Rev. Sue Browning is a certified sex therapist and a minister at St. Andrew’s Westminster United and Littlewood United in London, Ont. She spoke to Rev. Ann Corbet about what these careers and callings share in common — and on how being a sex therapist makes her a better minister.
On what happens in sex therapy: I work with couples and individuals. When I work with couples, I discover that sexual challenges are often connected to past and present emotional or relationship issues. A problem may be related to previous sexual abuse, relational problems, religious belief systems, poor body image or a combination of such things. Sometimes, though, sexual challenges are physical.
The conversations during therapy can get practical and specific. For example, we may talk about sexual techniques, including methods of self-pleasure. The most meaningful work I’ve done is with people reclaiming their sexual identity — helping them view themselves as sexually integrated people.
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On the United Church and sex: Among the Christian denominations, The United Church of Canada has a unique perspective on sexuality. We recognize that we live our best lives when we’re integrated — mind, body and spirit. This is God’s intention for our lives. We want to nurture all parts of our being.
Duality, the supposed separation of mind and body, was created by theologians who were afraid of their bodies. When we come into life honouring the fact that we are beautiful not only in mind and spirit but also in body, we have fuller relationships and more meaningful experiences; we resist the shame that is part of our culture.
On what sex therapy and ministry share: People come into therapy because they feel hurt, damaged or broken in some way. Ministry is connected to that. Whether I’m in the therapist’s chair or in the pulpit, I am often talking about the same things but with different language. I talk about being grounded in things that matter. I tell people they are loved and worthy of belonging, and I explore how people can make different choices and strive for deeper meaning.
On God and therapy: I don’t bring up God in therapy unless the client does. I see a lot of clients whose struggles with sexuality come from their religious upbringing. If someone raises the subject, I might share that I have a religious connection. Sometimes I educate them on different theological and spiritual viewpoints, which can be liberating for them if their faith is a barrier to their recovery.
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On conflicting values: I often deal with individuals who make different lifestyle choices than I do. This is common for all therapists. For example, some of my clients have been polyamorous, meaning that they have several sexual partners. My personal choices have to stay out of the therapy room. My job is to treat every client with dignity and help them work through the issues that challenge their integrity.
On being a better minister: I view my clients as humans worthy of my respect. I approach ministry the same way. I am called to regard every person as a child of God who is deserving of love and compassion. Working as a sex therapist has made me more compassionate, more understanding and less judgmental. Personally, I believe it has made me a better minister and a better human being.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity. It first appeared in Broadview’s January/February 2023 issue.
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Sheldon LeGrow says:
It's unfortunate that a wonderful God-given gift of sexuality has been maligned and repressed by the church over the centuries. We need a healthy sexual awakening and I applaud the Rev. Sue on her approach. I feel that one of the greatest disasters in a marriage or relationship is sexual incompatibility along with the reluctance to discuss one's needs and desires with one's partner. Sexuality is normal and natural and, these days, with the proliferation of porn on the internet being available to anyone who has a cell phone or computer, we need, not only biological sexual education in schools but also lessons on sexual preference, feelings and the whole gamut of safe, loving, giving and satisfying sexuality. Unfortunately because of the repression by the church, few of us are yet able to speak about it openly without fear of someone complaining because they're offended, or because we are embarrassed, or because others will think less of us. Thanks Rev. Sue. for your insight and bravery.
Sheldon LeGrow says:
Interesting that I wrote, what I thought was a reasonable comment here and it was erased. Can it be that the algorithm is programmed not to allow anything that has to do with sexuality? Yet another form of church repression?