Monday, March 30, 2009

Ministerial Credentialing

I'm just back from five days at the meetings of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee of the UUA. It's the committee responsible for reviewing candidates for our ministry and granting preliminary and final fellowship.

This is my third meeting, and I am so grateful for the opportunity to be of service to my denomination in this way. I know it may sound simplistic, but I LOVE the Unitarian Universalist Association, I LOVE being one of its ministers, and I am so moved by the 13 other people who serve with me on this committee.

All of our meetings with candidates are confidential, but to those of my readers who are in process, I want you to know that this is one of the finest group of people I know, that we want you to succeed, and that if you pay attention to all the feedback along the way, address your identified growing edges, learn and integrate the content we clearly outline that we require, have a strong commitment and understanding of our movement, its history, and polity, and connect with your future colleagues, you will succeed and even enjoy meeting with us.

My heart is filled.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

PBS Features Religious Institute Seminary Study This Weekend -- Tune In

"United States seminaries and rabbinical schools are failing to prepare the next generation of clergy with the training they need to address sexuality issues in ministry." We thought that was pretty important news when we announced it in January. PBS does, too.

Beginning this weekend, PBS' Religion & Ethics Newsweekly will feature Sex and the Seminary: Preparing Ministers for Sexual Health and Justice, the report published by the Religious Institute and Union Theological Seminary earlier this year. Dr. Kate Ott, associate director of the Religious Institute and the study director of Sex and the Seminary, is featured in the PBS broadcast. The program also highlights the excellent work in sexuality education underway at Chicago Theological Seminary, one of the institutions we highlight in our report.

You may recall that Sex and the Seminary is based on a survey of 36 leading seminaries and rabbinical schools, representing a range of Christian, Jewish and Unitarian Universalist traditions. We found that sexuality courses are largely absent from most seminary curricula, and that students at most institutions can graduate without studying sexual ethics or taking a single sexuality-based course.

This lack of preparation reverberates throughout our denominations and across untold numbers of congregations, as religious leaders seek to address an array of sexuality issues – preventing clergy misconduct and child sexual abuse, counseling couples before and after marriage, providing sexuality education to young people, and taking positions from the pulpit and in the public square on such issues as abortion, marriage equality, stem cell research, full inclusion of LGBT persons and reproductive technologies, to name a few.

The Sex and the Seminary report was just the beginning. The Religious Institute has embarked on a multi-year initiative aimed at improving sexuality education in seminaries and promoting competencies in sexuality as an ordination requirement for all faith traditions.

I encourage you to tune in. The broadcast will be available online at Or check your local listings for the PBS affiliate in your area.

And let me know what YOU think!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A Story To Share with You

I wanted to share with you an email I received yesterday. I've asked permission of the writer to post an excerpt of it anonymously, and was given the go ahead.

In my ministry, I often meet people who have given up parts of their sexuality in order to comply with the constraints of their religious home. I also meet many people who have given up on religion because of their sexuality. I pray that my ministry can help both.

This email made me teary in its affirmation:

I found a link to your Institute's site and followed it. Most of the remainder of that day was spent reading a sampling of the many documents you share there. Yesterday and today I have felt a strong need to send you my thanks appropriately.

After reading several of your open letters and then your bio on the Institute's site a remarkable thing happened. My participation in member style activities with churches pretty much ended ca. 1983-84. You are the first minister in 25 years who's aura made me genuinely interested in attending worship services and/or willing to discuss literally anything in my life's journey.

Attending services at a UU congregation yesterday in Los Angeles simply wasn't an option for me, due to prior work commitments. All the same I did make it to the congregation directory section of the main site on Saturday. Today after coming in for a swing shift it occurred to me to go back to the site and find out if your congregation has a site up. That of course is how i found the address I am using to contact you with this letter.

My current feelings of gratitude for your service are overwhelming enough they are impairing my ability to focus on any one of the hundreds of contributing things you said online somewhere. All the same, they still add up to the same sum.

And that sum is that this person is going to visit some of the local UU congregations and hopes to find a new religious home after 25 years of feeling alienated from faith.

Sometimes grace comes by email.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A News Round Up -- What I missed When I was on Vacation

Amazing how much can happen when one is away from newspapers.

As I caught up on my emails and list serv announcements today, I learned:

*The teenage birth rate went up for the second year in a row in 2007.

*A federal court has order the FDA to reconsider its decision denying teenagers access to emergency contraception over the counter.

And this story today:
The White House announced Monday that President Obama has appointed a prominent lesbian attorney and ordained Episcopal priest as Chief Judge of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims. Emily C. Hewitt, 64, has been serving as one of 16 judges on the U.S. Court of Federal Claims since President Clinton appointed her to the post in 1998.

A biography of Hewitt on the court’s web site says she is married to Eleanor Dean Acheson, a nationally recognized gay rights attorney who served as an assistant attorney general in the Clinton administration. Acheson, who was out as a lesbian in the Clinton administration, later worked as director of public policy and government affairs for the National Gay & Lesbian Task Force.

A graduate of Union Theological Seminary (my alma mater),
"she became one of the first 11 women to be ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 1974 after being recognized as a leader in efforts to open the Episcopal ordination process to women. She served from 1973-1975 as assistant professor of religion and education at Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts."

Oh, and I just read Senator Charles Schumer has just come out for marriage equality.

On balance, except for the teen birth rate, some good news to celebrate.

Now, we're both caught up.

Monday, March 16, 2009

A Sabbatical Week

Dear reader:

I will be out of the country without internet access until March 24th. To paraphrase EB White, I'm taking ten days off to enjoy the world and not try to fix it!

I hope you'll take the time to read some of the archives...and to check back in next week.

Blessings on your day!

Rev. Debra W. Haffner

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Immorality of Abstinence-Only-Until-Marriage Programs

That's the title of my latest Huffington Post blog:

It expands on Wednesday's blog here on the 925 clergy who joined with the Religious Institute to urge the Obama administration to end federal funding for abstinence only until marriage education.

It's been a big week for news about teenage sexuality:

The 2009 budget just passed had the first decrease in abstinence only funding since the program began., but still continued all three funding programs.

It was Abstinence Day on Capitol Hill. I read that the National Abstinence Clearinghouse brought 500 teen virgins to Congress yesterday. (I couldn't help but think of the first chapters of the book of Esther that I reread this week in observance of Purim.) I can't help but wonder how many of those young people will be sexually active before they are 20 and how they will look back on this day.

And we learned late today that Bristol Palin joined the 92% of teen mothers who don't end up marrying their baby's fathers. No real surprise here.

We can and must do better for the nation's teenagers. Read more here:

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Religious Leaders Ask Obama Administration to End Abstinence-Only Education

This morning I sent a letter to the White House, on behalf of more than 925 ordained clergy and national religious leaders, urging an end to federal funding for the three abstinence-only-until-marriage programs and calling for a new national commitment to comprehensive sexuality education.

You can read the whole letter and view the entire list of endorsements at our web site.

Here are some portions of the letter:

Dear Mr. President:

Thank you for your courageous action this week to lift the ban on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research and for the guarantee of scientific integrity in federal policy making. I am particularly grateful that your decision not only puts science before ideology, but is grounded in your beliefs as a person of faith that we must do all we can to advance human knowledge, alleviate human suffering, and enable all people to flourish.

It is with that shared conviction that I am writing to encourage your action on another issue, one that is vital to the well-being of American youth, in particular – eliminating funding for the federal abstinence-only-until-marriage sexuality education programs. Public health professionals have amply demonstrated that these programs contain medically inaccurate information and that they are not effective in reducing teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). Strong public health arguments support comprehensive sexuality education.

But, we also want you to know that there are strong moral foundations for supporting sexuality education. It is with adult guidance and comprehensive information and education – education that includes abstinence, contraception and STI prevention – that young people will be prepared to make responsible decisions about their sexuality.

More than 925 clergy and national religious leaders join me today in endorsing the Religious Institute’s Open Letter to Religious Leaders about Sex Education. "Young people need to know ‘there is a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,’" the Open Letter says, "but they also require the skills to make moral and healthy decisions about relationships for themselves now and in their future adult lives." As religious leaders, we hope that young people will learn about their sexuality not primarily from the entertainment media or their peers, but from their parents, faith communities and school-based programs that address the biological, psychological, cultural, ethical and spiritual dimensions of sexuality.

Read the rest of the letter here.

The religious leaders who endorsed the call for comprehensive sexuality education lead major denominations and national faith-based organizations. They serve in local congregations and communities; they teach in schools, parishes and seminaries. They represent every state and more than fifty faith traditions. Together, they affirm that "education that respects and
empowers young people has more integrity than education based on incomplete information, fear, and shame."

So far, the Obama administration has lifted the Mexico City ban, begun the process of lifting the midnight clause on health care professionals, and lifted the ban on stem cell research. With people of faith and religious leaders across the country, we are grateful for these steps for sexual and social justice. We pray that an end to programs that deny young people life saving information is not far behind.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Bravo Mr. President on Stem Cell Research -- and Scientific Integrity

I'm thrilled about the President's announcement yesterday overturning the Bush administration's ban on embryonic stem cell research. How exciting it is to think that this vital research that has the potential to ease suffering can now proceed once again.

I'm even happier it was in the context of a "guarantee [of] scientific integrity" in federal policy making, and a commitment that the Obama administration will make "scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology."

Could the end of the ineffective, medically inaccurate, and immoral federal abstinence-only-until-marriage program be next?

Check here tomorrow for our exciting announcement.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Teens, the Internet, and Rev. Debra on the Today Show This Morning

Here's the video of my piece on the Today Show this morning.

It was fun.

Tell me what you think!

Thursday, March 05, 2009

My Passion for Marriage Equality

The California Supreme Court will hear arguments today to invalidate Prop 8 as unconstitutional. I'm sure my readers remember that in November, by a narrow margin, the voters in California invalidated the state decision that gave same sex couples the right to marry. More than 18,000 couples did this past summer -- and the legality of those marriages now hang in limbo.

I've been passionate about marriage equality for a long time now. In 2004, the Religious Institute developed its Open Letter to Religious Leaders on Marriage Equality, and more than 2200 ordained clergy endorsed it this summer. It lays out a theological framework for marriage that I strongly support, summed up in one line, "where there is love, the sacred is in our midst."

I believe in marriage equality because I believe that sexual and gender diversity is part of God's blessing to us -- because I believe we are all God's children -- because I believe in the inherent dignity and worth of all people, and that all of us should have the same civil rights.

But, I've learned something in the past few months that has also made this issue personal. I am Jewish, the grandchild of a woman who was sent by her mother to America to marry a distant cousin and avoid the pogroms. Only two of my great grandmother's children survived the Holocaust.

And my great grand mother, living in a tiny village in what is now the Ukraine, was never allowed to legally marry because she was Jewish and as I have now been told, Jewish marriages were not recognized by the state.

Her name was Deborah Haffner. And although I believe that she couldn't possibly imagine my life today and the opportunities I have, I do know that once she was in love and had children, and she was denied the privileges of marriage and four of her six children died horrible deaths.

In my prayers for the wisdom of the California Supreme Court today, I thought about my friends and colleagues in California and their children and their rights. But, I also thought about my great grandmother, and knew that for me, it's not just political, it's not just morally right, it's personal and part of my own history to dedicate myself to bringing about this change in our country.

There is no doubt in my mind that this change will happen -- it already has here in Connecticut and Massachusetts, Canada, Spain, the Netherlands. The day will arrive when just as no one questioned my legal right to marry 27 years ago next week, people will look back and not understand why same sex couples were denied this right. Let us pray for the California Supreme Court to do the right thing.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Digging Out From the Snow -- Updates for Rev. Debra

Isn't that a magnificent pulpit? It's at the First Unitarian Society in Madison, Wisconsin this weekend -- the sanctuary was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and I had the privilege of presenting the Wartmann lecture there this past Sunday.

A lot has happened since then -- including snowstorms in both Milwaukee and the East Coast that kept me away stranded far from home and the office for the past two days!

I'm delighted with President Obama's naming Governor Kathleen Sebelius to be the next Secretary of Health and Human Services. Lest anyone think that the Religious Right is over, just google and see the lies and distortions of her record they are spreading because she supports safe and legal abortion, despite being personally against abortion. Let's hope that these campaigns are seen for what they are.

Unbelievably today, Senator David Vitter (the Senator caught in the D.C. escort service ring) has introduced an amendment in the Senate to prohibit family planning funding to go to Planned Parenthoods. Imagine the audacity of this particular Senator to deny women sexual health services. If you haven't received the alert from Planned Parenthood to let your Senator hear from you, please go to their web site.

On a personal note, I'm going to be on the Today Show this Friday between 8 and 9 talking about my new book, What Every 21st Century Parent Needs to Know. Tune in!

Monday, March 02, 2009

Talk to Me Tonight Live!

Tikkun magazine is sponsoring a live chat with me tonight (Monday) at 6 pm PST, 7 PM MT, 8 CST, and 9 EST on my newest book, "What Every 21st Century Parent Needs to Know." (You can read excerpts at the web site, and order directly from the button on the right.)

We'll be concentrating on the chapter "How to Raise Mensch" but I'm happy to answer any number of parenting questions facing today's parent.

You call in toll free at 1 888 346 3950, and dial the listener code 11978.

It would be fun to "meet" some of you by phone.