations at Boston University of sexist personnel practices. Following its investigation, GCSRW recommended to both BU and the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry to monitor compliance at BU with the affirmative action goals it had created. This case initiated GCSRW’s work with sexual ethics, providing them with an opportunity to establish a process for defining sexual harassment and a process for dealing with complaints. Within four years of the institution of these processes, GCSRW reported that 80-85% of the queries were handled informally with a resolution. (2)
Following the 1992 General Conference, GCSRW reorganized and made sexual ethics one of the primary elements of its programmatic agenda. This shift reflected a surprising study promoted by the General Council on Ministries following the 1988 General Conference. The findings released in 1990 showed that of its respondents, 50.7% of clergy, 19.9% of laity, 48.2% of students, and 37.3% of employees “reported at least one sexual harassment experience in a United Methodist Church setting.” These startling numbers showed the agency that they had significant work to do in the area of sexual ethics. In response, they petitioned the 1992 General Conference to take on the work of sexual ethics with a vision to create a plan for the elimination of sexual harassment. (3)
As GCSRW celebrates its 50th Anniversary as an agency, this year commemorates 40 years of work in sexual ethics. The work continues today through a dedicated staff member of the agency, whose work has only increased since 1982 as harassment has become more prevalent throughout the denomination. There is no other general agency other than GCSRW with such a singular focus on sexual ethics. GCSRW remains the only agency and office providing accountability at a general church level for sexism and sexual harassment. All of the denomination’s resources around prevention and response to sexual misconduct come from GCSRW. As such, GCSRW sees this work as a crucial element of its existence and prioritizes the programming in this area. The work helps the entire denomination respond to our disciplinary calling to accountability and healing for those affected by sexual misconduct.
Throughout its existence, GCSRW brought several important milestones to the work of sexual ethics within the United Methodist Church:
- The Interagency Sexual Ethics Task Force: The legislation that developed this interagency collaboration is crucial because it shows the work of sexual ethics does not remain just the responsibility of one agency. This collaborative group focuses on creating healthy places of ministry and its responsibility falls on all UMC agencies. This group helped initiate the Do No Harm summit and collaborated to create a central website for sexual ethics.
- The Do No Harm summit is a training event held once a quadrennium that resources sexual ethics and boards of ministry teams with the resources and latest data for intake, processing, and resolving complaints.
- The Sexual Ethics website is a central hub for information and serves as a resource for anyone seeking information regarding prevention and/or response to sexual misconduct in The United Methodist Church.
- Resources: The sexual ethics program staffer promotes a plethora of resources for the general church, local churches, and annual conferences. Not only are physical and virtual resources available for these processes, GCSRW offers a variety of training resources to annual conferences on sexual ethics information and on forming and maintaining response teams to deploy as necessary following complaints. Most recently, GCSRW launched a comprehensive guide to the complaint process called “Do No More Harm”, which provides all types of users the information they need to enter the complaint process.
While this work of GCSRW is laudatory, the necessity of this work brings us pause. Training is helpful in these situations, but training alone cannot eradicate the denomination of sexual misconduct. There remains a need for just resolution for so many complaints. There also remains a need to hold an institution accountable for the ways in which survivors are silenced or pushed aside. Additionally, there is a need to address and reframe the existing culture of shame that exists and is founded in traditional teaching and theology around gender differences and power. This work must take priority in order for accountability and healing to happen.
For now, GCSRW celebrates the significant legislation that has already been placed on the disciplinary books of the denomination, providing a standard of sexual ethics by which we abide and a systematic process for complaints and consequences for violations. We also hold in tension the immense need for wider work to be done throughout the global church in addressing gender equity and methods of power used to harass, assault, and subordinate others. Until then, GCSRW remains faithful to the work of sexual ethics and holds it as a priority, as it has done for the past few decades.
(1) Carolyn Henninger Oehler, The Journey Is Our Home (Chicago: General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, The United Methodist Church, 2015).
(2) Oehler, The Journey Is Our Home.
(3) Oehler, The Journey Is Our Home.
About the author
Rev. Emily Nelms Chastain is a PhD student at Boston University, where she focuses on 19th and 20th Century American Christian History and the intersectionality of faith and gender. She earned her B.A. in History at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2007 and graduated with an M.A. Religion and M.Div. in 2019 from Claremont School of Theology. She’s an ordained United Methodist Deacon in the North Alabama Conference, and entered academia after serving for 9 years within the United Methodist Church where she worked in Connectional Ministries. Emily served as a reserve delegate to the 2016 General Conference and as a delegate for the 2016 Southeastern Jurisdictional Conference. She has served on the GCSRW board since 2016.