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Spring 1989 · Vol. 18 No. 1 · pp. 23–26 

Case Study: The Psychology Today Questionnaire

Responses by Lynford J. Becker 18/1 (1989): 27–29; and Roland Reimer 18/1 (1989): 30–32.

Louis B. Weeks

“Walt, I don’t know if we can redeem the situation, or if we just ought to stop sex education at St. Mark’s.” Dave Lawson paused.

Walt Simmons waited on the line to see if he had finished. Walt liked Dave a lot, but the minister talked almost nonstop. Sure enough, Lawson kept going after the silence.

. . . he had said it should be edited.

“Would you be willing to meet with us on staff to see what to do?”

“Sure, Dave.” Walt Simmons wondered whether to try to fit the meeting in on Tuesday or whether the matter could rest until later in the week. “I do feel a little responsible for the snafu. Judy, our ninth-grader, thought the whole thing kind of funny But I can see how others might get upset.”

“Well, we’re really up against it. We had calls from parents of twelve of the fourteen members of the class. We’d better decide something tomorrow. What is your Tuesday like?”

Walt Simmons looked at his calendar. He thought about the situation. He’d better break into the crowded day with another appointment. {24}


Judy Simmons, Walt and Beatrice Simmons’s fifteen-year old daughter, brought the paper home from Sunday school: “Research Questionnaire on Sex.”

“Guess what we did in school today?” Judy laughed at the take-off on the song Mom and Dad sang sometimes. Walt looked at the form and said, “Oh, no!” Then Judy told them about her Sunday school class.

“Mr. Thorston gave this out and told us to complete it. He ran out of copies. Mrs. Baker didn’t even get one. It took us the whole time, and lots of kids giggled. Look at this: ‘In your experience, what influences your choice of a sexual partner?’ And this: ‘What effect does taking marijuana have on you in sexual intercourse?’ ”

Walt looked over Beatrice’s shoulder as she read the 101 multiple-choice questions and felt a sinking feeling in his stomach. This was the very questionnaire he had mentioned to Dave Lawson, Associate Pastor for Pastoral Care at the church. Dave had asked about resources on sexuality, and Walt had mentioned this piece though he had said it should be edited. But here it was, photocopied in all its glory.

The Simmonses had just laughed at the comic nature of the thing. In the back of his mind, though, Simmons criticized Bill Thorston, doubtless unprepared again for his teaching responsibility, for not removing the inappropriate questions. Not all seminary students were so immature. Mary Baker, who teamed with Thorston, had her act together. But conversation moved on to other topics, and Walt Simmons had thought little more of the event until Dave Lawson called him the next afternoon.

“Walt? We just had a staff meeting, and I wanted to get in touch with you. You know, in Judy’s class Bill Thorston used a questionnaire from Psychology Today. I think it was the one you told me about. Anyhow, lots of parents are upset. I got calls from four families. John Raymond got five. And Lawrence Matthews got three. To put it gently, they were all upset!

“It seems Bill Thorston picked up on my reference to that questionnaire, the one you told me about, and just made copies at the seminary library. He says he showed it to other students at the seminary, but he did not show it to Mary Baker, his co-teacher. He only had fourteen copies, and we had that {25} many kids Sunday, so she didn’t even get to see it.” “Yes,” Simmons replied. “I saw Judy’s copy.”

“Well,” Lawson continued, “I was supervising Thorston because John Raymond, who is in charge of Christian education, had a meeting out of town. I told everyone to call Thorston himself. But we all wonder what else to do. The Taylors, the Petersons, and Mrs. Jackson say they will withdraw their children from Sunday school if we have programs like this. Mrs. Jackson said one question had to do with bestiality! Well, there was nothing about copulation with animals, but there was some pretty raw stuff there.

“You were on the planning team for this whole sex education thing,’ Lawson continued. “You and I both think it’s important for the church to address such matters as human sexuality. What are we going to do about this? What should we do with Thorston and Baker? What about the kids?”


Walt and Beatrice Simmons had joined St. Mark’s Church eleven years ago, when they first moved to St. Louis from Houston. Walt had finished a doctoral program in clinical psychology, and Beatrice had been in an MBA program. Judy had been 4 years old, and Normie 2. Beatrice had become an officer in an area mortgage company. Walt worked with two partners in private practice, taught a bit at the university, and tried to take seriously his responsibility as husband, father, and Christian. Beatrice, too, worked in St. Mark’s when she could; she would become a member of the session next year.

St. Mark’s, a congregation in a connectional church, had a distinguished history of over one hundred years’ duration. Founded in 1862 by Southern sympathizers in downtown St. Louis, it had been the home of several mayors, two senators, and countless local leaders in the community. Leadership for the congregation had remained extremely stable, with third and fourth-generation members numerous on its governing board.

The congregation prided itself on the tradition of “first-rate preaching” and called Lawrence Matthews in 1965 chiefly as a pulpit leader. Matthews had administrative skills, also, and a doctorate in Communication from NYU.

Under his leadership, St. Mark’s had grown to a {26} twelve-hundred-member congregation, and the staff was increased to include, first, John Raymond, and more recently Dave Lawson, whose specialty was Pastoral Counseling. All three ministers actively cooperated in the various tasks of ministry; John visited and Dave helped with the Sunday school.

As a chaplain in a nearby hospital for three years, Dave had served as Clinical Supervisor for some students at nearby St. Louis Seminary. When he took the job at St. Mark’s, his contract included an obligation to experiment with parish Clinical Pastoral Education. Thus he supervised the three students who did field-work at St. Mark’s and also four others from Third Church and Broadmore. In this capacity as supervisor he worked closely with Bill Thorston and Mary Baker, who taught the class together.

Bill Thorston was only tangentially interested in parish ministry; his first love was counseling. He came from a congregational background and frequently professed mystification at the subtleties of connectional denomination relationships. Mary Baker, on the other hand, the mother of two teenagers, was an officer in Broadmore Church who decided at age 41 to enroll in seminary.

The class they taught consisted of twenty-five ninth- and tenth-grade boys and girls. Normally seven students attended, and that group was following a seven-session sequence on sexuality offered by an ecumenical curriculum publisher. Sunday was the fifth session in the series, and Bill had originally planned to use a curriculum story for class reaction. On this Sunday, however, fourteen students were present. Bill had brought only fourteen copies of the questionnaire, so there was none for Mary, nor did he keep one.

He introduced the questionnaire, with a word about its results with readers of Psychology Today, and passed it out. Bill noticed some occasional twitter and giggles, and the bell rang about the time students finished answering the items.

Reprinted from Making Ethical Decisions, by Louis B. Weeks. ©1987 Louis B. Weeks. Reprinted and used by permission of the Westminster/John Knox Press.

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