A university is our state is involved with a massive lawsuit that alleges the perpetuation of “a hostile environment for women” in its sports program. The examples cited in the charges include sexual harassment of both female staff and students, sexual assault, covering up sexual assaults, and indifference to complaints. Even in our supposedly enlightened times, it seems that some of us still need guidelines to explain right from wrong.
When I was in an administrative role with a religious denomination several years ago, I received a call from one of our staff who was assigned as a minister to a particular college campus. A student had come to him with a complaint that someone on campus was stalking her. She had made contact with a couple of professors and one administrator, but they did not seem to take her concerns seriously. She was both scared and angry. She had approached this minister to seek his help as an outside party.
I don’t remember the counsel I gave to that staff member or the resolution of the young woman’s situation, but the incident got my attention. We had ministers—both male and female—working with college students across our state. I was concerned about two things: First, if a staff member was accused of sexual harassment or impropriety, how would we react? Would they be treated fairly? Second, although I trusted our staff, were we articulating a clear message that would protect the students with which they worked and provide recourse for the students if there appeared to be a problem?
When I approached my supervisors about this, I was struck by their lack of interest in addressing these concerns. There was already some type of sexual harassment policy in the personnel manual and their attitude was, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
I was persistent, however, and put together a team of staff members in our department, both men and women, and set them to work on the issue. Together, we tried to get some clarity from the organization’s legal counsel and insurance carriers but, as you can expect, their response was rather limited. Lawyers and insurance carriers (at that time anyway) did not want to give answers about hypothetical situations, answers that might come back to bite them!
We finally came up with some department guidelines, a training program, and other initiatives to help our staff deal with potentially explosive situations. I encouraged the larger organization to adopt some of these actions, but the interest was not there.
Three decades later, churches and church-related organizations are more proactive on issues related to discrimination and harassment. More resources are available and insurance carriers, including those that specialize in working with religious organizations, are glad to talk with clients about threat assessment, clear policies and procedures for prevention, and educational programs for staff and members.
This doesn’t mean that the potential for problems has gone away. Discrimination is still present. Whenever an organization fails to address parental leave, equal advancement opportunities, and respectful treatment for both women and men, its leaders are failing to assure that all employees receive fair and equal treatment. Rather than seeking exemption from such enlightened practices, churches and church-related organizations should be positive examples for others.