Gathering Addresses Sexual Ethics


By Jenn Meadows, General Commission on the Status and Role of Women of The United Methodist Church

“The mission of the church is affected by the health of the church,” said Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett of the North Alabama Conference. “A church that is healthy has healthy boundaries.”

Exploring healthy boundaries were more than 200 bishops, conference leaders, pastors and others attending “Do No Harm,” a sexual ethics summit in Chicago on Oct. 15-17.

“Do No Harm is proactive in many ways,” Wallace-Padgett said, “as we think about how to prevent boundary crossing [and how to] be better at responding to when boundaries are crossed.”

The United Methodist Interagency Sexual Ethics Task Force, coordinated by the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women, hosted this third sexual ethics summit. Thanks to a grant from the Connectional Table, central conference representatives from Mozambique, South Africa, Russia and the Philippines also participated.

Offering Response Team and Safe Sanctuary training and 18 workshops, the conference addressed recent developments and challenges in preventing and responding to abuse, misconduct and sexual harassment, particularly by persons in ministerial roles (both lay and clergy) within The United Methodist Church.  

 “Do No Harm helps us talk about something we have been reluctant to talk about,” said Bishop Mary Virginia Taylor of the Holston Conference. “The church needs to be a safe place for everybody.” 

With every mountaintop, said Bishop Sally Dyck of the Northern Illinois Conference, there is a valley and Jesus calls us to be in those valleys. Concerning sexual misconduct, she said, “It is power that corrupts. When we forget we are to be the children of God, we go off track.” 

‘Our bodies matter’

The Rev. Verlee Copeland led the plenary session “A Message of Hope: Embracing Wholeness of Our Faith and Sexuality.” “We act as if we have the liberty to separate body from spirit, doing whatever we want without consequences,” she said. “Our bodies matter. Our bodies have purpose and worth. Our bodies need to be care for and cherished.” Copeland is senior minister of First Parish United Church of Christ in York, Maine.

Bill Waddell, legal adviser to the Council of Bishops, led attendees through the process handling sexual misconduct as mandated in the Book of Discipline. He reminded the group that some elements of the process are required, while others are left up to interpretation. However, Waddell said, “We need to do better by doing more than what is just required.  

“The Do No Harm conference renews us and gives us hope that the church is living into its commitment to be the nurturing community for all,” he said. “It is important to raise our consciousness, to learn best practices and to leverage our ability to address issues across the connection.” 

Do No Harm 2015 ended with a performance by SCREAM Theatre of Rutgers University and closing worship led by West Ohio Bishop Gregory Vaughn Palmer and the Rev. Cynthia Wilson, Assistant Vice President of Student Life and Dean of Students at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary. Palmer noted, “With experience, we sadly discover we are the priest and the Levite crossing on the other side of the road” when dealing with sexual misconduct in our congregations. “There’s a gap between our aspiration and our incarnation. This is the time to close the gap between the two.” 

The United Methodist Interagency Sexual Ethics Task Force began in the mid-1990s. IASETF includes representatives from several United Methodist general agencies, United Methodist Women, annual conferences and the Council of Bishops. The Commission on the Status and Role of Women convenes the task force.