The Distance Between There and Here

There is a long, long road between noticing there is a problem and actually doing something about it. What’s more, there are a lot of stoplights, potholes, and rest areas between one end of the journey and the other. Still, on that road, when stopped for the umpteenth time, sometimes I just don’t know whether to laugh or to cry.

The 2014 Iowa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church adopted resolution 9339 Combating Racism and Sexism. The full text of this resolution can be found here: 2015 Iowa Conference Book of Resolutions, but the meat and potatoes of the resolution are as follows:

“THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED: That the churches of the Iowa Annual Conference take the call to repent of racism and sexism seriously by holding quadrennial seminars or workshops on Racism and Sexism in which all pastors and District and Conference staff are required, and church members are strongly encouraged to participate.”

So I was excited to be asked to train as a facilitator for the Healthy Boundaries training which the Iowa Annual Conference requires for all clergy persons. Like many large organizations, the United Methodist Church carries insurance which includes requirements to train staff on sexual ethics, professional boundaries, and power dynamics.

The presenter was Dr. Miguel De La Torre. Dr. De La Torre is a Biblical ethicist whose “academic pursuit has been ethics within contemporary U.S. thought, specifically how religion affects race, class, and gender oppression.”(*) Dr. De La Torre gave the workshop using his book Liberating Sexuality: Justice Between the Sheets. It was a day of lecture and small group discussion which was filmed with the intent that each District of the Conference would use it for the Healthy Boundaries training.

To my surprise, about a month after the class, I received an email letter telling me that my services as a volunteer facilitator won’t be needed. The reason given: The Ministerial Ethics Committee is going to “refocus the curriculum and method of presentation.”

According to the letter, while expressing appreciation for Dr. De La Torre’s training

as it related to sexism and racism. There was also the shared belief that the content did not focus directly on the purpose of our mandatory training: maintaining healthy boundaries, promoting appropriate self-care, and understanding power dynamics. These are important as we seek to promote safe and healthy congregations.”

It is crazy-making that education about sexism and racism are erased from the Committee’s consideration of how to promote safe and healthy congregations! I believe it is that very erasure which led the Conference to pass Combating Racism and Sexism in the first place.

The unequal share of power given to professionals in positions of trust such as pastors is the reason that boundary trainings are implemented in the first place. That power difference between pastors and members of their congregations or between pastors and members of their staff are the same “power dynamics” that form the roadbed beneath expressions of sexism and racism in our society.

Now, if our shared goal is merely to fulfill a requirement to lower insurance premiums, let’s just film a 10 minute training module and put it up on the Conference website and log the views.

If, however, the shared trouble we mean to address-the continued misuse of power by ministry professionals-is understood to be an outgrowth of sexism and racism, it is irresponsible to sideline Dr. De La Torre’s training which dealt directly with the links between sexism and abuses of power; the links between racism and abuses of power; the links between unquestioned religious teaching and abuses of power.

Even though I understand it is merely a stop on the road to a time when all relationships are lived out with equality and respect, this unplanned detour disappoints me deeply. As troubling and difficult as explicit talk about sexism and racism can be, the continued toll actual sexism and racism takes on women and communities of color is a scandalous corruption of the Good News so many of us claim to share.