Sexual Misconduct on Stage: A Dramatic Vignette As A Poignette Approach to Ethics Training

Once again, I was tasked with the requirement to develop a clergy ethics workshop for the Mississippi Annual Conference.  Even with two years to plan, I felt under the gun to develop a good training event that addressed clergy sexual misconduct before the June 2017 deadline.  I’ve organized training programs before, but I was feeling apprehensive this time.  I had no good ideas for how to make this happen.  How do you offer a training for an audience of 750 clergy?  Given the subject, how do you make a sexual misconduct training event remotely interesting without creating that, “Gotcha,” feeling?  Who wants to attend an ethics workshop that feels like the presenter is checking a box that proves you were forewarned?

I remember the first United Methodist Conference-sponsored ethics workshops I attended years ago.  These events routinely featured a lawyer-type person reviewing cases of sexual misconduct with warnings about what can happen to clergy that repeats these offenses.  While the workshops are typically billed as important and beneficial to the participant, the fact that these events are mandatory only magnifies the “We told you so!” theme that permeates the presentations.  Just recollecting these events gives me a junior high school flashback of Coach Johnson assuring me that the paddling he was giving me hurt him worse than it hurt me.  I’m sure it did, Coach!

Surely, we can create ethics trainings that are compelling and constructive, right?  I have made a commitment to myself that I would find ways to make learning about ethics more interesting and meaningful to the folks sitting in the seats.  Why can’t we create an ethics training event that helps the participants feel empowered and prepared?  Who said that ethics workshops must be frightening?  Have you noticed that if an ethics training is not scary enough, the opposite effect takes place?  Watching paint peel can seem more interesting than a dull ethics training.

My creative juices were sent into overdrive while attending the 2015 Do No Harm Conference sponsored by the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women.  I went to this conference in hopes of some ideas, resources, and contacts to create the next Mississippi Conference Clergy Ethics Training.  I attended the Chicago meeting with members of my committee and others from the Conference, and I asked everyone to watch for opportunities, particularly to find a person that may come lead our training.  While we saw some excellent presentations, nothing was developing for us.

Then came the Rutgers University Scream Team.  I had not anticipated that their presentation would apply to our search for training resources, so I had my guard down when they poked me with a shot of hot reality.  The Scream Team travels to college campuses across the nation presenting various theatrical vignettes that depict incidents of campus-related sexual assault.  They use these dramas to start conversations and poignantly highlight the real challenges of campus sexual violence to audiences of college students.  The team members are undergraduate athletes reflecting very real events such as date rape, alcohol misuse, and social conflict on college campuses all across our country.  After portraying a 20-minute snapshot of a graphic and raw chain of events that lead to a young woman falling to the manipulations of a sexual predator, the students fielded questions from the audience while maintaining their stage personas.  The audience got to confront the predator!  We heard from the girl’s friends that blamed her for her drinking.  We watched in horror as the young men expressed their conflicting roles in the assault.

I was beyond belief!  Actually, I was brought to tears.  Just re-reading this story causes my eyes to well up, now!  I was frightened to the quick.  In that same year, my family was celebrating my daughter’s senior year of high school.  We were anticipating her admission to Mississippi State University, and this story scared me to death.  Tess, my daughter, has been a dancer nearly her entire life.  We’ve taken the philosophy of keeping her busy to keep her on track.  She danced, played the piano, cheered, and danced some more.  I guess you can say as parents, my wife and I may have smothered her with activities.  I remember when she was a very small child, I prayed for the mercy of successfully getting her to adulthood without her having to manage any kind of traumatic crisis.  And as I watched this drama unfold, I realized how frightened I was to send her to college.

I was motivated!  First, I was motivated to run home and tell Tess what I saw.  I wanted her to know what the Rutgers group was teaching students!  I trust that knowledge is power, and I wanted her to feel empowered by knowledge!

But I was motivated for our training plans, too.  I realized that I was just one reflection of the Rutgers message that unfolded at that conference.  The theatrical vignette shared graphic and compelling intricacies of the complex realities that occur within human relationships.  There’s no way a case study could duplicate what the actors portrayed on stage!  And every person in the convention hall caught different aspects of that story as it resonated with their own life circumstances.  If there were 500 people in the room, there were 500 compelling reflections of the students’ message!

I have to give my colleagues a special thank you for their openness to the ideas popping from me after that gathering.  I remember gathering them together and telling them, “That’s what we need to do!  We need a vignette, a short drama!”  I started rambling about some kind of interaction between a pastor and others, a sexually poignant scene, a graphic presentation of misconduct.  And they actually listened!  They said, “Walter, whatever you want to do!”

We returned to Mississippi and reported to our Board of Ordained Ministry our plans to present a theatrical vignette.  The following June, a year in advance, we shared with the whole clergy session plans to hold a poignant, compelling presentation for the ethics workshop to be held at the next conference.  We were on the hook; I promised big!  But I had no idea what the story was really going to be.  Our team had plans to meet in conjunction with the Board of Ordained Ministry at a September meeting, and by mid-August, I had nothing planned.  All I could say is that we would find a scriptwriter to compose, another person to direct, and some actors to portray a theatrical vignette.

As I often do, I worried about this in the back recesses of my mind but accomplished nothing toward actually securing any of the plans.  While some call this procrastination, I hope to think it is work-in-progress.  The noise of my anxiety grew until one night I could not go to sleep.  I tossed and turned as flashes of a storyline appeared in my head.  I heard myself spell-out the script.  I recalled real-life circumstances clients of mine had shared with me, raw stories that I had tucked away, even forgotten.  But those stories, the images of real-life events, my own surroundings drew together in a coherent timeline.  Somehow in the early hours of the morning, I finally found exhaustion and fell asleep.

Two weeks later, I began to feel panicked, again.  Our team meeting was looming, and I still had not pulled together a scriptwriter or anybody to serve as a director or actors.  We only had a plan.  I just had a vision, an unwritten script that was eating at me.  A few nights before our meeting, I sat on the back porch of my house with my computer on my lap.  I decided I needed to write some notes to explain what I envisioned.  For two hours, I typed the conversations and action that flashed through my head two weeks earlier.  I felt the story was rough, and it had no ending, but that was all I had from my sleepless night.

Our team gathered a few days later, and I passed copies of my rough script to each member for a read-through.  To my surprise, as we all listened to one another read through the lines and scenes of the story, it made sense, even without an ending.  We made a few tweaks to include social media and to inject a more genuine female perspective in some of the comments made by the women in the story.  It was complete.

At that same meeting, a lay member of the Board of Ordained Ministry arrived with her husband; he was just along for the ride.  Just by chance, her husband was a director of his community theater group!  He said, “Yes.”  Serendipity!?

Our director assembled a group of actors and prepared the vignette for our ethics workshop.  Again, our team pulled together the workshop including registration, a fabulous panel discussion, lunch for everyone, and break-out sessions that came together for a very productive and meaningful ethics training.  Our workshop was an incredible success!

The vignette featured a woman, Sally that was experiencing difficulty managing her boundaries with her estranged husband.  She sought support from her pastor who offered understanding and encouragement.  The vignette also depicted the pastor as a man managing too many other challenges, and with so much on his plate, his own boundaries become blurry.  With an ongoing commentary from others on his staff and the pastoral friend in the community, the crossing of boundaries slide into a complaint filed with the District Superintendent for sexual misconduct.  After the vignette, the actors, in character, responded to very pointed and impassioned questions and comments from the audience.  Then a panel of stakeholders discussed their roles in cases similar to this one.  A District Superintendent, the conference legal counsel, a representative from COSRW, the Conference Relations Chair from the Board of Ordained Ministry, and the Bishop all shared their insights into this situation.

People learned.  People were stirred.  People reflected a wide variety of experiences.  Even months later, I’ve had people offer insightful reactions and genuine appreciation for confronting such a difficult topic in a way that worked.  How do you measure whether or not people were changed by this training?  That may be hard to accomplish, but I can say they remembered this vignette much longer than most sexual ethics trainings I’ve attended in the past!

Frankly, this story I have shared is my story of admiration and surprise.  I was shocked that my colleagues were so willing, empowered, and motivated to construct our workshop.  From the moment we said go, all hands were on deck moving forward.  I was also awestruck by the experience of inspiration I had; I had a dream.  You know, like in the Bible.

But where did this all come from?  I think the short answer is divine inspiration.  I’m usually cautious about such pronouncements, but this time I have no other explanation.

But here’s the long answer.  At the time all this came together, I had been working as a licensed counselor for about 20 years.  I had also served on the Executive Committee of the Board of Ordained Ministry for almost 8 years.  Also, I’d been serving as a member of the state counselor licensing board for about four years.  I've listened to a lot of stories of people's experiences, particularly experiences of power and oppression, conflict and pain, brokenness and growth, and abuse and recovery.  I like to think I’ve seen real-life stories like a lot of ministers, counselors, and teachers.  We’ve seen a lot of the good and a lot of the bad.

In our workshop, we wanted to emphasize the interaction between sexual misconduct and abuse of power.  The two go hand-in-hand.  And we wanted to underscore the fact that misconduct is not an act perpetrated by the person in the weaker position.  The responsibility lies in the hands of the person that is in the position of power, whether it is the minister, teacher, supervisor, coach, celebrity, politician, senior student, president, police officer, or older kid.  But this can be very complicated because we must consider the complexity of everyone's experiences.  I think that our theatrical vignette portrayed that complexity more so than a written case study or lecture.

We wanted everyone to look into themselves and see this complexity.  I am not in a power position in every aspect of my life.  While I am white and male, a counselor, a minister, and a teacher, I am also a subordinate, a debtor, a patron, and a patient.  We must recognize that the intersection of power and oppression can be complicated.  But this also lends us an opportunity.  Every one of us can find within our experience identification with both the oppressor and the oppressed, the powerful and the powerless.  Today, we see a persistent wave of accusations of sexual misconduct among celebrities, politicians, and other powerful people.  I hope that our collective consciousness will raise the standard of expectation of how people should relate to one another, especially across lines between those with and without power.  Remember, sexual misconduct is not a psychological disorder of a few people, it is a product of misappropriated power.  I hoped our theatrical vignette punctuates this subtle reality.  It doesn't happen only when bad people act badly.  It happens to good people who manage their own lives poorly, too.  Sexual misconduct is not something that only happens in heterosexual contexts.  It is also not something reserved for only male perpetrators.  The common denominator is that a power differential is involved.  One person utilizes power over another person to obtain a sexual benefit, to meet sexual needs or desires, or simply to control the will and choices of another through sexual means.

I do think that there are many ways to illuminate the complexities of sexual misconduct, but I believe the portrayal of a scenario such as our theatrical vignette multiplies the angles from which we shine the light on the phenomenon.

Walter is the Executive Director of the Grace Christian Counseling Center in Vicksburg, MS, and is a Core Faculty Member in the Ph.D. in the Counselor Education and Supervision Program at Walden University. He is a licensed professional counselor, a board qualified supervisor in Mississippi and a National Certified Counselor. He served as a member of the Mississippi State Board of Examiners for Licensed Professional Counselors where he was the Board Chair. Walter is an Ordained Deacon in The United Methodist Church and serves as the Chair of the Order of Deacons in the Mississippi Annual Conference.  Walter obtained his M.Div from Emory University in 1993, and in 2009 he completed his Ph.D. in Counselor Education from Mississippi State University.  Walter is married to Terri Frazier, and they have four children and four grandchildren.

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