Methodism's Porn Problem

Photo of empty church pews. Pixabay 1398784. Photo by Milt Ritter, Pixabay,  CC0 Public Domain.These boundaries go better with seat cushions.

So much gray hair.

That was my first thought walking into a sanctuary with 120 of my fellow United Methodist clergy for the "Healthy Boundaries" workshop I was grudgingly giving up a Saturday to attend. Many--most?--of the middle-aged and older ministers (there were perhaps three under the age of 40) filling the pews were there because, as the workshop leader acknowledged in her opening remarks, our presence was mandated. We'd all received letters and emails telling us that, to remain active in ministry, we had to attend. Now, I'm no longer a parish minister--my status is "honorably located," and as a public school music teacher, I'm under no supervision at all--but the waiver I would've had to sign to skip the workshop, stating I would not engage in any of the tasks of the pastoral office, was so broad (it included "teaching," for instance) that I decided to grit my teeth and go.

And as I said, there was a lot of gray hair. There would've been more, but some of it was dyed, and in a few cases, there was none left to be any color.

This was the first large clergy meeting I'd attended since 1999, a year when I was one of the younger ministers in the room. Back then, there were many more like me, 30-somethings with a decade or so of parish work under our belts. Some of them were in the room yesterday, as were the generations of ministers who were just a few years older than us. Many of them are now on the verge of retirement, if they're not already there. (Retirees who still fill pulpits on occasion, or serve small rural churches part-time, were also required to attend.) In the late 1980s, when I was in seminary, most of my fellow students were members of my generation, coming to ministry soon after completing college. (With me, there had been a two-year gap, one for graduate school, one for discovering that teaching was harder than I'd expected.) There were relatively few true second-career students, persons who'd spent enough time (my year of mostly substitute teaching didn't really count) in another profession to be genuinely giving something up when they answered their calls to ministry. Based on what I saw yesterday, there must be quite a few more of them now. And given the aging taking place in Methodist congregations, that's not necessarily a bad thing--at least, not if the pastor is to look more like the majority of people in the pews.

Like many denominations today, United Methodism is shrinking. As older generations age out and ultimately pass away, there are not sufficient young people taking their places to keep many neighborhood churches open. The stodginess of worship is one reason--except for some excellent harmonizing on a Taize hymn, our worship time yesterday was mostly responsive readings and unison prayers, with a Powerpoint screen on the Communion table the only concession to 21st century technology--but there are other, far more critical reasons for the decline of mainline Protestantism in America.

Which brings me to the word that may have brought your eyes to this essay: porn. No, I don't mean that porn is the dark secret eating away at the foundations of Methodism, the way clergy sexual abuse continues to devour Catholicism. It's quite the reverse.

Mind you, I did come to this workshop expecting to hear heart-wrenching stories of lives and communities torn apart by exactly that. Clergy who exploit their positions to have power-imbalanced relationships with parishioners or, even worse, children are a plague on my former profession. It's a critical issue in my current profession, too, and I receive training about sex abuse annually. I've known of many cases in which former colleagues (those caught rarely endure the gauntlet of restitution necessary to be restored to active ministry) betrayed the trust placed in them by both the church and their parish. One of yesterday's presenters spent much of her career as an interim minister helping churches heal from the damage done when their previous pastor broke the rules and had a forbidden relationship with a parishioner. On top of that, many of the women (and a few men) I've known have been survivors of some form of sexual abuse.

That's what I came expecting. In fact, the presentation on these particular boundaries took up about a fifth of the five-hour workshop. There were no heart-wrenching testimonies, none of the stern warnings about maintaining vigilance because it could happen to YOU if you're not diligent. I would've appreciated some testimony from the presenter about her experience working with broken congregations to underline just how serious this particular prohibition is.

Instead, we broke up into lunchtime discussion groups. Each group had a scenario, based on a real event, to discuss. My group got this one, which I think I can remember almost word for word:

Your secretary discovers pornography on the church computer. Many people have access to the computer. What do you do?

The discussion that followed told me much more about the decline of Methodism than it did about pornography. The first reaction in my group of eight was about involving the police. This came up frequently in the discussion, and every time it did, someone had to remind whoever had brought it up that the language of the problem did not specify that it is child pornography, and that if it isn't, there's nothing illegal about it. The next reaction was that whoever was watching it on the church computer needs to be identified, then reached out to compassionately because of their addiction to pornography. The word "addiction" came up many times. The assumption most in the group had was that the person watching porn on the computer must have been an adult, and that watching pornography should disqualify this person for any position of responsibility in the church.

I listened to my fellow clergy go back and forth on this for several minutes as I finished my salad, and then decided to enter the conversation with this point: what if it was a child?

The others had a hard time hearing that. They were so stuck on the ideas that pornography is something only disturbed adults engage in, that it's always exploitative of the people depicted, that it's an addiction rivaling alcoholism or gambling, and the shame of being found to have indulged in it, that they just couldn't imagine a young person watching it.

So I brought in my perspective as someone who works with children and has had some experience with teenagers, and can still remember what it was like to be one: kids want to know about sex. When I was coming of age in the 1970s in a church parsonage, that information was hard to come by. There was nothing in the house that could answer the questions I had, and like any adolescent, I was mortified at the thought of talking to my parents about it (though my father let me know and several occasions that he would be very happy to fill me in, to which I just shrank into myself and asked to be alone). Unlike the more assertive kids my age, I had neither dating relationships nor macho buddies to learn from, and true pornography was hard to come by. That meant my primary source had to be popular novels. So I'd visit the paperback rack at the grocery store and stand there browsing, flipping through books with lurid covers that suggested explicit content. I did this at the library, too. Once I got to college, I had a roommate my freshman year who kept dirty magazines under his bed, but spent very few nights in our room. (He had a girlfriend with her own place in a neighboring town.) Those magazines were mostly of the glossy variety, but occasionally there'd be something grungier that would leave a bad taste in my mouth. And it wasn't really the pictures I was going for: I wanted well-written explicit erotica to fill in the blank spaces in my mind. That had to do until I finally started dating and, soon after, got married for the first time.

Contrast that with the children I see every day in my classroom. Granted, most of them are still too young to be using the many digital devices at their disposal to look up pornography. Their internet adventures are far more likely to be quests for kitten videos or Pokemon hunting tips. I'm sure, though, that by fifth grade, many of them have begun to look for information about human reproduction online, and may have come across explicit images of just that.

That's why all school iPads and computers, all of which are connected to the internet through the district network, come equipped with powerful security software and firewalls to block explicit content. If, despite these safeguards, a child were to find a way into a porn site, the response would, I suspect, be centered on plugging the hole (wink wink) and reteaching the digital citizenship lesson about what students are allowed to look at while they're online at school.

In fact, most kids now have in their pockets devices that, once they're free of the school network's restrictions and able to go mobile, can find porn for them from a simple Google search. To take it back to my group's scenario, then, why would a child want to do this on the church computer?

Judging by the reactions of my fellow clergy to the scenario, the answer is simple: these progressive ministers are, at heart, extremely uncomfortable at the very idea of explicit content. I wouldn't be surprised if some of their church members are similarly adverse to the very idea of pornography, given the stereotypes and urban myths these clergy were sharing. Knowing that, and remembering some of the hallmarks of sexual abuse perpetrators an victims we'd been reminded of just that morning (extremely strict upbringing was one), my mind quickly generated a theory of how the porn might have wound up on the computer:

Imagine a household where children are barred from using screens, or if they do have time on devices, it's only under strict supervision. Imagine a child in this household hitting puberty and knowing, thanks to his friends who have their own smart phones and/or computers and do not have such strict limitations, that he can find all the questions to the answers his body is asking by looking up a couple of video clips online. During a church dinner, he finishes eating early and, while his parents go back for seconds and carry on conversations with their adult friends, sneaks off in hopes of finding the church office open. Success! His heart racing, he sits down at the only computer in the building and, using technical skills he's picked up at school, opens a browser window, enters a few search terms recommended by a buddy, and strikes porn gold. His curiosity momentarily satisfied, he closes the browser window and shuts down the computer. Alas, he hasn't yet learned the importance of clearing the browser history, nor of the possibility that a porn site will infect the computer with a virus. The next morning, when the part-time secretary boots the computer up to work on the church newsletter, an ad with explicit images pops up.

And there we have the most likely culprit: a curious pubescent kid doing what kids have always done, try to answer some questions about human reproduction without having to ask an adult.

No matter how I came at it, none of my fellow ministers could wrap their heads around the notion that a child was the most likely person to have been naive enough to look up porn on a publicly accessible church computer. More than that, they were all so stuck on the ickiness of pornography, and the myth of porn addiction, that their reactions, had it been their church where this happened, would almost certainly have driven the perpetrator into hiding. The word "shame" bounced around most of the discussion, with the attendant understanding that when the identity of whoever had looked up porn on the computer was made public, that person would almost certainly leave the church.

I tried getting around the addiction side of the discussion by asking how this was different from gambling, citing my four years of serving rural churches in the shadow of the Spirit Mountain Casino. I know I had parishioners who worked there, even women's groups that would go to the casino to lunch, and I'm sure there were some who didn't limit their time there to the buffet. On three occasions, I even gambled myself, playing slots and blackjack until I'd won enough money to pay for dinner in the casino's better restaurant. Every time I was there, I saw the federally mandated signs about getting help for gambling addiction. "So tell me now, if this really is porn 'addiction,' how is it different from having a gambling addict in your congregation? Would you shame a gambling addict out of your church?"

They either couldn't, or didn't want to, answer the question of what makes watching pornography a more shameful sin than spending one's paycheck at a casino. But I think the answer is clear: American Protestantism is directly descended from English Puritanism, and however inclusive we become toward people who form some part of the LGBTQ minority, we will always retain the essential Puritan distaste for sex.

That seemed to me to be as unhealthy a boundary in its rigidity as the fluid boundaries too many clergy have when it comes to emotional and sexual involvement with parishioners. Come to think of it (disclaimer: this is just me spitballing now), isn't their a connection between restrictive attitudes toward alcohol and binge drinking? (I seem to have read that somewhere.) Couldn't the same dynamic be at work in clergy who are confused about their own sexual boundaries? Perhaps it's the walls we put up around any mention of healthy sexuality that cause some of us to engage in unhealthy relationships, or to be so stupid as to look up porn on a publicly accessible church computer.

To make a long essay longer, here's where I'm going with this: from the small sample of clergy I talked with yesterday, Methodist leaders, even the really progressive ones, seem to be still framing human sexuality as if it was the early 1950s, something to be discrete about, even ashamed of. Meanwhile, explicit content is at the fingertips of children who know their way around a computer as well as we ministers know our way around the Bible. This doesn't mean preachers should be getting R-rated in the pulpit. But if they, with their predominantly gray hair, are hoping not to drive away what young people they have in their congregations, they're going to have to accept, perhaps even embrace, the sexual openness they bring. We already know that young people are far less likely to be homophobic than their elders, just as racism is primarily a disease of the aged, not the young. If we're going to have young people in our churches, we have to accept them just as they are.

Cue the organ and the altar call. And let the church say "Amen."

Comments