Can’t We Talk It Over (Just NOT in Bed)?

Post Author: Susan Olson

This is the first in a multi-part series outlining the results of The Young Clergy Women Project survey.

You know that awkward moment when nobody speaks up?

That didn’t happen.

Just about everybody had something to say.

Even though I was in the midst of collecting data on sexual harassment, I was frankly surprised by the number of seminarians who had already experienced things they labeled as creepy. Frankly, I would have labeled most of these comments as sexual harassment.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, I guess. I remember with crystal clarity the creepy guy from my own seminary internship, and my herculean efforts to pastorally but firmly stave him off. I guess I hoped that things had changed.

Most members of the Young Clergy Women Project were surveyed in April and early May. The survey covered a variety of topics including, but not limited to, questions about sexual harassment. Two control groups, one consisting of young clergy men and the other of clergy women over 40, were also surveyed. Responses to specific questions regarded sexual harassment culled the following results:

Have you experienced any of the following, in your role as clergy, since becoming ordained (or commissioned)?


Clergy women under 40


Clergy women over 40


Young clergy men


Unwelcome comments about one’s








Unwelcome sexual innuendo or








Unwelcome sexual advances or








Sexually based threats or








Sexual assault or attempted
sexual assault?








Other uncomfortable
















Prefer not to respond








Realistically, one should be able to predict that the women over 40 would have had the highest responses of the three groups. While some of them are second-career women, others are long-term ministers. Probability-wise, the chances of, say, sexual innuendo and jokes over a 20-year career should be much higher than the chances of the same over an 8-year career, for example.

Women over forty do report more a little more experience with “unwelcome sexual advances or touching” and with “sexually based threats or coercion” than their younger counterparts do, but report significantly less “unwelcome comments about appearance” and less “other uncomfortable circumstances.” Perhaps most telling, a significantly higher number of clergywomen over 40 report “no” experiences of sexual harassment since becoming ordained or commissioned.

The men’s responses were, as predicted, significantly below both the youngest clergy women and the clergy women over 40. I will admit, though, that the men’s responses were much higher than I would have guessed prior to the survey, with 44% of men being the recipient of unwelcome comments about their looks, 27.9% of men experiencing sexual innuendo or jokes and 10.6% experiencing sexual advances.

Since the surveys were self-reporting, we have no way of knowing how frequent or severe any of
these experiences are or were for any of the responding groups. All we know is that the respondents perceived this to have happened. Respondents that replied affirmatively to any of the sexual harassment questions were asked if the perpetrators were a) other clergy b) parishioners c) other professionals
with whom one interacts as clergy, or d) a combination of the three options. The majority response in both women’s groups was d) a combination of any of the three. This was the response for 53.3% of the women over 40, 57.8% of the youngest clergy women, and 39.8% of the men. (The men’s number one response was “parishioners” at 51.7%). This response indicates, at least, that a good number of the women and the men had more than one perpetrator.

A follow-up survey was sent to 20.88% of the women in The Young Clergy Women Project. This survey was a random selection based on e-mail address. In the follow up survey (for which there was no control group), young clergy women were asked how they respond to sexual harassment when it occurs.

A little over twenty percent of the women surveyed (22.2%) indicated that they have dealt directly with the offender and let him or her know that the behavior is not okay. Ignoring the behavior was the response of choice for 15.6% of the women. An equal number (15.6%) have informed a supervisor (defined as senior clergy, bishop, judicatory, or church committee, etc.), and twenty percent noted that it had happened often enough that their responses have varied. Some women responded “other” (4.4%) and their comments focused on re-arranging environments so as not to be alone with the offender, without necessarily directly addressing the behavior.

Twenty-two percent of the women randomly selected for this repeat survey indicated that they had not experienced any sexual harassment. The difference between the full survey (8%) and the follow-up survey (22.2%) may be coincidental or may be due to the use in the question of the term “sexual harassment,” which might be defined differently by various respondents. (An earlier question on the same survey had only 4.4% of persons indicating they had not experienced behavior of this type.)

Some women report anger (6.7%), sadness or anxiety (24.4%) as a result of these circumstances; others are able to laugh it off (6.7%) or ignore (4.4%) it. Many indicate that their response varies by circumstance (31.1%). For a few women, having experienced the more severe behavior, sexual harassment can be one factor in a young woman considering leaving ministry. “Anna” (all names are pseudonyms) notes, “I was the victim of extreme sexual harassment by a member of the congregation. He was (is) the eldest son of the most prominent member/donor. It’s a long, ugly story, but the upshot was that I had to leave to get out of it. And the question became leave ministry altogether or just leave that church? I spent a long time making that decision. I chose to just leave that church, and it was the right decision.”

Her colleague “Beth” notes that she, too, chose to stay in the church but considered leaving, “being sexually harassed by the music director (and having the) pastor, session, and congregation not willing to do anything about it” were her two primary reasons for considering leaving ministry. “Cherise” adds, “I was raped by a parishioner who was chair of personnel. I was not believed by my senior pastor.” Ultimately, though, all three of these women remain in ministry. It is also noteworthy that the vast majority of women who report considering leaving ministry do not mention sexual harassment as a factor.

If the church is supposed to be the community of Christ, we would hope for more, for an environment where justice and kindness prevail. The church is, however, for better and for worse, a microcosm of its surrounding society, a culture wherein sexual harassment is indeed prevalent.

Finding accurate data for the prevalence of sexual harassment is daunting. Sexual harassment is often underreported. Further, even in settings where policies are clearly defined, individuals disagree about exactly which behaviors and comments “count” and which don’t. I’ve seen surveys claiming prevalence at as low as 25% (in a lifetime) and as high as 90%. Because all surveys are self-reported, though, they will all bear a level of subjectivity (not unlike this survey).

The one thing that I can say without hesitation is this: there doesn’t appear to be any evidence indicating that sexual harassment is more prevalent among clergy women (of any age) or men than among their peers in other professions. As British pastor “Ruth” notes, “I don’t see this experience as any different to being young and female in any other workplace, especially male-dominated ones.”

The prevalence may be the same, but is there something different about the clergy-parish relationship that requires a more nuanced response to sexual harassment? By the time young women graduate from theological school, it’s safe to say that most have been subjected to a sexual harassment training session. Many will have attended one as part of a college orientation, or as training for a full or part-time job. This is a standard part of the curriculum in many theological schools. However, when asked, “do you feel that your theological school prepared you to handle sexual harassment issues?” only 28% of the younger women, 40.7% of the younger men, and 18.3% of the women over 40 could respond affirmatively.

It appears that many of the clergy-oriented sexual harassment training sessions focus on preventing clergy misconduct (This certainly has been true of every such session in which I’ve participated). This is, of course, right and meet so to do—but is it enough? Debra notes, “we learned that we weren’t supposed to ‘do the pew’, but not a word was mentioned about how to handle circumstances where we were the victim and not the perpetrator of harassment—what are you supposed to do when it’s the pew that wants to do you?”

Ellen agrees, “I paid great attention in my (sexual harassment training) class. I learned all of the ‘safe church’ practices that I should demand for my church. It was good information, really. I’m glad I went. There was not, though, any mention of what to do when a vestry member repeatedly asks you what you look like under the clergy shirt. I feel like a bird that just flew into a patio window. I would have swerved to avoid it, but honestly, I just never saw this coming.”

Most sexual harassment training programs outside the church (at least that I’ve attended) have operated on the assumption that a system is in place wherein reporting and receiving a formal response to that report is possible—even if it’s not the option that an individual victim chooses to make.

Many other workplaces have policies that involve forced separation between complainant and respondent. Furthermore, for many (if not most) victims of sexual harassment, one desired resolution is dissolution of the professional (and any personal) relationship. Such dissolution is easier when both are
students, lawyers, nurses, or in most any other work settings.

Pastoral relationships, however, are unique. The pastor may be the only clergy person in a small town or the only one of the parishioner’s denomination. Clergy are charged with building relationships that model forgiveness and compassion. Clergy are often privy to personal information about individuals that may explain (but not excuse) their behavior. We are also in that strange not-peers but peers relationship. Pastors have power, of course, but women do not always. Some parishioners have more power than pastors (I’m thinking of the chair of the personnel committee from Cerise’s story, as an example.)

The straight-forward suggestions gleaned from a secular sexual harassment training course may be of little use in a church setting. For me, at least, responding to the odd comment or gesture is a bit like playing the piano with gloves on – I’ve been schooled in the techniques (I’ve attended dozens of trainings), but once you add in a pastoral relationship, every thing gets fuzzier. We may not be different statistically from the outside culture, but relationally, we are a different animal altogether.

I began thinking that we needed something else, a different training program to better prepare women (and men) for the realities of a sexualized work-place, to help the Ellens of the world to at least foresee the potential pitfalls and attempt to swerve to avoid them. I mentioned this idea to a student at Yale Divinity School, one particularly interested in the topic of sexual harassment. I expected enthusiasm. Instead, she mimed a shotgun to the head. “We don’t need any more training sessions. We just need to talk.”


Perhaps she’s right. Sexual harassment is something we have no problem talking about in secular settings or in small clusters of clergy peers. But we don’t talk about it in church, do we? I wonder what it would be like if we did that? What if we spent time talking about Christian relationships in such a way that harassing behavior became clearly anathema to a Christian lifestyle? What would it be like if we agreed, as a spiritual discipline, to speak the truth in love? I’m not entirely sure what that would look like—my secular training is all about cutting off relationships that are harmful, not about repairing them—but I imagine it might look something like the beloved community.

Obviously, there are circumstances so serious that repair is not possible. No one would begin to suggest that a clergy person continue in a pastoral relationship with someone who has harmed her through continuous and threatening behavior or even rape. That is unacceptable.

The reality is, though, that just shy of 90% of young ordained women are reporting some form of sexual harassment, together with 80% of ordained women over 40 and 65.5% of younger ordained men. If it’s happening to the clergy, you can bet it’s happening to the laity.

Maybe we really do need to talk.

Susan Olson is a Presbyterian (PCUSA) pastor employed by Yale Divinity School and Yale University Chaplain's Office. She loves good preaching, good books, good music, college chaplaincy, and Diet Coke.

She is staff to two recalcitrant cats and is a long-time volunteer for The Hole in the Wall Gang Camp and Camp Boggy Creek – two camps that serve children with life-threatening illnesses.

Image by: athree23
Used with permission
5 replies
  1. Vicki
    Vicki says:

    Thank you. Thank you. Thank you, Susan, for writing on this. We do need to talk more and publish more and teach more about this important topic. The body of Christ should strive–as an institution–to embody the love and grace that we hope to spread to the world. This is just a start, and I encourage all of us to support further discussion and writing about sexual harassment in the workplace. May our churches truly be sanctuaries for the women who work within them.

  2. Pat
    Pat says:

    It would have been interesting to see male clergy over 40 (I’m assuming “young” for males was a break-off at 40 as for the women) responses as well. It feels like the picture’s missing a piece.
    Yes, this is a serious problem and it’s worse for women.
    That said, as a not-young man I’ve experienced some unwelcome comments and unwelcome innuendo–both as a lay member and as a seminarian.
    We have a problem.
    Some of it can be addressed “in house,” but I think that most of it will really require healing the world and society around us to correct it. Even if we could talk to everyone in our churches and fix it all… those coming through the doors will bring the culture with them. It’s hypersexualized and has boundary issues.

  3. rev. dr. beth cooper
    rev. dr. beth cooper says:

    I have done my dmin dissertation on clergy women sexual harassment by laity….indeed it is an epidemic. Would love to get the dissertation published.
    My findings had some similarities…working like you towards a safe sanctuary.


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