Telling the Truth

connecting the dots of my life

Tag: Seminary Teaching and Advising

A vexing situation – Sexuality 4

When I interviewed for a faculty appointment at the seminary in 1983, no one asked about my sexuality or sexual history. I was married and had two children. I was an active member of the Presbyterian Church. I was interested in women’s studies and issues of importance to women, and as a theological student I had a good record and outstanding references. Besides, my guest lecture was well received.

Years later, I’m the dean, responsible for having a confidential conversation with each final candidate about sexuality and other topics. This includes conversation about the now-official standard of the seminary on human sexuality and moral conduct, questions they might have about this area, and questions I was expected to ask them. Which I did.

In order to help us through this sometimes awkward conversation, I used a one-page handout excerpted from a 1996 memo to the faculty. It was about the new board-approved policy on human sexuality and moral conduct. I sent it in advance to our final candidates, with other material about the seminary.

If the candidate was already inclined in the direction of the seminary’s policy, there was no hesitation. However, if the candidate had questions, it was sometimes awkward. Not just for them, but for me.

I couldn’t pretend that living with this policy wasn’t important. To my surprise, some were reassured by my history with students struggling with sexual issues. The same was true about ways I dealt with classroom presentations and dynamics. There might be room for them here, and it wouldn’t be easy. Especially in the classroom.

The new policy, nearly 10 years in the making, included a statement about behavior, and two implications for faculty.

  • Regarding behavior, those who affirm and practice forms of sexual intimacy contrary to the seminary’s guidelines will not be admitted as students, or employed at the seminary. A further sentence, for the benefit of faculty members hired earlier than 1996 said, “This item is in reference to all decisions subsequent to the adoption of this policy.”

Regarding faculty, there were two stated implications.

  • First, we were to make sure seminarians dealt with the range of positions about current moral issues the Church faced. These included human sexuality and moral conduct.
  • Second, in our teaching we couldn’t argue against the seminary’s policy about sexuality (whether heterosexual or homosexual). We could, however, tell students about our own struggles regarding human sexuality and moral conduct, including our present understanding of difficult issues related to sexuality. Nonetheless, we could not “undermine or invalidate” the seminary’s policy. Furthermore, when speaking publicly or privately on behalf of the seminary, we were to articulate clearly and uphold the seminary’s policy.

The first implication was fairly straightforward. The second, however, felt late and one-sided. I’d learned the hard way which questions I could and could not answer in large required courses. Now, however, any sign that I was still ‘struggling’ with these issues sounded to some like the equivalent of teaching against the seminary. The only safe professors were those in full and complete agreement with the policy as stated.

I keep wondering what I would do differently if I were being interviewed today for the same faculty position.

Thanks so much for reading, and for your comments along the way. One more post coming (I think)!

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 6 April 2018

A vexing situation – Sexuality 3

It’s now 1986. I’ve been an assistant professor of theology for three years. A new academic dean has just arrived, as have recent newspaper articles about one of our recent graduates. She had been one of our more conservative students, and was now an ordained pastor.

According to newspaper accounts, our graduate, happily married with two sons, left her conservative denomination to become pastor of a church for gay men and lesbian women. She had become disenchanted by her denomination’s anti-gay/lesbian rhetoric as well as concrete actions taken against homosexual women and men. I applauded her courage, as did some of my colleagues.

Our new dean circulated to the faculty a copy of the newspaper account along with a brief memo letting us know we would be talking about this. In the account, our former student identified herself as a graduate of our seminary.

Thus began a long conversation in the faculty that ended after nearly 10 years of anguished discussion about what we as a seminary should do. Not about this one graduate, but about gay men and lesbian women who might be already enrolled or applying for admission to our seminary. And about what faculty could or could not teach in the classroom.

The seminary hadn’t made attitudes or beliefs about homosexuality (or heterosexuality) an official requirement for admission in the past, so why did we need to clarify our ‘standing’ at this time? And why, given the recent history of the seminary’s heterosexual president, as well as hints of stories that might be told about one or two male professors of the past, were we suddenly consumed by angst about homosexuality? Wasn’t heterosexuality of equal weight and importance?

During my first three years at the seminary I became known, along with several colleagues, as a ‘safe’ person to talk with about matters of sexuality. Especially homosexuality. That meant I knew how to listen, how to be supportive without being directive, and how to help seminarians think about options. It didn’t take many conversations to realize I had no clue about the inner and family lives of gay and lesbian seminarians.

Some, now full adults, had never come out of the closet with their families, much less their friends. The thought of appearing before a board or session of a church to be interviewed for ordination was terrifying. Some ordination exams were public. Open to members from other congregations. Questions could be asked by anyone in the room, including questions about candidates’ personal lives.

I attended scores of these public exams. Nothing was more brutal than knowing ‘visitors’ from other churches could sway the outcome of an exam. The sessions sometimes functioned as semi-political social and theological warfare. If that sounds harsh, so be it. The possible consequences for the woman or man standing up front were harsh. Especially if the moderator wasn’t skilled and politically savvy.

Finally, in 1996, the seminary published internally a new policy on human sexuality and moral conduct. It included implications for present and future members of the seminary community and for faculty members in their responsibility as teachers.

I like clarity. I like knowing what’s expected of me. Yet this new policy sent a double message.

To be continued.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 4 April 2018

A vexing situation – Sexuality 2

Almost all my life I’ve been aware of sexuality, especially my own. Since my birth in 1943, I’ve been a member or participant of multiple religious communities that have talked about sexuality only when necessary. Usually when cultural pressures seemed to endanger ‘our’ young people.

I don’t remember sermons or safe conversations about everyday situations such as how to have a safe conversation with someone whose heart is aching or carrying a heavy secret. Nor have I had much training in how to watch or change my behavior so that I’m as clear and safe as possible when it comes to my sexuality.

For me, this unspoken agreement not to talk openly about sexuality made things worse. Especially after I arrived at the seminary in 1983, one of a small number of female faculty members. I felt alone and confused, left to figure things out by myself.

So here I am, a new assistant professor at a theologically conservative seminary with socially responsible roots and programs, along with a still-fresh wound from the former president. My new colleagues and students have their luggage from the past, and I have mine.

Perhaps the approach of ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ was the seminary’s way of allowing us to feel safe. Which, of course, many of us did not.

The first three years of my appointment I was exhausted, confused, anxious and fearful. Not because of what I knew, but because of how much I didn’t know. Not chiefly about how to teach or how to deal with classroom situations (though that was no cakewalk), but about being an academic advisor to each of my assigned advisees.

They appeared at my door, several times a year. Women and men with multiple issues about scheduling, grade point averages, work load, childcare, job requirements, immigration requirements, culture shock and yes, secrets. Heavy, untold stories about past history, realities about current history, sometimes things they’d locked away in a closet as though that would take care of it.

I think back to those three years as my Apprenticeship in Real Life. Classroom dynamics were nothing compared to the atmosphere in my office when an advisee or other student decided to tell me a secret about his or her sexuality. My job was to respond appropriately and with integrity.

Did I stumble around? Absolutely. Was I confident? NO! Did I have all the answers to life’s burning questions? No. Did I make mistakes? Yes, I did. And I learned a lot.

The most painful thing I learned was that my own sexual issues from childhood were still haunting me. Things I thought I’d left behind were suddenly right there in front of me or inside me. They demanded a hearing, even though I was there to listen and offer guidance to others.

I didn’t know it then, but I was beginning a personal curriculum that eventually humanized me. My closely guarded secrets about childhood and teenage years as well as secrets about my adult years weren’t the end of the world. They were keys to joining the human race, especially in the one area of my life I couldn’t understand no matter how much I tried to normalize it.

And I wasn’t there yet. In fact, things became more difficult after my first three years of teaching.

To be continued.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 27 March 2018

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