By Merianna Neely Harrelson
“Thank you for coming to a breakout session with sex in the title,” LeAnn Gardner, Clinical Social Worker and Sex Educator said as she started her breakout session called “Sex, Safety and Empowerment: How Caregivers and Churches Can Help Keep Children Safe” on Thursday afternoon at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Greensboro, N.C. She asked who was in the room and why this conversation was important to them. Children’s ministers, volunteers with children, and parents all admitted they were there because sex and sexual development was an important conversation.
Although there was a consensus that the conversation about sex and sexual development was important, Gardner pointed out that many churches weren’t having these conversations with caregivers, with children and youth, or with parents. The reasons for not having this conversation range from it being an awkward conversation to not wanting to step on toes because of the delicate nature of the conversation to the admission that it is just plain uncomfortable to talk about this with children or church leaders.
“I don’t care if you’re uncomfortable,” Gardner said. “This conversation is too important not to have. Our culture is talking about sex and sexual development and so our churches have to talk about this too. We don’t have the restraints of the public school system. We can add values into this conversation.”
Gardner talked about the fallacy that exists in the “stranger danger” teaching that so many parents have adopted. “We know that 90 percent of sexual abuse or molestation of children happens from people that know the child. When we teach children to be fearful of strangers, we are inadvertently teaching them that all people who are in their inner circle are safe, which creates a dynamic where children don’t report or feel like they can tell when they are uncomfortable.”
Gardner admitted that although she was a sex educator, she was also a parent and even she, at times, worried and wondered about whether she was having the right conversations with her own children. “We can’t let that scare us from having this conversation, though,” Gardner explained. “We have to keep the conversation going even when we mess up.”
Gardner continued by explaining that if you think it’s too late to start to have this conversation in your church or in your home, it’s never too late. Although caregivers may have to deal with regret of having avoided the conversation, she said that shouldn’t stop anyone from having the conversation. “It’s just too important to the development of our children’s identity to ignore this conversation.”
Gardner leads an eight-hour S.A.F.E. seminar for churches who are trying to start this conversation with caregivers and parents. Her experience as a clinical social worker and as a minister aid her in having this conversation with a faith-based perspective.
“I believe God desires us to be whole. Our sexuality is part of how God created us,” Gardner said. “Part of my calling is to help churches have the conversation about how to develop healthy and life-giving practices and conversations around sexuality.”