Editor’s Note: In 2007, Christianity Today's Church Law & Tax surveyed about 800 women regarding their experiences with sexual misconduct in the workplace. This article discusses the implications of the findings, some of which foreshadowed the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements that have unfolded in recent years.
A 2007 survey of self-described "active Christian women" shows more than a quarter personally experienced sexually inappropriate behavior—and a third of those that experienced it said it happened in a church or ministry setting.
The survey was designed to capture the range and extent to which women encounter unwelcome, gender-based behaviors by their male counterparts, either in the workplace or within a church or ministry setting.
The most common inappropriate behaviors reported? Eleven percent say it was demeaning comments; 10 percent, suggestive jokes.
It's not funny
While some may take suggestive jokes or demeaning comments to a coworker or ministry colleague lightly, this kind of behavior can create a stressful environment.
Joy Thornburg Melton, an ordained minister and attorney who currently serves in the United Methodist Church as Chief Resource Officer for PACT (United Methodist Property and Casualty Trust), says these survey results are "interesting, but not surprising." Based on the anecdotal reports she receives from individual women in a wide variety of ministry settings, she says, "There is a lot of inappropriate 'conversation' being tolerated by women so as not to antagonize men in their workplaces."
While the study, based on answers given last fall by 779 American women to NationalChristianPoll.com, provides a window into the world of sexual misconduct that women are enduring, it is important to note that not all incidents reported in the survey fall under the strict legal definition of sexual harassment. (See sidebar for the legal definition of sexual harassment.)
According to Frank Sommerville, an attorney and CPA who specializes in church law and tax, the simple legal definition of sexual harassment is "unwelcome attention due to one's gender." "Closely related to this is the term 'hostile work environment,' which occurs when unwelcome comments or conduct based on sex, race, or other legally protected characteristics unreasonably interferes with an employee's work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment," Sommerville explains. The survey shows a relatively low number of occurrences of sexual harassment in churches or ministry workplaces. Only 2 percent of respondents who work in a church or ministry setting say their employment was contingent upon dates or sexual favors. This number goes up sharply in the secular world: 22 percent of women reported "quid pro quo" harassment.