Applied Ethicist for a Mainline Denomination

When I earned my PhD in Christian Ethics from Emory University in 2006, I assumed I would enter a tenure track position teaching Christian ethics in a school of theology. I was a former High School teacher who, as a graduate student, received a teaching fellowship and taught at a local college. Concurrently, I was seeking ordination in The United Methodist Church (UMC) to the specialized ministry of teaching.1 Thus, for educational, vocational, and ecclesial reasons, I expected to enter a tenure-track professorship. My bishop held the same expectation for me!

By the Fall of 2008, entering my third season of being on the academic job market, I had completed a postdoctoral fellowship and was in my second one-year stint as a visiting assistant professor. Ordinarily, these are steps that allow one to publish articles, obtain a book contract, gain academic subject matter clarity, and subsist until an acceptable job offer arises. However, I struggled to transform my dissertation into a book, feeling stretched beyond my capacity, and found it difficult to define myself within the field of Christian ethics—a distinct liability when interviewing for faculty positions.

Meanwhile, an opportunity arose outside of academics. The UMC posted a job for a position in “advocacy and sexual ethics”—a topic that fit roughly with my dissertation research on marriage and sexuality in Methodism. I found myself at a career crossroads: spend another year searching for that elusive tenure-track job or take a leap of faith beyond the academy to become an ethicist in a church agency. Considering my family’s need for economic stability and my weariness with the academic job market, I chose the latter.

Working as an Applied Ethicist

In the Spring of 2009, I began work as the Assistant General Secretary for Advocacy and Sexual Ethics for the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women of the UMC, focusing on the problem of sexual misconduct by ministerial leaders in the UMC. We did not adjudicate allegations of misconduct and abuse—that responsibility resided with the bishops. Instead, we provided phone and email support for individuals, generated training resources, and conducted educational events for church leaders.

I resourced a website, wrote articles, led in-person training events, and coordinated webinar trainings. Assisting clergy and laity, I developed projects of my own initiative and learned to write for a non-academic audience. I worked strategically with our Board of Directors and collaborated with other United Methodist and ecumenical agencies. Occasionally, I even wrote about my work for academic, peer-reviewed journals.2

One of the most rewarding aspects of my work was actively advocating for gender justice in the UMC. We focused on breaking down barriers of sexism and building just structures for women in the church. This work also gave me an inside view of denominational structure and politics—an important perspective for a social ethicist studying institutions.

My Ph.D., while not required for the position, was a real asset. I entered the job with expertise about church polity and sexual ethics and years of classroom teaching experience that enhanced my leadership of workshops and training events. On one project in particular, my Ph.D. proved invaluable: improving clergy education to prevent sexual misconduct.

Being on the front lines of clergy sexual misconduct, the Commission observed that many cases of clergy sexual misconduct could be prevented through better education. Many pastors are woefully unprepared for negotiating issues of power, professional boundaries, and sexual health. My task was to propose and promote a required seminary course in professional sexual ethics. Having taught in a seminary for several years, I knew that adding another required course to the already bloated MDiv curriculum would not fly. Instead, I collaborated with faculty and other experts-in-the-field to develop curricular guidelines (goals, competencies, and content areas) that could be integrated across the existing core curriculum in multiple disciplines, offering seminaries and schools of theology maximum flexibility for implementation. With a significant investment of personal time, I even began co-editing a textbook to support this effort.3 These efforts paid off when the UMC’s General Conference approved the guidelines in May 2012.4 The PhD allowed me to work collegially with faculty and administrators throughout this process.

Becoming an Independent Scholar

Nearly five years and one UMC General Conference later (during which our agency was eliminated and then, two days later, reinstated), I left my position with the Commission. Working within a church agency had not given me time to revise my dissertation into a book or to research and teach outside of the Commission’s very specialized purview. I was eager to get back to scholarship, even without a tenure-track position. When Lancaster Theological Seminary offered my wife a full-time faculty position, we decided the time was right for us to swap economic and caregiving roles, allowing me to become an independent scholar and primary caregiver of our children.

My experience working as an applied ethicist allowed me to focus my intellectual energies on problems relevant to the church and ministry and to chart a meaningful research agenda. I continue to advocate for victims of clergy abuse and am a vocal proponent of professional sexual ethics education for ministry.5 Currently, I serve as a consultant for teaching sexuality and religion6 and am researching models of congregational healing following incidents of sexual abuse by ministerial leaders.7

Paraphrasing Frederick Buechner, my advice to newly minted PhDs is to explore where your greatest gifts meet the world’s greatest needs.8 Academic research and teaching is great, but it may not be the best fit for all PhDs at every point in our careers. There are practical considerations, such as family and work-life balance, managing debt and personal finances, and personality, work habits, and institutional structures. What I have found fulfilling is making a difference to the individuals and institutions that shape our lives, within and beyond academia.

  1. In The United Methodist Church, deacons are ordained to a lifetime ministry of Word, Service, Compassion, and Justice and often serve in specialized ministries.
  2. For example, “‘Sex and the Church’: Sexuality, Misconduct, and Education in Methodism,” American Journal of Sexuality Education, 6:1 (2011): 32-43.
  3. Professional Sexual Ethics: A Holistic Ministry Approach, eds. Patricia Beattie Jung and Darryl W. Stephens (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013). Available here.
  4. “Sexual Misconduct Within Ministerial Relationships,” in The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church 2012 (Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 2012), 134-140. Available here. See also, “Teaching Professional Sexual Ethics Across the Seminary Curriculum,” Religious Education, 108:2 (2013): 193-209.
  5.  See for example, “A Comprehensive, Holistic, and Integrated Approach to Professional Sexual Ethics in Theological Education,” co-authored with Patricia Beattie Jung in Theological Education 50:1 (2015, forthcoming).
  6. See Darryl W. Stephens and Kate M. Ott, “Addressing Sexuality in the Classroom: Overcoming Silence and Taboo,” Religious Studies News, April 22, 2015 at
  7. Darryl W. Stephens, “A Deacon’s Eye for Healing Congregations,” Currents in Theology and Ministry, 42:3 (July 2015): 213-19.
  8.  “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” ― Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. Frederick Buechner (HarperOne: New York, 1993). Available here.
Darryl W. Stephens

About Darryl W. Stephens

Dr. Darryl W. Stephens is Director of United Methodist Studies at Lancaster Theological Seminary and an ordained deacon in The United Methodist Church. His most recent book, Methodist Morals: Social Principles, Marriage, and Sexual Sin in the Public Church, is forthcoming from the University of Tennessee Press in 2016.

Darryl W. Stephens

Darryl W. Stephens

Dr. Darryl W. Stephens is Director of United Methodist Studies at Lancaster Theological Seminary and an ordained deacon in The United Methodist Church. His most recent book, Methodist Morals: Social Principles, Marriage, and Sexual Sin in the Public Church, is forthcoming from the University of Tennessee Press in 2016.